If not for the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shea Hogan might not have cultivated her unexpected pathway to graduate school.

She had already added two minors to her materials science and engineering major: chemistry and Spanish. But when she graduates in May, she’ll also have a horticulture minor, and a new role as agronomy graduate student at the University of Florida.

It was during the era of remote learning that Hogan took a gap year to save money. Home in Florida and looking for an internship, she stumbled on a new passion for plants and a job at a University of Florida laboratory. First, she got involved in landscaping her parents’ new home and filled her room with house plants. 

“It’s a joke with plant people: you just catch the bug one day, and suddenly all you have are plants. That’s really what happened to me,” Hogan said. “So I bought as many plants as I could. I learned to propagate plants and how to take care of them.”

From the garden to the lab

And, across the street from the family’s Gainesville condo, Hogan happened upon the environmental sciences and horticulture department. She was a little stressed about not having an internship or co-op and had been looking for opportunities.

“So I literally just walked in there one day with my resume, and I said, is anybody hiring? I'll do lab work. I'll do hands-on greenhouse management stuff. I'll do anything,” she said.

They put her to work — in the lab and the greenhouse. In the lab, she worked on improving turf grass strains for disease resistance and drought tolerance. In the greenhouse, she did all the physical labor that goes with cultivation and found it all very satisfying.

“That was what inspired me to think: ‘Okay, well, I have room, actually, to fit this into my curriculum.’” Hogan said. “I figured out that it was pretty manageable for me.”

So, to her studies in polymers and crystallography she added courses like public garden management and greenhouse design.

Recovering from the pandemic

But returning to campus after COVID wasn’t all smooth. The time away disrupted the undergraduate careers of every student enrolled then, and it frayed the community bonds Hogan had made. In the year she had been gone, things in Blacksburg had changed. 

“I struggled a lot when I came back my junior year, in my major and in my personal relationships,” Hogan said.

Her classmates had moved ahead of her by a year, and the new junior class hadn’t met as sophomores, she said. To help develop new relationships, she got involved in Virginia Tech Union, eventually taking over as president. 

“That’s another weird thing on my resume,” Hogan said. “I basically work with people in the entertainment industry, and I help with organizing and planning events on campus. Working with the organization helped me rebuild some of my connections in the university, and it’s given me a lot more perspective on all the different people on campus.”

She also delved deeply into her studies, volunteering to serve as one of four undergraduate teaching assistants in professor Maureen Julian’s crystallography class. She eventually became head TA. Crystallography is a highly mathematical branch of materials science that requires computer programming.

Julian said that when looking for TAs, she searches for students with many different skills.

“Shea more than excelled in the class, and TAs have to understand Python well enough to help other students,” Julian said. “So she met all the criteria for this, and she was fun to work with. She’s also passionate about her research, and I’m sure she’ll do well in her graduate studies.”

For her part, Hogan said she was very interested in crystal structures and how they affect different materials. But the one-on-one meetings with Julian, who has been teaching at Virginia Tech since 1979, were important, too.

“Just hearing about all of the stuff that she had done in her life was very inspiring to me,” Hogan said.

Shea Hogan in the Hahn Horticulture Garden
Shea Hogan spent a lot of her undergraduate career in the Hahn Horticulture Garden, while continuing to pursue engineering. Surprisingly, engineers and horticulturists often work together, garden director Scott Douglas said. Photo by Tonia Moxley for Virginia Tech.

Hogan also made a big impression on her new academic department.

“She’s very smart and in class she was always enthusiastic,” said Scott Douglas, professor of in the school of plant and environmental sciences and director of the Hahn Horticulture Garden. “While other students sometimes hesitate in hands-on classes, she was always one of the first ones to dive in and get her hands dirty.”

Horticulture and engineering may seem radically different, he said. But at the root level, there are surprising connections.

“There seems to be a lot of people who like plants or learn that they like plants while they're here,”  Douglas said. “So we get students from a lot of different majors, and there's a few engineers.”

Putting it all together

Some engineering disciplines, like civil and environmental and building construction, end up working directly with landscape architects and horticulturists on private and public building projects, he said. Others do well in horticulture because they excel at science, and science and technology are becoming ever more important in plant-based industries.

“Between controlled environment agriculture, where they're growing everything indoors, to plant breeding and pest control It’s amazing how much technology is involved, including drones,” Douglas said. “There's way more science to it than there ever was before, so having an engineering background and a plant background is the perfect combination.

“I think that’s how Shea ended up proving her worth at Florida when she went down there and got an internship on the spur the moment, and then got offered a master's position,” he said.

As she spends her last weeks in Blacksburg before commencement, Hogan said she’s savoring the experience of changing seasons — which were new to her when she came to Virginia — and reflecting on the rich social and academic experiences she’s had, as well as the mind-bending resume she’s built. She’s also considering how she’ll approach her future career.

“I love it. It's been so much fun to be so involved in so many things, and I've made great friends through my time at Tech,” she said. “But I want to slow down a little now. I'm going to focus more on just getting done what I need to do in my graduate program, instead of doing everything else on the side.”