Stumbling onto a career path

Morgan Henry

Morgan Henry

Class of 2014
Major: Environmental Science
Hometown: Marcellus, Mich.

Farmers across the United States increase crop yields by applying nitrogen fertilizer — but there can be too much of a good thing. Excessive use of the fertilizer is connected to a host of environmental issues, from water quality to greenhouse gas emissions. For Morgan Henry ’14, those problems launched her summer research project.

As Morgan explains, a first step toward curbing excess fertilizer use is to understand exactly how much fertilizer a farmer does need to apply. So, she spent a summer working at Pinney Purdue Agricultural Center, researching how differing levels of fertilizer affected the growth of lettuce plants.

The research required Morgan to tend to 1800 lettuce plants, carefully applying particular concentrations of fertilizer to different areas. As the crops grew, she took sample lettuce heads from every section and used a specialized iPhone app called Green Index to assess the green color of the plants’ leaves. She also dried leaf samples and sent them to a lab for nutrient analysis.

“I haven’t done research on a large scale like this before,” Morgan says. “With the lettuce research, the project is all up to me – to make sure to control the confounding variables, for example, the things that could produce differences in the readings of the Green Index app.”

None of this would have been possible without the help of biology professor Laurie Eberhardt, who told Morgan about the summer research opportunity when they drove by Pinney Purdue Agricultural Center on a class field trip.

“She really helped me shape my dreams, helped me realize what I wanted to do,” Morgan says. “Before Dr. Eberhardt mentioned this job, I thought I didn’t want to go to graduate school. Now I think I really want to do research, to travel and see all these different types of plant life. She had a profound impact on my career and future plans.”

Morgan says that experience helped her realize that she loves working with plants, and that she excels at the exacting work that research requires. She is looking now at graduate programs at the intersection of environmental science and plant science.

“I like that environmental science is interdisciplinary and it’s very, very relevant to what we as humans need right now,” Morgan says. “I want to help the world, to help people. I’d really like a job where I am doing research to help make things better.”