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A Day in the Life of Noble

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From sunrise to sunset (and beyond), the 400 employees of the Noble Research Institute strive to fulfill their mission of advancing agriculture
Noble Life
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The first fall morning arrives in southern Oklahoma like the end of a brilliant magic trick - anticipated, but still pleasantly unexpected.

After the endless parch of a two-year drought has leathered a region's collective soul, the initial embrace of crisp air offers equal measures of hope and rejuvenation. On the eastern horizon, the fingers of morning sunlight reach to grab hold of the new day.

In the next 24 hours, more than 400 Noble Research Institute employees - called from around the world by a shared vision - will complete countless tasks that coalesce to fulfill the mission of founder Lloyd Noble. Together, they will assist farmers and ranchers, conduct research, educate, inspire and lead - all in the name of advancing agriculture.

Like the 24,469 days before, today promises to be both routine and unique. Today holds the potential for discovery and reinvention. Today is Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, and this is one day in the life of the Noble Research Institute.

6:28 a.m. - A symphony of crickets welcomes the rising sun with their uncoordinated chirps like a thousand Cajun musicians sliding spoons on mini washboards. The crickets may just be waking, but Lori Ratliff and her food service team hit their stride an hour ago, while most of their fellow employees still slept.

Ratliff's day began at 4 a.m. with her usual grocery blitz through the local supercenter. She arrives at the Noble kitchen to find her team - Charlotte Blackwell, Sheryl Millsap, Janice Pierce and Donna Stephenson - already mixing, chopping and grilling to the backbeat of classic rock piped in by a flour-coated radio. These five ladies will serve more than 54,000 meals this year - 250 on this day.

Ratliff details the day's menu, never stopping her constant motion, never taking her eyes off biscuits browning in the oven. "Our folks work extremely hard. We're here to give them the fuel for the day," she says pouring eggs into a sizzling skillet. "A good breakfast equals a good start. It's going to be a great day in Nobleland!"

6:48 a.m. - A few paces west of the kitchen's backdoor and down the south hall in the Agricultural Division Building, Dillon Payne and Tresa Runyan sit in side-by-side offices, cups of steaming coffee in hand. The pair is already busy working on field maps for area farmers and ranchers who participate in the Noble Research Institute's no-cost consultation program. "Mappers start early around here," says Payne with a smile.

While agricultural producers usually can detail their total acreage, they rarely know what percentage is covered by trees, water or unsuitable land. The maps offer an aerial view of a producer's usable land. "This is invaluable for land managers," Runyan says. "These maps let them know what they're actually working with. It's one of the first steps to helping them develop a full management plan."

6:58 a.m. - The first impromptu meeting of the day begins as Wildlife and Fisheries Consultant Russell Stevens pokes his head into Payne's office. Stevens is working on a factsheet for properly preparing fire breaks as part of a prescribed burn, a joint effort with Oklahoma State University. Neither of the men is surprised by the early start time. "Hey, everything that happens in the wildlife discipline happens before dawn," says Stevens with a chuckle. "This is practically noon for us."

7:24 a.m. - Sunrise. A few miles west of the main campus is the Noble Research Institute's Pasture Demonstration Farm where Russ Gentry makes his first round of the day. The Noble Research Institute operates seven research and demonstration farms across southern Oklahoma, totaling more than 13,000 acres. The farms allow Noble Research Institute researchers to test improved forages in real-world settings, while offering regional producers an opportunity to see best management practices in motion. "Not many organizations have a resource like our farms," Gentry says. "They may look like everyday operations, but look closer and you'll see research projects, test plots and cutting-edge technology."

7:32 a.m. - Jackie Kelley, copyeditor for the Communications Department, kicks off her simple black loafers, laces up a pair of sneakers and adjusts her kerchief. Kelley is about halfway through her radiation treatments, and her daily routine centers on healthy living. Each morning, she arrives early and meets Librarian Pat Weaver-Meyers for a few laps around campus. Weaver-Meyers walks because each step brings her friend closer to recovery, each morning spent talking offers another opportunity to support. And she sees the impact on her own life. "Any time you spend with a friend is just as important for you as it is them," Weaver-Meyers says. "When a friend is going through real life problems, it keeps your problems in a healthy perspective. Our morning walks are good for both of us." (To read more about Kelley's journey and the Noble spirit, turn to page 32).

8:42 a.m. - Weihong Dong, wife of Noble Research Institute postdoctoral fellow Jiqing Gou, strings a bright yellow hose through the Noble Research Institute Community Garden. A small plot of land resting adjacent to the organization's research plots, the garden was established to allow employees an opportunity to grow their own fruits and vegetables. For some international employees, the garden offers a chance to bring a taste of home stateside. Intermixed with everyday varieties are Chinese cabbage, long beans and winter melon - none of which are readily available in local markets. On this morning Dong stood watering friends' vegetables along with her own. "They're on vacation," she said. "I'm just helping out. That's what we do here - help each other out."

