Alumni Carve Careers in Field, Lab, Fashion, Food

Tobie Blanchard  |  6/1/2017 5:20:52 PM

From courtrooms to classrooms, from Capitol Hill to a castle, LSU College of Agriculture alumni are making marks in many ways. Varied degree programs in the college allow students to find careers in the field, in the lab, in fashion or in food.

Nicole Ward Gauthier, an extension associate professor at the University of Kentucky, is at home in the field, the lab or working with growers and county agents across Kentucky. Gauthier received an undergraduate degree in horticulture science and a Ph.D. in plant pathology from the College of Agriculture. When she came to the college as an undergraduate, she owned a landscape business in Pointe Coupee Parish, but a required plant pathology class led her down a different path.

“My professor, Dr. Ray Schneider, really had a sparkle in his eye when it came to plant pathology. His excitement about diagnostics, epidemics and how climate or cultivars influence disease really made me curious about the field,” Gauthier said.

Gauthier admits she was wasn’t interested in the management and administrative side of her business and decided to pursue an advanced degree in plant pathology. Upon completion of her doctorate in 2011, Gauthier moved to the University of Kentucky. There she works with ornamentals, fruit trees, forest trees, Christmas trees and industrial hemp.

“I think my broad training in plant pathology exposed me to a lot of possibilities. My work in the field and the lab at LSU allowed me to transition easily from school to the extension work I do now,” Gauthier said.

Just south of Kentucky, in Sevier County, Tennessee, two College of Agriculture alumni started their own biotechnology company. Married couple Angelica Giraldo and Darin Hylan took their background in reproductive biology they received as graduate students and started DeSoto Biosciences. The company collects and sells cow and pig oocytes and embryos to researchers at universities and private companies throughout the United States.

Giraldo began working in reproductive physiology when she was 18 in her native Colombia, but she said the program at LSU gave her and her husband more than just knowledge.

“The program made us tough,” Giraldo said. Hylan agreed, adding that the challenges they faced as graduate students prepared them for programs in their career.

“We have to constantly adjust the business for what the animals give us,” Hylan said. “Because of what we went through at LSU, we can put out fires with a smile on our faces.”

Kyle McCann said the challenge he faced during graduate school was dealing with personal issues. While studying agriculture business in the late 1980s, McCann lost his father who worked in agriculture finance and influenced his career path.

“It was a hard time for me,” McCann said. He credited his professor, Harlon Traylor, for helping him through it. “Dr. Traylor put on special gloves to handle me.”

McCann, associate commodity director for Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, still works closely with the faculty in the college’s Department of Agriculture Economics and Agribusiness. “I call on them to give independent analysis,” he said. The department named him its alumnus of the year in 2016.

“I was very honored to be chosen. I went through a tough time there, and my professors were mentors and became friends,” he said.

McCann has been with Farm Bureau for 28 years – starting almost immediately after his graduation. In his role as associate commodity director, he works with growers, state and national elected official and policy advisors.

“My degree and training has helped me research the issues and present that information to our various groups,” he said.

While McCann’s job often takes him to Capitol Hill, alumna Caroline Coplen’s takes her to an iconic castle – Cinderella’s. Coplen is a costume buyer for Walt Disney World, where she helps source costumes for individuals working in operational roles for Disney’s domestic parks, resorts and cruises.

“These are considered uniforms, but they are not your typical polos and khakis. It’s much more complicated than that,” Coplen said. “I am dressing cast members who, for example, work in the Haunted Mansion, so they must look the part.”

While studying textiles, apparel and merchandising at LSU, Coplen did a six-month internship with Disney’s costume buying team, and she said she couldn’t wait to get back after graduation.

Coplen recently received the Disney Legacy Award, an honor bestowed on only 1 percent of Disney cast members. Coplen said recipients are recognized for inspiring others. Guests can distinguish award winners by their blue name tags.

“It is such an honor,” Coplen said. “I keep looking down to make sure my name tag hasn’t turned white again.”

Coplen said she feels very luck to work for Disney.

“We’re creating this immersive experience that you can’t do anywhere else. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of,” she said.

Kelly Becnel brings the same passion to the classroom that Coplen brings to costuming. Becnel is an agriculture science teacher at Walker High School and received her undergraduate degree in vocational education from LSU in 2006 and is working on a master’s degree in agricultural and extension education.

Becnel was an active FFA member while she was in high school. She aspired to become a veterinarian, but realized she could find more fulfillment with people than animals.

“I wanted to give back to FFA and to students and do the job the way my adviser did,” Becnel said.

Becnel teaches about plants, animals, agriculture mechanics and wildlife. As FFA members, her students also learn about professionalism, leadership, communication and life skills. Even when she is not teaching, Becnel’s classroom is often filled with students who are working on projects, seeking her advice or just finding a place where they can belong.

“Knowing that I am making difference is worth way more than my paycheck,” Becnel said.

Katherine Magoun is making a difference for students and faculty at Tulane University. Magoun, a 2006 alumnus who studied environmental management systems at LSU, is the environmental program manager at Tulane’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety. Magoun oversees the university’s compliance on air quality, hazardous waste management, spill prevention and many other environmental issues that are part of Tulane’s research.

“Most of what I do now, I had a lot of experience with in classroom,” Magoun said. Magoun worked for several environmental consulting firms in Georgia before returning home to Louisiana. She is also currently working on a master’s degree at Tulane.

“It is very rewarding to see the university address these compliance concerns,” she said.

Tobie Blanchard is the assistant director of LSU AgCenter Communications and communication coordinator for the College of Agriculture.
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Caroline Coplen, a costume buyer for Disney, received the Walt Disney Legacy Award, an honor bestowed on only one percent of Disney cast members.

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Kelly Becnel, at right, is an agriculture teacher at Walker High School. Here she is pictured with her Walker FFA club.

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Nicole Ward Gauthier

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Kyle McCann

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