Day in the life of
Assistant Professor – Laura Christianson
I am an assistant professor at the University of Illinois working with farmers to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that is sent downstream from farm runoff. My work is ag industry-adjacent but my agricultural stakeholders and I interact and learn from each other every day.
My days are filled with working with and talking to lots of great people: my students and staff, farmers and their advisors, and my scientists friends around the world. Sometimes I’m outside building a new woodchip bioreactor, collecting water samples, or at a Field Day with farmers talking about water and nitrogen.
Other days, I’m in the lab helping troubleshoot weird results or experiments with my students or sitting at my desk crunching numbers to make sure our projects stay on budget. I do a lot of reading research in scientific journals to stay posted on what other scientists are doing and I do a lot of writing to communicate to others the cool things we’ve found.
How much time do you send teaching vs researching?
I’m a special kind of professor that has public outreach responsibilities along with my research rather than teaching. I spend roughly 60% of my time on research and administering my research group, 30% of my time on outreach, and 10% of my time on professional and campus service.
I go to bed every night knowing that I have reduced the amount of nitrogen that is sent downstream from Illinois farms. That is powerful! As a professor and extension specialist, I have immense creative freedom to explore research ideas that are interesting to myself and my team. If you can fund it, you can do [study] it!
And then, as an extension specialist, I get to bounce those ideas off of farmers and continuously involve their feedback to make sure the new knowledge we’re creating through our experiments is relevant and useful for them. It is very rewarding. My job requires a college degree plus a PhD and we have great programs at the University of Illinois to start passionate young adults on this path.
It can be discouraging to work in a field where our goals are very ambitious and span large spatial and temporal scales. That is, we aim to reduce the size of the hypoxic zone that happens every summer in the Gulf of Mexico by reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus we send downstream. It will take many decades to achieve this because the Mississippi River Basin is one of the largest in the world and our current framework to reduce nutrient pollution in runoff is voluntary (there is no regulation on farmers to do this). Nevertheless, I believe in this approach, and while we have large goals, I take pride in every new conservation practice that farmers and landowners in Illinois do.