Wiliam Lashley is the college’s first declared Ph.D. student. He works with Guochen Yang, Ph.D. on a project to determine ginger’s viability as a niche crop for N.C. farmers.

Enrollment in College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences graduate programs has increased by nearly 30% since 2019, powered by the addition of a new Ph.D. program in Spring 2022

This Ph.D. — an interdisciplinary suite of programs which integrates cutting-edge research on complex global topics with the traditional excellence of CAES faculty — is experiencing a surge of interest.

That increase is critical, as the expansion of graduate education is a cornerstone of the university’s efforts to expand its research portfolio and achieve coveted R1 status. Increased production of master’s and doctoral students also are crucial to the health of the planet, said Antoine J. Alston, Ph.D., a professor and the CAES associate dean of academic studies.

“In the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, we deal with issues of life — of human survival and the intersection of human, animal and environmental sustainability,” Alston said. “We are constantly seeking cutting-edge innovations to improve life and to make people healthier and the environment better. To do that, you need people with advanced training, and that advanced training will come through graduate-level programming at the Ph.D. and master’s levels across multiple different disciplines.”

The impact of CAES graduate programs

In 1939, when North Carolina A&T introduced its first master’s degrees, Agronomy and Farm Crops, Animal and Poultry Husbandry, and Farm Management were among the inaugural programs. Two years later, the university awarded its first master’s degree — in Agricultural Education — to Woodland Ellroy Hall, for whom a graduate fellowship is named.

Today, the college offers three master’s of science degrees — in Agricultural Education, Agricultural and Environmental Systems, and Food and Nutritional Sciences — plus two master of arts degrees in teaching in Child Development Early Education and Family Studies as well as Family and Consumer Sciences Education.

Eighty-four students are currently enrolled in CAES master’s programs.

The college launched its first doctoral program in 2022 to help retain its own talented master’s students, attract scholars from other institutions and other nations, and make a difference in agriculture and the environment worldwide.

“The Ph.D. program in Agriculture and Environmental Sciences addresses the most pressing issues that affect our society today,” said Shirley Hymon-Parker, Ph.D., interim dean. “The graduates of this program, whether they go on to teach, conduct innovative research or lead governmental or private-sector organizations, will have a tremendous impact on resolving these issues.”

CAES doctoral students can earn a doctorate in one of five concentrations: Food Science, Human Nutrition and Health; Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Sciences; Agribusiness and Applied Economics; Sustainable Animal Production and Health; and Agricultural and Extension Education. The college enrolled its first doctoral students in spring 2022. The college expects to award its first doctoral degrees in 2025.

These new programs have breathed new life into CAES graduate education. As of fall 2023, the Ph.D. program has 28 students enrolled — up from 10 in the program’s first year. Nearly two thirds of international students come from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Nepal that reflect the global diversity of CAES faculty.

The rapid growth of the Ph.D. program contributed to a one-year increase in graduate-level enrollment of 16% and a five-year increase of nearly 30%. CAES graduate programs currently enroll 131 students, including post-baccalaureate students.

Alston said those are encouraging numbers as N.C. A&T pursues the Research 1 (R1) designation from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. Only about 150 American universities are classified as Doctoral Universities—Very High Research Activity. A&T is seeking to become the first historically Black university to achieve this elite categorization.

“Ph.D. and master’s programs are research-based degrees,” Alston said. “Research dollars drive universities, and what drives R1s are the number of Ph.D. students you graduate and the number of doctoral programs you have and research expenditures. Master’s programs impact that, too, because master’s programs feed into Ph.D. programs.”

Alston said CAES graduate programs also will help solve employment shortages in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and environmental sectors. Those fields — vitally important to the U.S. and the world — have nearly 60,000 openings annually for new college graduates, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. But the nation’s agriculture schools produce enough graduates to fill only about 60% of these new positions.

Moreover, Alston said, while the share of underrepresented minorities awarded degrees in agriculture and related fields over the past two decades has increased to more than 20%, Black attainment of master’s and doctoral degrees in these areas remains below 5%.

