Jack's Insights September 2018

Dr. Jack Whittier
By Jack Whittier, Director, UNL Panhandle Extension District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center

I remember in 2015 searching for a new faculty member to join the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center (PHREC) to focus on weed management.  There were big shoes to fill with the pending retirement of Bob Wilson who was, and still is, an icon in the Nebraska Panhandle, adjacent states, and for that matter, the entire discipline of weed science.  I was worried that, with Bob’s many years in the profession and the excellent work he did in applied research and extension, it would be very hard to find a replacement of his caliber.

      We began the search with hopes to find a well-trained, smart, energetic young scientist who would come to the Panhandle and fill the big shoes of the predecessor. We solicited applications, recruited heavily, sifted through the applicants and found three who appeared to fit what we wanted to look more closely for in a weeds specialist. Nevin Lawrence was one of the three whose resume’ appeared to fit our needs.  So, I called him on the phone.

      Nevin was just finishing his Ph.D. degree at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., and coincidently, my son Tyler, had recently married a great young woman from Colfax, Wash. Colfax is only 18 miles from Pullman. It turned out that the weekend after I phoned Nevin, Tyler and his new bride were having an open house in Colfax to celebrate their wedding. So I arranged to have Nevin meet me in Colfax prior to the open house so I could get better acquainted with him.

      When Nevin pulled up in his well-used brown and tan Chevy pickup, I thought to myself, here is a kid who is frugal, appreciates hard work and knows how to make do as a married graduate student.

Next, we invited the three applicants to Scottsbluff for an in-person interview so we could take a closer look. We were not disappointed in what we saw during Nevin’s interview, and for that matter, we were equally impressed with the other candidates as well. In fact, it was a very difficult problem to decide which of the three we would offer the position. It was a good problem to have, for we felt fortunate to have such good candidates. In the end, we hired Nevin, who began his position in January 2016.

      Since then, Nevin has not disappointed.  The same work ethic, frugality, and intelligence I surmised during our brief visit in Colfax has played out well in his current position as Integrated Weed Management Specialist in the Panhandle.  Allow me to give a couple of examples.

      Some weeds are resistant to common herbicides used in crop production. Nevin helped me, and I think many others, understand the resistance was not caused by the herbicide. Rather, due to the wide biological variation in plants and the periodic changes that occur naturally in DNA sequences in biology, a few plants survive when their neighboring plants are killed by the herbicide. Since weeds produce a myriad of seeds, the surviving weeds propagate quickly, while the susceptible weeds die.

      Nevin, like many other weed scientists, is currently researching management practices to combat herbicide-resistant weeds. This is a big job and he is doing it well, along with other colleagues at the University of Nebraska and other institutions.

      Nevin is also a good citizen as a faculty member. By this, I mean Nevin is always willing to take an assignment, serve on a committee, help a producer, train a student, or chair an effort to improve an educational event. For example, Nevin stepped forward when the faculty decided to modify the way the Panhandle Research and Extension Center displays the research done by the faculty in a field day setting.  He willingly accepted the assignment to chair the committee that has resulted in the First Annual Panhandle Research and Technology Tour, or PARTT for short. I am writing this column a few days before that event on Wednesday, Aug. 29, and you will read this column a few days after the event has occurred.  However, based on the level of planning, collaborating, preparing and visioning done by Nevin and others, I am certain PARTT will be a resounding success. I hope you were able to attend.

      Now, you may wonder why I have chosen to brag so heavily on Nevin Lawrence in Jack’s Insights this month.  Well, it is because I am proud of the new group of specialists we have hired at PHREC in the past few years. Each has brought strong skills to the already strong group of more senior specialists at the Center.  Perhaps in future columns I will similarly brag on the others new faculty like Cody, Mitch, Bijesh or Xin.  It is great to have such good talent at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, not only the new ones. Give us a call if we can help you in any way.