Iowa is the Center of the Universe for Crop Research
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Why Iowa? Five Questions with Dr. Carolyn Lawrence-Dill


Dr. Carolyn Lawrence-Dill

Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

When Dr. Carolyn Lawrence-Dill moved to Iowa, she was excited about the opportunity to work in the “center of the universe” for maize research, but a little nervous about Iowa winters. Twenty years later, she has adjusted to winter weather, and found the perfect place to pursue her research career and raise a family. 

Dr. Lawrence-Dill is a Texas native who earned a PhD in Botany from the University of Georgia. She came to Iowa State in 2003 for a two-year postdoctoral project focused on analyzing maize genomics data. In 2005, she joined the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and became director of MaizeGDB, the genomics database used by maize researchers the world over. After 10 years in that role, she had the opportunity to join Iowa State faculty. Dr. Lawrence-Dill is a professor in the Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology and the Department of Agronomy, and a faculty scholar with the university’s Plant Sciences Institute. Her main areas of research involve deploying team science approaches for data representation, accessibility and integration in the plant sciences with a focus on the prediction and analysis of gene functions, phenotypes and traits in crops, and has worked on a number of collaborative research projects and teambuilding work. 

In August 2021, she was named associate dean for research and discovery for Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Science (CALS). 

1. What are your priorities in your role as CALS Associate Dean for Research and Discovery?

One of the things I most enjoyed as a professor was enabling other people to do their science better, so when the position opened up, I took a deep breath and set to work putting together my application. I’m so delighted to have gotten the job. I really do love what I do. 

The problems we seek to solve in agriculture are complex and important. We do work that saves the planet, drives the economy, and feeds people. Because the problems are complicated, solving them often requires involvement by people with different disciplinary backgrounds, so my specific efforts are focused on building and enabling high-functioning teams to go after solutions. I find that people engage in teamwork more readily when processes are clear and transparent, so a lot of my early work in this role has been to communicate and make clear what opportunities are available. I’m also constantly looking at how we can make decisions at the college level that are based on collecting and analyzing data. That sort of approach tracks with my disciplinary expertise and comes naturally. 

2. What excites you the most about agricultural research at Iowa State? What sets Iowa State’s approach to innovation and collaboration apart from other universities?

Working in partnership across disciplinary and institutional boundaries is encouraged in lots of ways. The more I talk with people in roles like mine at other institutions, the more I realize that ISU’s focus on enabling people to work across departments and colleges is pretty unique. One great example is the collaborative research and work that happens at ISU Research Park, providing new and growing companies with access to infrastructure, talent pipeline, equipment and more to bring the next generation of innovation to reality. 

I can also say that of the various places I’ve lived, I’m most impressed with the can-do attitude of Iowans! People from Iowa have a great work ethic. When you couple a focus on solving problems through innovation with a great work ethic, it’s easy to see how we ended up with the ISU motto: Science with Practice. 

3. How does research at Iowa State benefit Iowa farmers, communities and businesses?

ISU researchers are keen on solving local problems that have a global impact. Our research gets into the hands of farmers in a few different ways including Extension events, factsheets, and media coverage. We also work alongside farmers. On-farm research enables researchers and farmers to work together, strengthening ties and sharing knowledge. Working together is the best way to stay relevant and engaged. 

4. What advice would you give someone considering a move to Iowa?

For almost any list of best places to live, Iowa’s at the top of the pack. There are lots of opportunities to get going in a research career, and it’s a great place to raise kids. Just learn to wear a heavy coat in the winter and don’t be surprised when your kids decide to join band or sign up for the wrestling team. Both are a very big deal in Iowa schools. I never imagined spending my Saturdays in gyms across Iowa screaming at my son to, “Get aggressive!” but that’s what this past year brought. I’m a wrestling parent! What a fun and interesting sport. I’m so excited that my son is involved in wrestling

5. Please give us three recommendations of things to do or places to go in Iowa.

I have loved visiting the various buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Mason City, and summer motorcycle trips to visit local breweries are great low-key fun. My favorite summer activity, though, is getting the chance to spend time in a maize genetics field where I get to see my favorite species showing off an array of colors and shapes. For me, it’s still all about the corn! 

Published February 2023. 

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