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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

March 9, 2007

Her career started in a white bug

by Samantha Beres

Wendy Wintersteen

Photo by Bob Elbert.

On a blustery winter day, a couple hundred farmers from north central Iowa gathered at the Iowa Falls high school.

They were attending a crop and land stewardship clinic: some were getting recertified to apply pesticides; there were breakout sessions on corn rootworm and soil quality; and the keynote speaker was Wendy Wintersteen.

Wintersteen has been dean of the College of Agriculture for a little over a year now, but she's no stranger to Iowa State. You could say she grew up here, starting her career as an ISU extension specialist. Entomology degree in hand, she drove around Iowa in a white Volkswagen bug to help farmers deal with their pest problems.

Over a span of three decades, she climbed the ranks at Iowa State. Now, with the university a pivotal player in biorenewables research, she's an instrumental figure in the emerging bioeconomy. This is often the subject when she speaks at town meetings, alumni get-togethers and meetings with agribusiness representatives, bankers and farmers.

"The College of Agriculture has a historic connection to the people of the state," Wintersteen said. "There are opportunities for partnerships and collaboration, and it's part of our job to let people know what the college offers."

The college faculty conduct both fundamental and applied research programs and successfully compete for over $50 million in external research grants each year. The college is ranked as one of the top five agricultural research institutions in the nation as documented by the Thomson Citation Index.

After her Iowa Falls talk, several people approached her for one-on-one discussions. One woman grabbed her by the elbow, pulling her aside like an old friend. A gentleman told her about a historic round barn, which she looked for on her way back to campus.

"Wendy relates to people well," said county extension education director Darwin Miller, who arranged for her to speak that day. "She's a brilliant thinker. She was made for the position of dean," he said, adding that a great quality of hers is the ability to shift gears and engage anyone in comfortable conversation.

Growing up in agriculture

Wintersteen developed an interest in agriculture because her father raised cattle in Kansas. At Iowa State, she has spent more than half her career working directly with growers.

Her early career is like a recollection of pest mysteries. Once she was called to look at alfalfa fields with a strange white covering. After she made her way around the farmer who said, "I don't want no woman lookin' at my alfalfa," she discovered thousands of aphid exoskeletons. The farmer believed the diagnosis and valued her assistance. This was one of the few times Wintersteen encountered any concern about being a woman working in agriculture.

Once she was called in to look at a farmer's alfalfa field and garden that had literally disappeared. Variegated cut worms could be seen en masse crawling along the ground.

"These are hugely complex biological systems out here," said Wintersteen as she drove back to campus. "Agriculture can be a risky business because of that. Whether it be the weather, or disease, it takes a lot of management and it's all about science."

Climbing the ranks

After four years in Extension, she became an extension associate for the department of entomology and completed her Ph.D. In 1996, she became full professor and simultaneously interim associate dean for the College of Agriculture and interim director of extension to agriculture and natural resources. She became director of the latter. From 2000 to 2005, she served as senior associate dean in the College of Agriculture.

As dean and director of the Experiment Station (the broad research program that touches every corner of the college and beyond), Wintersteen oversees a budget that's more than $100 million, not counting gifts. There are 15 departments - eight shared with other colleges - about 285 faculty, 2,500 undergraduates and 600 graduate students.

"One of my goals is to enhance our undergraduate program and grow that population. We know the students are the heart and future of the college," Wintersteen said.

A challenge to attracting students is that some parents and high school advisers believe agriculture is just about producing crops and livestock; when actually it also involves genomics, biology, microbiology, ecology, food science, economics and more.

Wintersteen has proposed that the college change its name to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. According to Wintersteen, this proposal in no way will downplay "agriculture," but instead lift up important areas of science that have been a part of the college for many years.

A vision for the future

Wintersteen strives to build external relationships and collaborations that bring political and financial support. Last fall, she called the president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation in need of emergency funding for a biorenewables initiative. Realizing the historic importance of biorenewables for the rural economy, he called her four days later to commit $1 million.

Forging partnerships and upping the undergraduate population are important, but Wintersteen's top priority is to provide vision for the future. A large part of that vision is to grow the bioeconomy.

"We're on the edge of a revolution," Wintersteen said. "The College of Agriculture will play a major role in the new bioeconomy and helping producers constructively meet the opportunity and challenges."

Wintersteen stated that key research questions to move the bioeconomy forward are:

  • Using genomic tools, can we modify corn to enhance the feed value of coproducts?
  • How will we improve water quality and better conserve soil?
  • What are the crops and the related production and transportation systems that will allow farmers to meet the nation's energy needs and be profitable?

"If we fully discuss the issues now, it will help us foresee the challenges," Wintersteen said. "Through science, we can ask the questions and find the answers and innovation needed for a successful future."


"The College of Agriculture has a historic connection to the people of the state. There are opportunities for partnerships and collaboration, and it's part of our job to let people know what the college offers."

-Wendy Wintersteen