9:02 a.m. - A few hundred yards away in the Noble Research Institute's Research Park, Research Technician Josh Barbour, Research Assistant Lynne Jacobs and Antana Acharya, a visiting student scientist from Nepal, gather field data by hand. Armed with rules and clipboards, the trio takes hand measurements of individual switchgrass plants, looking at the height of the plant, the number of nodes on each stem and the thickness of each stem. The variety trial hopes to identify switchgrass lines that have increased biomass for breeding new lines as a spring grazing option or a potential bioenergy crop. In total Barbour, Jacobs and Acharya will measure 1,440 plants. "Not all science is conducted in a laboratory," Jacobs says. "Sometimes science requires you to get some dirt under your nails."

9:55 a.m. - Standing in another field, about 30 miles away is Steve Upson, who is examining John Marshall's struggling pecan grove tree-by-tree. Marshall recently purchased the property near Burneyville, Okla. and knew he needed some outside counsel to rejuvenate the lackluster production of the unattended grove. Each week, the Noble Research Institute's agricultural consultants conduct dozens of farm visits, where they apply their expertise to troubleshoot problems in all the core agricultural disciplines: economics, horticulture, livestock, pasture and range, soils and crops, and wildlife and fisheries. On this day, Upson begins outlining a management plan that will resolve Marshall's pecan problems. "Working with the producers is the most rewarding part of my job," Upson says. "Helping them overcome their current problem and get to a state of success, well, that's what it's all about."

10:22 a.m. - Back on the Noble Research Institute's main campus, tucked away in the Cellular Imaging Facility, Postdoctoral Fellow Julia Dyachok, Ph.D., sits in a dimly lit room, the incandescent computer screen her only light. Attached to a confocal microscope, Dyachok's computer glows green with what looks like an armor-plated alien appendage. It's actually the cytoskeleton of a root hair, magnified 1,000 times so that Dyachok can study cell division. "Cell division regulates basic life functions," Dyachok says. "By understanding it, we can discover how plants grow and possibly grow bigger plants for use in agriculture."

11:17 a.m. - Breeding new varieties of forages inevitably requires two elements - land to plant the new forage on and animals (usually a few cows or sheep) to taste-test it. On the south portion of the Noble Research Institute's 800-acre Ardmore campus rests a series of test paddocks. In Paddock No. 21, Dusty Pittman, research associate, maneuvers a John Deere tractor hitched with a fertilizer spreader through narrow fencing, lays down a coat of granules and whips into the next lot to repeat the process. Soon these paddocks will be home to a lamb grazing trial for a new variety of fescue. "Our focus is building better forages for grazing systems," Pittman says. "But you have to make sure what you produce is better than what is currently being used."

12:01 p.m. - Lunch time. Most Noble employees stream into the cafeteria. It's grilled pork chop day. The line and raucous conversation grow in equal measures. But not all employees eat first; a handful slip back to the Wellness Center to squeeze in a quick workout. For agricultural consultants Eddie Funderburg and Job Springer, a weekly ritual is unfolding. With their pressed shirts thrown onto a side table, the pair square off in ping-pong combat. The sharp plink-pop, plink-pop of their volleying continues until an artful shot careens off the corner of the table for the point. When asked if this counted as a workout, Springer scoffs and says, "I'm sweating, so it has to count."

1:27 p.m. - For most, the post-lunch hour brings a lull, but for Rodney Pierce and Kye Henington, Inventory and Equipment supervisor and technician, respectively, projects are starting to line up. The pair are part of a maintenance team that repairs and maintains more than 320 pieces of equipment, including today's overhaul of hydraulics on a tractor. They even help out building infrastructure. Pierce welds metal stairs for the building's south entryway. "Anything that needs to be fixed, we can fix," Henington says. "That's what we do."

2:13 p.m. - Even at a shout, one can barely sustain a conversation in the sample preparation rooms of the Soils/Forage Receiving Building. Steve and Tyler Vladyka, father and son, work in side-by-side rooms, grinding forage samples in what looks like industrial grade Cuisinarts. Through the course of the year, the Ag Services and Resources group will process more than 20,000 samples, sending some away for testing, conducting in-house tests on everything from crude protein analysis to total digestive nutrients. The results will help agricultural producers pinpoint how much supplement they should add to their nutrition program. "One of the first services the Noble Research Institute offered was testing soil samples," says Tabby Campbell, team supervisor. "Today, we continue that great tradition by testing soils and forages for our producers. And we do it on a much, much larger scale."

2:34 p.m. - Different building. Different room. Same volume issue. Resting on the south end of campus is the Utility Services Center, a brick structure with no windows and steel doors that look like they belong on a modern day castle. Rich Brown, USC supervisor, and Phil Goodman, USC technician, wind their way through the building's cavernous expanse, the deafening hum of machinery overwhelming any attempt at conversation. The USC serves as a backup power station for the Noble Research Institute, keeping the research in the laboratories and greenhouse secure in case of local power failures. To produce the required output, the USC houses one natural-gas-powered and three diesel generators, as well as two tanks, each containing 15,000 gallons of diesel. Servicing the massive machinery requires diligent attention. On this day, Brown and Gooden check the oil level of the generators. "USC is at the heart of our infrastructure," Brown says. "We pump energy and water to the rest of campus and help keep the research alive."

