Alumni profile: Laura Strugnell gives a voice to the next generation of agricultural research

In spring 2017, Laura Strugnell (B.S. ’17) tapped the mail icon on her phone and found an email sent to the Life Sciences Communication (LSC) undergraduate student listserv. Strugnell was searching for a job, and the email advertised a communications position in Texcoco, Mexico at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known as CIMMYT for its Spanish name Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo).

A Madison native, Strugnell hadn’t planned on getting a job outside the U.S. However, she had taken a variety of agriculture classes and worked in a horticulture lab while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, so she knew about CIMMYT’s global reputation. The more she thought about it, the more convinced she became that working at CIMMYT could be a prime opportunity to put her LSC education to work.

“It was something new. The idea of doing work each day to help subsistence farmers and others across the world really appealed to me,” said Strugnell. She applied and got an offer. Then, after graduating from LSC, she packed up her belongings and moved to Mexico City to begin working for CIMMYT as a junior communications consultant.

Laura Strugnell stands next to a Statue of Nobel Peace Prize-winning agronomist Norman Borlaug at CIMMYT’s headquarters in Texcoco, Mexico

Strugnell started at UW-Madison as an environmental studies major, switching to molecular biology shortly thereafter. She learned about LSC during her freshman year when she took LSC 100: Science and Storytelling to fulfill a general education requirement.  From there, Strugnell’s interest in LSC grew until, during her junior year, she changed her major to LSC.

She thought she could apply her LSC education to help people communicate more effectively about science. “My mom is a microbiologist and my dad is a biochemist,” said Strugnell. “So, I know a lot of scientists, and I know that many of them are not good at talking about what they’re working on.”

At CIMMYT, Strugnell helps scientists share what their work. She focuses on corporate branding and writes news stories about scientists’ research for CIMMYT’s website. In this role, Strugnell interviews scientists about their work and its implications, and then she distills it. The challenge, said Strugnell, is explaining their research in a way that is accurate, concise, and accessible.

“When I talk with scientists at CIMMYT they use a lot of jargon. I have to use what I have learned in LSC to think about news values, find some fun angles, and write a story that’s relevant to the audience,” said Strugnell.

One class that stands out to Strugnell is the capstone course LSC 515: Public Information Campaigns. All LSC students take a capstone course at the end of their major and work on a project with a real client to apply skills and theoretical knowledge they acquired during their years at LSC. That year, Strugnell and her classmates developed a leaf-disposal campaign and presented it to all of its stakeholders from the City of Monona.

“It was a valuable experience to work with people in the community. It prepared me for all of the work I do now with different stakeholders across CIMMYT,” said Strugnell.

She has also applied what she has learned in LSC—knowledge of audience segmentation, framing, engagement techniques—to revamp the CIMMYT News newsletter, which gets distributed to nearly 4,000 of CIMMYT’s non-scientist partners and donors worldwide. In her role as the newsletter’s coordinator, Strugnell has evaluated analytics and conducted AB-tests to optimize the newsletter’s reach.

“It’s amazing to see things translate from school to work,” says Strugnell. “You hear about people who go to school for 10 years, get a Ph.D. and end up getting a job that isn’t related to what they went to school for. I love that what I do now is exactly what I went to school for.”