Agronomic Research Specialist, Monsanto

Martha Zwonitzer

Career Sector

Industry

Degrees

BS in Crop and Soil Environmental Science from University of Arkansas, MS in Environmental Science from the Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering from Iowa State University, and have completed all courses toward a PhD in Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech

Briefly describe your career path from college until today.

In my final semester at the University of Arkansas, I began working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on a wetlands project. I started my master’s degree at Kansas State University but got married and moved to Virginia where I worked at Virginia Tech in small grains breeding. I took some time off from my career when I had children. Following Virginia, I worked for the Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma, in legume breeding. We moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and I taught high school for three years. Next, we moved to Iowa, and I managed the Water Quality Lab in the Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering Department at Iowa State University. I finished my master’s degree there, working on a project centered around antibiotic resistant bacteria from swine systems, and was hired by the Iowa Soybean Association with the Environmental Programs and Services team. When we moved to Lubbock, Texas, I began working for Texas A&M University with AgriLife Research and Extension. Finally, I took a job at Monsanto in Lubbock, where I work as an Agronomic Research Specialist. This job is exciting and I get the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technologies and with farmers every day.

If I had a choice, that is not what my career path would have looked like. Ideally, I would have found a great company or a great position and put in my 20 or 30 years. But, honestly, it took me a very long time to decide on a career. I’ve always wanted to be involved in agriculture and the environment, but I’ve never put limitations on what that looks like. Life takes you places sometimes, and you need to be agile and look for opportunities where you are located.

Describe the best choices you’ve made along your career path.

I’ve learned to be agile and unapologetic about my varied experiences. I used to always apologize for my resume, and then someone reminded me no two paths look the same. Everybody has their own path, and it’s what you make of it. The other piece I would say is—and this is my mantra—it’s all about the farmer. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, whether it’s teaching or being a stay-at-home mom, I make sure that the people around me knew where their food, fuel, and fiber come from.

How has the SWCS impacted your career or contributed to your continued education and/or professional development?

I started out young with SWCS, when I was an undergraduate. The annual conference was smaller and less intimidating to navigate than other conferences. Farmers and NRCS staff would present, and it was always a great reminder of why I had chosen my path. Not only was it a great source of information in real time, the farmers’ perspectives allowed me to see behind the practice and understand why they were implementing it on their farm. The Conservogram is a great source of information. Of all the journals that I read, the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation is the easiest to navigate. I’ve had the opportunity to write articles, and I also call on it for research and understanding.

What is the job outlook for your current position in the future? Also, what changes in required skill sets do you anticipate?

I think there’s a growing demand for people who are strong in technology. But at the same time, there’s also just as strong a demand for people who understand basic agronomics and how both of those impact each other. Sometimes we get weighed down by the path of technology and forget that you must know the basics of how to grow a crop and grow it sustainably. We have to be able to produce food, fuel, and fiber more quickly—and we have to do that without sacrificing our quality of life and our resources. As far as required skill sets, you’ve got to be agile. You’ve got to be able to learn quickly, but you must support that learning with a strong foundation in the sciences.

What advice do you have for college students or early career professionals who might want to work in a job similar to the one you have right now?

Never be afraid to shake a hand and make an acquaintance. And be sure to follow up: send an email, pick up the phone, and make sure that person remembers you. Attending SWCS meetings is critical to developing that network. Never stop learning, and always be willing to take on new challenges, even when they make you uncomfortable. Finally, take time to reflect, to see what you learned, to see how you should have responded differently, or to celebrate your successes.

Have there been any mentors or professionals who you would like to emulate?

Where to start? The first would probably be Daniel Hillel who is a soil scientist famous for his contribution to micro-irrigation. I want to be able to tell a story like Daniel can. The stories he tells involve complicated material, but he speaks conversationally. He’s also a great example of someone who never stops learning. I’ve gotten to meet him several times. He’s truly one of the greats.

On a more basic level as far as my career is concerned, I guess I’ll be cheesy and say my dad. He was on the soil conservation board when I was young. He was working side by side with the University of Arkansas to do research on our farm. He’s the one who fostered my love of the environment. The focus for him was always conservation of our natural resources—to use the byproducts from animal systems as our fertilizer rather than going with a synthetic source and understanding how those applications should be made, considering weather, soil type, topography, and ground cover. He really taught me the basics and always encouraged me to build on those.

You’ve worked in a wide range of career sectors. What thoughts can you share on working in different fields?

I would say that you must never lose sight of your “why” no matter what job you are holding. For me, ensuring that I am working to champion agriculture and the environment is paramount. With every position I have had—even when I stayed at home with my kids—I have found ways to teach others and help them gain a better understanding of where their resources come from and are used. Holding true to the “why” has allowed me to have flexibility in the positions I have held. Finally, find ways to use what you have learned in previous roles in your current role. This will ensure you are always developing and progressing personally as well as professionally.