Augustana Senior Earns National FFA Award

Augustana University senior Liz Renner has received a national award by the FFA.

Augustana senior Liz Renner, a Spanish and biology double major with an emphasis in ecology and environmental science, was named the 2016 American Star in Agriscience last week at the 89th National Future Farmers of America (FFA) Convention and Expo in Indianapolis, Indiana. Renner is one of only four students nationwide to receive an American Star award, the FFA's most prestigious honor in recognition of students who demonstrate outstanding agricultural skills and competencies.

American Star award recipients are honored for their achievements in a supervised agricultural experience, a required activity in FFA that allows students to learn by doing through owning or operating an agricultural business, working or serving in an internship at an agriculture-based business or conducting an agriculture-based scientific experiment and reporting results. Other requirements to achieve the award include demonstrating top management skills; completing key agricultural education, scholastic and leadership requirements; and earning an American FFA Degree, the organization’s highest level of student accomplishment. 

Sixteen American Star award finalists from throughout the U.S. are nominated for a panel of judges to interview during the national convention and expo. Four are named winners and receive cash awards totaling $4,000. The National FFA Organization provides leadership, personal growth and career success training through agricultural education to 649,355 student members who belong to one of 7,859 local FFA chapters throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

We caught up with Renner, a native of Crooks, South Dakota, who is a member of the West Central FFA Chapter, to learn more about her passion for the outdoors, her FFA experiences, and her research endeavors. 

Q. You have said you've always had an interest nature. When did you first identify that and how has it developed into a passion of yours?

A. I've had a passion for the natural world for as long as I can remember. My grandpa, Gary, taught me how to fish at our family's cabin on Brant Lake when I was just a toddler. I learned how to garden from my mother, and my father gave me my first anatomy lessons when I watched him field dress wild game. I was fortunate to grow up on a rural acreage where I had room to explore. I loved climbing trees and learning how to identify the species of trees, grasses, fishes, and birds I encountered. As I got older, I developed a love of canoeing and hiking. As an avid outdoorswoman, I feel called to study the ecosystems I love, educate others about the organisms that inhabit them, and advocate for their conservation.

Q. How long have you been a member of the West Central FFA Chapter? In what ways have you been involved and how has the membership influenced your life?

A. I was a member of the West Central FFA Chapter all four years of high school and, now that I'm a college student, they still claim me as an alumna and collegiate member. As a freshman in high school, I started out by competing in the Land Judging and Natural Resources Career Development Events (CDEs) and I performed a series of experiments for a project studying the effects of common herbicides on the mortality rates of the common water flea (Daphnia magna) for the National FFA Agriscience Fair. After that, I got involved in team events such as Agricultural Issues, which taught me how to analyze complex issues from multiple viewpoints and evaluate arguments. Out of all the skills I garnered from my participation in FFA events, the most valuable of them is my public speaking ability. I competed individually in both extemporaneous and prepared public speaking events at the state and national level, and I also was a member of a team that won a gold medal at nationals for the Agricultural Communications CDE. My FFA advisor, Linda Petersen, taught me how to speak with confidence and poise when addressing large crowds. Looking back, I think that my experiences with the National FFA Organization prepared me to be a leader on Augustana's campus and within the community. They influenced me to enroll at Augustana and turn my passion into my career.

Q. You plan to pursue a Ph.D. in aquatic ecology. How and when did you develop an interest in aquatic ecology specifically? 

A. When I was 14, I had the opportunity to attend the South Dakota Wildlife Federation's Conservation Camp in Custer State Park. It was there that I first learned about lake surveys and stream sampling. I helped biologists with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks sample the fish community on an electrofishing vessel and collect aquatic insect samples, and I was fascinated by the whole process.

Then during my sophomore year at Augie, I had the opportunity to take Dr. Craig Spencer's "Aquatic Ecology" class and gained hands-on experience collecting water and macroinvertebrate samples for class research projects. I was hooked.

Last fall, I spent the semester in Homer, Alaska, where I had an internship in a stream ecology laboratory and took classes on ichthyology and fisheries management. All of these experiences culminated in the research I did this summer at Kansas State University on how impoundments affect fish and macroinvertebrate communities through the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. As a result of all of these amazing hands-on learning opportunities, I now hope to pursue graduate study within the field of aquatic ecology and one day do research and monitoring of water quality and populations of endangered fishes for a federal agency or a nonprofit. 

Q. How does receiving this honor make you feel? 

A. I feel so humbled and blessed to have been recognized for this honor. When I attended the National FFA Convention back in high school, I remember thinking that I would one day apply for the Star in Agriscience award, but never in my wildest dreams did I believe that I actually had a shot at advancing beyond the local level. Out of more than 600,000 FFA members across the country, I was one of four to be named a national finalist, and I'm still pinching myself. I think it speaks primarily to the amazing mentors and professors I have been fortunate enough to have in my life, especially my FFA advisor and my academic advisor Dr. Amy Lewis.

I'm grateful that my Augustana education has provided me with opportunities to conduct research and complete internships that made me a competitive candidate, but more importantly, it taught me how to think critically and utilize my skills as a young ecologist and writer to effect change. 

I appreciate the support I've received from my family and friends throughout this journey over the past eight years, especially from those who volunteered to assist me with field work or those who simply listened as I would bounce ideas off of them. Finally, I was excited to don my blue corduroy jacket one last time as an FFA member. What a marvelous adventure it has been.

Learn more about Renner's FFA experiences

Augustana University senior Liz Renner has earned a national award from the FFA.