2:59 p.m. - Beyond the need for distributing backup power, all the water that flows onto the Noble Research Institute campus comes through USC and is then disseminated to the rest of campus through underground tunnels. Flowing out of USC, the web of smooth, well-light cement tunnels connects most buildings on campus, totaling about 1,200 feet of subterranean walking paths. If USC is the heart, then the tunnels are the arteries, moving water and people between buildings. A quarter-mile walk underground eventually leads from USC to the Noble Research Institute greenhouse.

3:06 p.m. - The earthy smell of potting soil lets a visitor know they're getting close to the greenhouse, where Bonnie Farris, greenhouse research technician, peers over a field of emerald green fescue. Farris snaps up one of the cone-shaped containers and begins to artfully sheer off the leafs before moving to the next. At about 50,000 square feet, the Noble Research Institute greenhouse is one of the largest, single research greenhouses in North America. A 10,000-foot portion is also one of the most technologically advanced greenhouse spaces with automated watering systems, industrial air conditioning and growth lights. Despite all the technology, maintaining a greenhouse in southern Oklahoma is still a labor-rich endeavor - between the "biblical plague" of insects (the aforementioned crickets) to the constant need to trim plants. "We mow an acre of lawn every 10 days," says David McSweeney, greenhouse manager. "But we do it with scissors."

3:36 p.m. - So much of plant science research - whether in the greenhouse, the laboratory or the field - depends on thousands of interconnected tasks that must be meticulously performed through weeks, months and years. Research Associates Xirong Xiao and Tim Hernandez sit several hundred feet apart at opposite ends of interconnected laboratory space, both half enclosed in horizontal flow hoods that provide sterile work areas. The each repeatedly prepare samples as part of the organization's plant transformation process. Simply put, "transformation" is the process of moving genes from one plant species to another. Transformation allows for precision plant breeding that drastically reduces breeding time. "Advanced plant breeding techniques like transformation will be key to meeting the demands of agriculture in the coming generations," Hernandez says.

4:15 p.m. - Not many people have actually weighed 50 mg of Canada wildrye, but Senior Research Associate Nikki Charlton, Ph.D., carefully uses a Tinker Bell-sized spoon to scoop up dried particles and place them in small tubes. Charlton is part of Principal Investigator Carolyn Young's research laboratory that examines fungal endophytes - microscopic fungi that form symbiotic relationships within plants. Charlton is preparing the samples for analysis as part of a diversity study aimed at finding novel endophytes that impart all the positive qualities without the negative side effects. "Researchers in New Zealand have found one and we've used it," Charlton says. "But finding one native to the United States would greatly benefit plant research."

5:25 p.m. - Most employees begin their nightly migration home. The bustle of the busy day slows, but work is ongoing. Researchers refill their stained coffee mugs, preparing to dig in for a late evening. The Wellness Center springs to life with dozens of employees, working out the knots of the day. And the Environmental Services crew - eight men and women - scour and polish the Noble Research Institute's 500,000 square feet of research and administration space. "During the last two years, I've hosted thousands of people on our campus and invariably someone comments on how clean our campus looks or how well the lawns are manicured," says Mary Means, events coordinator. "That's a tribute to the Environmental Services and Landscape teams."

7:25 p.m. - Sunset. The crickets return and the day's second movement begins with another clattering chorus.

10:05 p.m. - Postdoctoral Fellow Kyohei Shibasaki, Ph.D., stands at his laboratory bench, concentrating on the notebooks and instruments before him. Shibasaki is alone with his thoughts, focused not just on his project with Medicago (a model plant for legume study), but on his career. Much like a medical student does a residency, postdoctoral fellows work three to four years at an institution to gain experience and conduct research that will serve as the foundation of his or her career. The Noble Research Institute has been nationally recognized for being one of the best places to launch young scientists' careers. Shibasaki will finalize his postdoc position in April 2013 and return to Japan. Even with six months to go, he is feeling the pressure. "I have a short window to complete my project, so I spend many nights up here," he says. "But I have enjoyed my time here. I know it will pay off for my future."

10:22 p.m. - A lone lamp shines in Bill Buckner's office. After being selected as the Noble Research Institute's new president and CEO in January 2012, Buckner has burned barrels of midnight oil during his first 10 months in office. He welcomes his unexpected visitor with a bright smile and pushes his glasses on top of his head. As he rubs the bridge of his nose, Buckner leans heavily back in his chair and sets his pen on his notebook to listen to a brief recap of the day's activities. After hearing the tale of "just another day," Buckner straightens, pulls his glasses back down, and says, "Wait until you see what we do tomorrow."