“Breaking stereotypes and building community”

Camila Manriquez checks the water levels in an infiltrometer, a device that measures rate of water infiltration, to use for data collection in a plot of corn.
Photo credit: Cassandra Brown

By Haley Schmersal
agricultural communication student

What do you think of when you hear the word lab?

Most people picture a scientist working alone in a white coat and goggles dealing with extreme chemicals and complicated formulas on a chalkboard. While that may be the case in some labs, that is far from accurate when it comes to the Weed Ecology Lab at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC).

The OARDC Weed Lab, or OWL for short, is a place where researchers like to get their hands dirty. On a cool fall afternoon, you can find several members of the lab deep in a row of corn wearing rubber boots, baseball caps, and gloves carrying on lively conversations while collecting data for a project. While the research project may only belong to one member of the group, there are always others ready to help, even people from other labs.

This is just one of many ways the OWL lab is different from what people may expect. In the Weed Lab, researchers mainly study common types of weeds, various weed control methods, and how these weeds can impact crops in Ohio. With such dense subject matter, it’s easy to picture this as a boring job. However, the members of the lab would disagree.

The OARDC Weed Lab creates a sense of community that helps its employees flourish. This is accomplished through hands-on research, learning experiences and a healthy dose of fun. Between mentors with over two decades of experience and the occasional birthday celebration, there is never a dull moment for the researchers and assistants in the lab.

When it comes to research, the OWLs do things differently than most would expect. Teamwork is a key aspect of every day at the lab. Whether it’s something as simple as a how to format their data or as complicated as designing a new experiment, lab members are always working together and bouncing ideas off each other.

Each member of the lab has their own specializations and interests, which is beneficial for both themselves and the group. If one person is not as knowledgeable in an area, they are more than likely able to find someone who is an expert just a few doors down. In turn, this leads to people learning from one another.

Cathy Herms, Research Assistant 2 and two-decade employee said they all work together because it helps ensure the quality of the data, it keeps people motivated, and it helps people learn from one another.

Some researchers even get to work with local farmers who allow them to test different types of weed control on their properties. This gives researchers a chance to see how what they are doing can have an impact on others. Many times, the friendships with the farmers and families that they have met last beyond the length of the project.

Even with a heavy workload, employees in the lab make time for fun, friends, and food.

“In my opinion, food brings people together,” said Herms.

If an employee has a birthday, it’s going to be celebrated. During lunch time, you can find the OWLs gathered around a long table in their conference room with the scent of a homemade potluck and laughter filling the air. Lunch is also accompanied by a birthday dessert, usually consisting of Herms’ homemade brownies and ice cream.

“One thing I’ve been told is that we have more parties, birthdays, and stuff than any other lab on the campus,” said Dr. Douglas Doohan, Professor of Horticulture and Crop Science.

This type of interaction is important to everyone in the lab because it is one extra step that makes them feel appreciated and builds their sense of belonging. It also gives them the opportunity to converse with one another outside of work topics and build close relationships.

Allison Robinson, Research Assistant 2, joined the OARDC Weed Lab four years ago. When she first started working there, she was embarrassed to speak English because it was not her first language. Because of the welcoming atmosphere and the encouragement of others, Robinson eventually became more confident in herself and became close with others in the lab. She even met her husband, Ben Robinson, who also works in the lab.

“Personally, and professionally both I’ve grown a lot,” said Robinson.

But why do people become so close to one another and grow in the Weed Lab? It could be because they are required to spend so much time together. However, the people that work there know that it is due to much more than that.

Not only do the OWLs spend time together in the lab, they also spend time together outside of the lab. This is a rare feature when it comes to a workplace, and something that helps contribute to the sense of community that can be found in the lab. It also brings the employees closer together and helps them get to know each other better.

“They [The employees] don’t feel bad about coming to work in the morning,” said Doohan.

Being part of the OWLs is more like being part of a family. Everyone strives to make each other feel valuable and included, which is key in such a high paced environment. They also share the same general goals and values, something that many places lack.

“We all have the same kind of passion for learning and research,” said Herms.

Herms and Doohan have both been a part of the OARDC Weed Lab family for over twenty years, so they are essentially experts in what they do. They serve as mentors for the graduate students and guide them through any problems they may have, science related or not.

“I love working and mentoring with the grad students…” said Herms.

With years of experience under their belts, Doohan and Herms know how to most effectively lead their team. They know how to listen to people’s opinions and give them constructive feedback. They also take the time to get to know everyone personally and include everyone in the lab, even part time assistants.

At the end of the day, researchers at the OARDC Weed Ecology Lab know that they can come to work, have a good day, and do their best. When they walk through the door each morning, they know that they will be greeted with a bright smile and a warm welcome.

While the research may seem daunting at times, it can be accomplished each day by using teamwork and a combination of everyone’s strengths. The motivation for this goes back to the fact that team members know that they are valued and that they belong. This feeling is achieved through acceptance, guidance and the occasional birthday celebration.

 

This feature story was written by Haley Schmersal, an agricultural communication student enrolled in the Agricultural Communication 2531 course during the 2019 Autumn Semester. Dr. Joy Rumble instructed the course.

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