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'Extension' beyond traditional academic jobs

The calves in Florida were going missing. Ranchers believed that the Florida panther, protected by the Endangered Species Act, was to blame, but they couldn’t prove it. It was up to Lindsey Wiggins, a livestock agent with the Florida Cooperative Extension Service, to venture into the forest and find out. In 2012, Wiggins, whose territory covers five southwest Florida counties, began tagging newborn calves at two ranches suffering livestock losses with radio transponders about the size of a quarter. When she would get a signal indicating that a calf was dead, she and a cowboy would track down the carcass and she would determine the cause of death, to be confirmed by a state wildlife biologist. As the farmers suspected, it was usually a panther.

The detective work was a little nerve-racking, she says, because “you’re messing with a big cat’s food, … but I loved participating in that study because we found out what was killing the calves.” As a result of the work, in fall 2016 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to widen a Conservancy of Southwest Florida pilot program that compensates some ranches for calf losses. “That is so fulfilling to me,” Wiggins says.

Wiggins holds one of about 13,000 full-time positions in the U.S. Cooperative Extension System, a partnership among the U.S. Department of Agriculture, land-grant universities, and counties that aims to use new technologies to solve problems faced by farmers, industries, natural resource managers, and local communities. Local governments, for instance, might ask for help finding cost-effective ways to control a pest that is killing urban trees, or state water quality managers and local activists could ask for studies exploring best practices to reduce storm water runoff that is polluting local waterways.

Karla Shelnutt

Karla Shelnutt

Credit: S.Jackson/Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences

In addition to agents like Wiggins, the extension system employs specialists: scientists at land-grant universities who take on extension appointments to do work aimed to help clients seeking practical solutions to real-world problems. Some of these scientists are tenure or tenure-track faculty members, and others are permanent staff members. One of about 200 such specialists in Florida, which is one of the larger programs in the network, is Karla Shelnutt, an associate professor of nutrition and health at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville who studies how various audiences learn from different teaching methods and how extension instruction can be targeted for learners with different needs. With an appointment of 65% extension, 25% teaching, and 10% research—other Florida specialists’ extension appointments range from 10% to 80%—she also develops curricula for and provides training to county agents (like Wiggins) to teach local families about healthy nutrition choices, and she teaches graduate students how to create such curricula.

Extension specialists have the academic freedom to undertake research in their field as long it addresses the needs of their clients, explains Tapan Pathak, an assistant research professor at the University of California (UC), Merced, and a specialist in climate adaptation in agriculture with UC Cooperative Extension. Pathak’s extension work, which is 60% of his appointment (the remainder is research), consists of advising farmers about impacts of climate variability on crops in the Central Valley.

Extension programs around the country offer scores of job opportunities each year for researchers with a range of training, from bachelor’s degrees to Ph.D.s, but too few scientists, students, and educators realize these jobs exist, Shelnutt says. “It’s one of my life missions to make sure that every student I interact with hears about extension because so few know about it,” she says. She only learned about it after completing her doctorate and working for 2 years as a basic scientist at UF’s Food Science and Human Nutrition laboratory. When she and her husband had their first child, she did not want to work full time anymore, and her boss told her about a part-time extension position that might fit her needs. She started that job in December 2005, and over the years, her extension career has continued to develop. Now she is full time and tenured with major administrative duties, including her role as the principal investigator for Florida’s Family Nutrition Program, which teaches low-income families how to improve eating and physical activity habits through extension programming.

Moreover, opportunities may grow as extension programs are expanding into new scientific fields and disciplines. “In Florida and nationally, we are seeing an effort to broaden the scope and the reach of what we do as extension,” says Nick Place, dean and director of the Florida Cooperative Extension Service. His program, for example, is collaborating with UF’s engineering departments to generate funding that could support technical experts to help local communities make more cost-effective decisions about infrastructure investments.

University of Minnesota Extension also began exploring new directions in the early 2000s, as it was struggling through steep state budget cuts. “We began looking at our competition and what the public wanted from us, and we saw that we needed to alter our model,” says associate dean Michael Schmitt. They decided to become more specialized to compete with increasingly sophisticated industrial agriculture, such as feed and seed companies that hired advisers with greater technical expertise. “We had to raise our game,” Schmitt says. Now, instead of traditional generalist agents, the state employs 55 master’s-level regional extension educators who specialize in specific crops or disciplines, such as sugar beet agriculture or turkey production.

People who need people

Extension professionals say they especially enjoy their roles as consensus builders and educators, helping their clients and the broader public find practical solutions to the problems they’re facing. They might spend time organizing workshops or webinars, providing educational materials and other publications to community groups, or moderating public meetings on contentious issues.

“To be effective in extension, you need to know and understand how to work with and through people, how to help bring about change in communities,” Place says. “You need to understand the ecology of people and how to engage buy-in at the grassroots level.” As Schmitt puts it, “we are looking for scientists who want to work with people.” Place notes that, “in many cases, agents have a bachelor’s or master’s in a technical subject but get a doctorate in social science or human science” while working as extension professionals.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Credit: L. Luckham

“You should have good listening skills,” says Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a UC Cooperative Extension fire adviser—the California system’s equivalent of an agent—who has a master’s degree in environment and community studies. She works with land managers in northern California to “think through the ecology of fire” in a fire-dependent landscape where burning has been suppressed for generations. “We provide [property owners] with training opportunities to build their skills in prescribed burns,” Quinn-Davidson says. “We connect them with potential partners in their communities such as volunteer fire departments, and we link them with state and federal agencies that can provide guidance.” She also hosts public events about fire and forestry and is the lead organizer of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council annual meeting. She often acts as a go-between among many different parties. “You need to engage with people and be sensitive to local needs but also bring them scientific resources from the university. At the same time, you need to connect scientists and researchers in the universities to issues on the ground.”    

“I like the diversity of the job,” she adds. “I can be out in the field and then do a radio interview, work on a grant application, or host an event, and I’m always building relationships.”

Cooperative extension can offer an alternative academic career track for many graduate students, says John Battles, a professor of forest ecology at UC Berkeley, but he notes that these jobs require skills not often learned in traditional academic science programs. “In extension, you must communicate science effectively to the general public, and you don’t have a 50-minute lecture to do it. You need to know how to facilitate a productive discussion in a public meeting, how to run that meeting so that everyone is heard,” he says. To bridge this gap, in 2014, he and some UC Berkeley colleagues launched an internship program for graduate students interested in cooperative extension careers. The internship offers up to a year of funding for graduate students to conduct applied research projects and learn the principles of outreach. “These are valuable skills to practice not only for an extension career but also if you want a career in government or [a nongovernmental organization],” he adds.

The experience had a big impact on UC Berkeley graduate student Kate Wilkin, one of the program’s early participants, who served part of her internship shadowing Quinn-Davidson and learning about extension first-hand. “The … internship gave me an amazing set of professional skills that I could practice, including media relations, public speaking to different audiences, and conference organizing and facilitating,” she says. Now she is looking for a job—she expects to receive her Ph.D. in forest ecology this coming December—and would like to make a career in cooperative extension. “Many of my colleagues and I see environmental problems and want to do applied research because we want to help find solutions,” she says, “and the extension paradigm is built for that.”