“We are committed to a diverse, welcoming, and inclusive environment. We welcome students, postdoctoral research associates, visiting scholars, and others regardless of age, appearance, disability status, gender, gender identity, geographic background, marital/partnered status, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, and all other characteristics that make each of us unique.”
–EPP Diversity & Inclusion Committee
We are honored to host the many wonderful students that dedicate their area of study in our department. All of them are up to some truly incredible things. We interviewed Tara Rickman to share her story:
Deep down in the tangle of Central Mississippi, you’ll find a delightful little respite known as the City of Brandon. It’s a relatively small, rural town coasting along the suburbs of Jackson and a cursory look on Google will show you there are only 23,000 residents who all call it home. Our very own Tara Rickman is one of those 23,000.
Tara grew up in Brandon her whole life, fortunate enough to not have to move about. She states that growing up there was quite nice; she lived in a peaceful area and was only two streets away from her best friend (and they’re still best friends to this day!). She also grew up as the youngest of six siblings.
Before Tara was a plant pathologist, she played softball. She played consistently for 10 years, all the way until she was a junior in high school. She mentioned how nice it was to just get out of the house and away from her siblings, though she also admitted they probably felt the same. Towards the end of her softball career, Tara was even playing in tournaments. She accounts just how rewarding of an experience it all was, because even if you lost the game, “you still got something out of it”.
It’s quite possible Tara would have continued with softball, but she eventually tore her ACL. Despite the injury, Tara took it with stride and stoicism. To her, it wasn’t the end of something but rather the beginning of something new; it was a sign to focus on academia and walk on the path that she still does today. Perhaps it was all those dedicated years of softball that taught her to keep moving forward and persevere.
Tara reminisced on some of her other fond memories, one of those being Brandon Day. Yes, you heard it right: Brandon, Mississippi has its very own personal holiday. According to Tara, it’s a huge celebration of the whole community. Everyone comes together to cook, enjoy each other’s company, and watch several tournaments of softball, baseball, and soccer. Tara said she couldn’t think of any “cool facts” about Brandon, but this is pretty darn cool if you ask us.
When asked about her passions, Tara’s mind went instinctively to her pets. An animal lover through and through, she homes an impressive 5 animals: three cats and two dogs. Though her mom calls it a zoo, Tara enjoys every bit of their company. She even brings the dogs with her on one of her other passions, hiking.
As a plant pathologist, it’s no surprise that Tara enjoys being surrounded by nature. She hikes regularly and enjoys “getting lost a little bit”. A true naturalist, she enjoys the outdoors for what it is. She states it’s those moments when she’s neck-deep in the outdoors and unsure of her destination that she is the most at peace, a sentiment many of us can relate with.
Tara is very fond of the Smokies in particular. She’s seen the Rockies and other mountains to be sure, but she states there’s just something about the Appalachian Mountains’ quiet beauty that stands out to her. These mountains are very special to her, and that might be partly because she proposed to her wife in Blue Ridge. Getting married in the mountains is sure to make any couple more in tune with nature! She goes on to state how much she appreciates and loves the area and its people.
Tara grew up gay in Mississippi, so she knows first-hand the South may not always be the most welcoming place. That being said, she also knows first-hand that the people here are a bit more intimate, taking the time to get to know each other more. She interned in Chicago and recounts just how different and more reserved it was in comparison to Tennessee. While she is aware that our “Southern Hospitality” may not always be hospitable, she truly appreciates the more personal atmosphere people bring here in the southeast and that we always have the capacity to do better. We are very thankful for Tara and the amazing things she has been working on in our department.
Tara is a Ph.D. student while concurrently getting her MS, concentrating in Bioinformatics, Genomics, and Molecular Interactions. Presently, she is engrossed with the culinary profile of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). Specifically, she is focusing on a genome-wide association study of the different sugar levels and root traits of the Ipomoea batatas itself. Tara’s asking the questions, “Is there a way to find significant associati
ons with the desirable traits that consumers want?” and “Are there any vital plant processes happening in a specific genomic region of the sweet potato? And if so, can farmers and breeders use that for a more desirable product?”
Tara has embarked on an impressive journey to be where she is today and was inadvertently introduced to agriculture while mentoring under a microbiologist who was studying bacteria in nematodes at her alma mater, Millsaps College. This led Tara to her internship in Chicago and eventually NC State where she worked under plant pathologist Dr. Marc Cubeta. This experience developed a deeper appreciation for the natural and applied aspects of working with microorganisms.
It’s that hands-on component of bringing the science one-on-one with everyday people, like farmers, that Tara really appreciates. She mentions how much red tape there seems to be between people and the research that happens in the world. Many people view science as this mystifying force, when it isn’t—it just needs to be communicated better. Science communication is undoubtedly becoming more and more important, and Tara is happy to be a part of that and respects those who pursue it, like our very own Dr. Rebecca Trout Fryxell.
We wrapped up our interview by asking Tara if she had any parting advice for prospective students, and her answer was to reach out to the professors and get to know them before applying. She mentions just how diverse our department is and that it is okay if you have to talk to a few professors to find the right fit. “Just try to put yourself out of that comfort zone, and the worst they’re going to say is ‘I don’t have funding’. And that’s okay. You need to know that.” For better or worse, funding is a large part of our research, so it’s crucial to know what you’re getting into before you submit your application.