“There is a serious gap. We are not mirroring the demographics of the U.S. population nor our state,” Alton said. “If we’re going to effectively address societal issues in food, agriculture and environmental science, we have to produce a cadre of scientists at the graduate level who have a cultural affinity and understanding of our population and the issues we face, and then in turn, can do research to address these issues.”

Connecting the dots

For the past decade, CAES professor Guochen Yang, Ph.D., has conducted groundbreaking research on ginger. Doctoral student Will Lashley has worked alongside Yang since the beginning.

Lashley was a research assistant in Yang’s lab during his undergraduate and master’s studies at A&T. After earning his master’s in 2021, the new CAES doctoral program offered him the opportunity to continue working alongside his long-time mentor. Today, Lashley is working toward his Ph.D. on the Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Systems track, and Yang remains as his advisor. This time, however, Lashley is conducting his own research on ginger.

“Ginger is typically a tropical plant, and you need seven or eight months of subtropical weather to grow it,” Lashley explained. “It’s hard to get that in North Carolina, so you get it via season extension — by growing it in a high tunnel or greenhouse. Ginger also doesn’t want full sun. It’s a shade-loving crop.”

For his dissertation, Lashley is investigating how shade affects ginger’s physiology. Working at the University Farm, he’s growing ginger under artificial shades, in the form of plastic sheeting in different colors; in greenhouses and high tunnels; and in wooded areas. He’s also growing ginger seedlings in the lab and working directly with ginger farmers.

“I have the opportunity to do all of those things,” Lashley said. “I feel like I’m doing something impactful.”

Lashley said the CAES doctoral program has helped him strengthen his relationship with Yang and immerse himself in the research process. A plant scientist, Lashley also is gaining interdisciplinary insights from doctoral colleagues who are food scientists, animal scientists and biologists.

“We’re all together in the same Ph.D.-level classes, and it’s cool to see how they brainstorm and think. They see how I think. We work on these case studies and projects. It’s  a well-rounded experience,” Lashley said. “I don’t know everything, and they don’t either, but when we put our minds together, we start connecting the dots.”

Connecting farmers and faculty

La-Donia Alford-Jefferies has long had an interest in teaching. Her mother, Sylvia Bembry, Ph.D., was on the business school faculty at A&T and Winston-Salem State University. After Alford-Jefferies earned her bachelor’s degree in Animal Science at A&T and her master’s degree at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, she taught science in Guilford County Schools and animal science at A&T.

To further her career in education, Alford-Jefferies began her CAES doctoral studies in 2022 as the first Ph.D. student on the Agricultural and Extension Education track.

Her dissertation focuses on the potential and challenges of the metaverse, the dynamic and immersive virtual space. Alford-Jefferies is exploring ways to connect farmers, researchers and experts in this digital platform and how students and educators at the collegiate level might harness the power of the metaverse.

“I feel that agriculture education is always behind the technology boom. My goal is to make sure that our small farmers and everyone else are interacting in this virtual space,” said Alford-Jefferies, who is being advised by Chastity Warren English, Ph.D., a professor of agriscience education. “Addressing those issues and building out the technical infrastructure will allow historically Black universities and A&T in particular to have a greater impact in agriculture.” 

Alford-Jefferies said it’s crucial for universities to encourage Black women like her to go into STEM and agriculture fields and to explore how food gets from the farm to the table.

“When people think of agriculture, they don’t picture someone like me,” she said. “It’s important to continue to fill spaces where you don’t typically see women of color.”

Alford-Jefferies hasn’t yet decided her path after she completes her doctorate in 2025. But she’s interested in preparing the next generation of scholars of agriculture and environmental sciences.

“I would love to teach. Teaching is fundamentally how I arrived at my decision of getting my Ph.D.,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the professors in my life who encouraged me and kept in touch with me ever since graduation, I wouldn’t be here.”