Abigail Han: Syngenta Scholarship Helps Winner Seize Opportunities

Han has a newfound appreciation for ag as she gains experience in and out of the classroom.
Abigail Han
Growing up in Washington, D.C., surrounded by concrete and high-rises, Abigail Han never thought she’d spend her senior summer of college studying ecological systems in the middle of Kansas. But that’s exactly what she did recently.

Initially, Han never considered a career in agriculture. She admits that for most of her life, she didn’t know where her food came from nor did she care to find out.

It wasn’t until high school when Han attended a summer session at Virginia’s Governor’s School for Agriculture that she realized her passion for agriculture. Her first “aha” moment occurred that summer on a field trip to a sustainable farm at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University as she soaked in the beauty of a meadow and river. It was in that surreal moment when she understood how much farming relates to the environment.

“The first time I was introduced to the concept of agriculture, I was blown away and shocked that I had lived almost 16 years of my life without knowing where my food came from,” Han says. “Farming is human’s way of connecting ourselves with nature.”

The 2017 @SyngentaUS Ag Scholarship winner has a newfound appreciation for #ag as she gains experience in and out of the classroom.

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During her summer session at Virginia’s Governor’s School of Agriculture, Han enrolled in a sustainable agriculture elective course. With the help of her professor, she continued to fuel her passion for agriculture.

“My professor inspired me to continue on with agriculture and put it in a context that really spoke to me in a way the other classes hadn’t yet,” she says.

Breaking the Mold

In the spring of 2017, the Student Support Coordinator for the Department of Crop and Soil Environment Sciences at Virginia Tech encouraged Han to apply to the Syngenta Agricultural Scholarship program. As part of the application process, she wrote an essay about the experiences that led her to agriculture. Han also stressed the importance of diversity in her field of work.

“What we eat and how it’s produced is something that affects everyone, so it should involve everyone as well. People of all ages, races, disciplines and geographic locations should be at the table to ensure that solutions we come up with will work for everyone,” Han wrote in her essay.

She was pleasantly surprised to learn she was the national scholarship winner at the bachelor’s level. The Syngenta program also awards a national scholarship to a student at the graduate level.

“I was just really shocked,” Han says, “I thought, ‘This isn’t real.’”

A lot of Han’s peers were taking paths other than agriculture, so prior to her win, she questioned if she should be pursuing something else. Han says that as soon as she learned she won the scholarship, her decision to study agriculture was finally validated.

A Leg Up on the Competition

“Farming is human’s way of connecting ourselves with nature.”

Abigail Han

In 2018, Han spent her summer working at The Land Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research center focused on perennial grain research located in Salina, Kansas. She gained varied experience, from taking field measurements to soil analysis, weeding and harvesting. Han has been processing soil samples at various soil horizons, drying them, and then packing them to be analyzed in the lab for carbon isotopes.

“My days were really different, which is great,” she says. “I really liked the variety. There were a lot of different projects, so I got to have a taste of everything.”

Han spent several weeks harvesting Kernza, a perennial grain, as well as perennial wheat. “The harvesting at first requires just cutting off heads with scissors and putting them in labeled bags to be analyzed, because certain plants or plots are specific genotypes and need to be kept track of.”

Earning the 2017 Syngenta Agricultural Scholarship has set Han apart from other applicants as she applies for internships and other educational experiences.

Recently, she attended the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a prestigious global security conference. Han was among 27 students selected to participate out of more than 800 applicants from across the world.

“The fact that I won the scholarship probably helped set me apart from all the other applicants,” Han says. “I think when people see that I won a Syngenta national scholarship, they’re surprised or intrigued and so they continue to read my application.”

Han is still considering her options after graduation. As someone who loves to be outdoors and who has an interest in research, Han plans to pursue a career that allows for both. Han will graduate from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in crop and soil science in May 2019.

Han says that she had misconceptions about farming growing up because she didn’t understand that way of life. “Now, I feel lucky to be a part of it,” she says.