Student spotlight: Natasha Meehleib – Plant Sciences, May ’23

Jan. 23, 2023
Crops grow on a public school ground, as part of a community-school garden project in Tucson, Arizona

"My interests lie in the connection: bringing communities together," said Natasha Meehleib. "It wasn't until my summer research fellowship on community-school garden programming that I realized the clarity of my mission: to give back to the community through extension and to help build that world."

Courtesy Natasha Meehleib

Natasha Meehleib stands in public garden

Natasha Meehleib will graduate May 2023.

Natasha Meehleib chose CALES because she wanted to learn the material she needed to be a great plant scientist and to figure out how she could combine all of her interests, passions and values into a successful career.

"I have always loved plants. To me, plants connect people. They make up the buildings we call home. They make up the dishes that we consider comfort food. They are weaved into the clothing we consider our best fit. Plants make up many of the medicines we use to heal. They are the paper where we write our most intimate thoughts and they make up the fire that burns, so that we can gather around and share stories through the night," Meehleib said. "To me, plants are an endless stream of generosity, giving themselves to meet the needs of others in every imaginable way."

As a freshman, Meehleib wanted to pursue a career as a plant pathologist. She spent hundreds of hours at the lab bench, learned Latin names, studied metabolic pathways, perfected tissue culture skills, and learned about the genetic technology that has transformed the agriculture and horticulture industries.

As her college career continued, her passions grew beyond the desire to be a strict research-based plant pathologist.

"My interests lie in the connection: bringing communities together and improving them through the wonder of plants—making sure that students understand the connection between the tomato on their plate and the journey it took to get there," Meehleib said.

"It wasn't until my summer research fellowship on community-school garden programming that I realized the clarity of my mission: to give back to the community through extension and to help build that world."

As Meehleib wraps up her final semester at the university, we caught up with her to hear more about her experience at CALES and what her future plans have in store:

Can you tell us more about how you chose UArizona?

The University of Arizona provided the perfect opportunity for me to be exposed to all aspects of the plant sciences with the special opportunity of learning within an environment where responsible water use is so important. I was also determined to go to a school where I would find numerous opportunities for student support. I was able to find that support through a student-support organization called CALES Arizona Science, Engineering, and Math Scholars (ASEMS) and then later through my admittance into UROC's AWARDSS [Undergraduate Research Opportunity Consortium’s Access, Wellness, and Relational Determinants of Student Success] research fellowship program. As a financially independent student, I knew that it would be vital that I have support to help me navigate the challenges I would endure in my undergraduate education, and that would equip me with the tools that I would need to further my education in graduate school. 

Let’s hear about your minor 

I added my minor in Sustainable Plant Systems this year as a great way to showcase the unique perspective I have gained attending school in a region where limiting water-use within agriculture is so vital. After talking with my advisor, I realized the requirement to add it was minimal because of my previous heavy coursework in sustainable plant systems and conservation-minded electives.  

How did you decide to focus more on applied plant pathology vs. research?  

I changed my focus from pursuing a career in plant pathology research to a career in university extension, after I realized the disconnect between the world of research and the application of that research within industry and communities. Translating produced research into practical real-world applications, through educational events will help me to equip the community with best practices and information. 

Where are you landing, do you have specific plans yet?

Yes! I am currently applying to a few graduate schools within the U.S., to begin this fall. My desire is to complete my master's at another institution with a heavy investment in extension programming. In the last year, I've found that a career in university extension programming would perfectly fit not only my own personality and skill set, but also my ideal combination of community service and research-informed education and outreach. 

Are you involved with any organizations on campus?

The majority of my leadership roles have been within UArizona Sigma Alpha Professional Agricultural Sorority Chapter. I have served as licensing chair on the officer team, and this year as the executive board's recruitment chair. Additionally, I am an ASEMS Scholar, a UROC AWARDSS Undergraduate Research Fellow, and a previous student worker at the BIO5 Institute. 

Who has been influential to you during your time on campus?

I have to say that I am so grateful for my grandmother, aunt and mother who have helped support me during my transition as an out-of-state student and then as a graduate school applicant this semester. My grandmother's relentless curiosity for the inner-workings of the natural world and connecting people with plants, has always influenced me to explore the world of science alongside other women in STEM. Additionally, Maya Azzi, my previous academic advisor and Support Specialist for CALES-ASEMS, has been a mentor that I could always count on. She was an immense help when I was developing a vision for after graduation. Lastly, I want to thank my CALES ASEMS faculty mentor Dr. Yadegari and my UROC AWARDSS mentor Dr. Korchmaros for their unending support throughout my coursework and personal research, and for their mentorship during my professional development journey into a career within the plant sciences.