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On Being a "Brat" and a Biology Nerd

By Amy Flanagan, Research Associate 2

Posted Apr. 21, 2017

I discovered my interest in science in Mr. Hunter's 10th grade biology class at Lakenheath High School, the school at a U.S. Air Force base in England where I lived at the time.

In biology class we did actual labs at a bench with "real" equipment, and I loved every minute of it. We took actual samples and found out our blood type, and Mr. Hunter gave us extra credit for watching a TV science program called "Tomorrow's World" at home then taking a quiz on it each Friday during lunch. Mr. Hunter was enthusiastic about the many things happening in science. This made his students eager to learn and share their newfound knowledge.

Even I, a quiet introvert who prefers to think in my head rather than out loud, one day found I loved being in front of the class talking about a microscopic organism that caused a tropical disease.

From that moment on, I knew in my heart I had a love for science. I went to Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, and ultimately graduated with a degree in biology and chemistry with an education focus. During a senior seminar class on research done at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., I studied a plant-pathogen interaction and discovered my interest in plant research. One of the sources I studied came from research done at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and cited the location in a town familiar to me from childhood visits to my mother's family – Ardmore, Oklahoma.

Amy Flanagan with her father, David Kirkpatrick
Amy Flanagan (age 3) with her father, David Kirkpatrick, at her grandparents' house in Enid, Oklahoma.

A Place to Call "Home"

Growing up as a "military brat" (child of a parent or parents serving full-time in the United States Armed Forces) has a terrible-sounding label, but it's one I'm proud to wear. It provided me with experiences and tastes of the world that I otherwise never would have had. I experienced many cultures while living overseas and learning about my father's international colleagues, and I found the world to be a wonderful place that holds many treasures.

But the tricky part of being a military brat is that, even though I was born in Enid, Oklahoma, it was difficult to call any one place "home."

Eventually, I did come back to Oklahoma, which I can now truly call my "home," and started working at the Noble Foundation in agricultural research. It's been a great fit. Working here with people from more than 20 countries is an awesome experience that I appreciate every day. Plus we're using science – my favorite subject – to advance agriculture, which has connected me back to my family's roots. My dad grew up on a farm in Oklahoma before joining the U.S. Air Force, and I am glad our work supports efforts to improve the lives of ranchers and farmers.

Amy Flanagan, Zengyu Wang, Ph.D. and Rick Nelson, Ph.D.Amy Flanagan with Zengyu Wang, Ph.D., Forage Improvement Division director and Transformation and Genome Editing Laboratory leader, and Rick Nelson, Ph.D., a Plant Biology Division professor.

Using Science to Advance Agriculture

So what do I do? My work supports the researchers who work in the Transformation and Genome Editing Laboratory led by Zengyu Wang, Ph.D.

I analyze and upload data, and I communicate with collaborators here at the Noble Foundation and other research organizations, like universities. I work in the greenhouse with plants and in the laboratory with biological cultures and high tech equipment that enables us to do things that would have amazed Mr. Hunter back in the 1980s.

For example, the idea for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was published and thermocycler machines became available around the time I was in high school. Now, these machines are used every day to help us make enough exact copies of a sample's original DNA to be able to detect it and analyze it. This technique has benefited the world through its applications in various realms of science and crime detection. It's amazing to see what was considered so cutting-edge become accepted and commonplace in my own lifetime.

Thermocycler machineAmy Flanagan's favorite thermocycler machine. This machine uses cycles of alternating temperatures required for the pcr reaction to repeatedly copy a focused segment of DNA. It can make millions of copies in two to three hours.

We do a lot of interesting science here, but it all comes back to finding ways to help farmers and ranchers improve their agricultural production – especially forage crops that livestock graze – while also reducing their use of limited natural resources. We want to help them safeguard the soil for future generations and find solutions to the challenges they face, such as drought and crop diseases.

Every person who works here has their own story about how and why they use their unique expertise to advance agriculture. I look forward to sharing with you some of the science we do here at the Noble Foundation through the stories of the people behind the research.

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