A hard-working attitude was instilled in Hallie Thompson at an early age.
Growing up on her family’s beef farm in High Point, Mo., an unincorporated community of around 50 people, Thompson spent much of her early life with her grandfather, learning what it took to operate a farm.
That hard-working spirit has served her well at the University of Missouri, where she earned a biochemistry undergraduate degree in just three and a half years. She will finish her doctoral work in Plant, Insect and Microbial Sciences (Division of Plant Sciences) this summer. While Thompson has been working toward her Ph.D., she has also launched a campaign for U.S. Congress, in the Fourth District.
Being active is par for the course for Thompson.
“Being involved is something I really value,” she said. “You get to know your community and the people around you by staying active.”
Thompson attended kindergarten through eighth grade in High Point. Her family moved to St. Charles, Mo., when she was 14 years old and she graduated from Francis Howell High School. She began her collegiate career at MU in 2008.
“I decided that I missed central Missouri, so I came back to attend Mizzou,” Thompson said. “I also got a lot of support from the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. It showed me how much CAFNR supports its incoming students.
“I really love being part of CAFNR, and CAFNR’s reputation across the state is strong. People realize the good work that we do here and at the Research Centers. It’s really powerful to be part of MU.”
Biochemistry is a unique degree at MU, as it is part of both CAFNR and the School of Medicine. It was a perfect fit for Thompson, who was focused on going to medical school.
“As someone with an agriculture background, it was nice to be a part of that community and setting,” Thompson said. “What we were learning was framed in an agricultural sense. Even if we’re talking about metabolism, for example, we’re still thinking about the implications down the line in terms of agriculture and the state.”
During her final year of undergraduate work, Thompson found a passion for research. While her original goal was to go to medical school, Thompson decided to go a different route. She was much more interested in learning about plants.
“Growing up, you don’t realize that plant sciences is something you can do for a degree, even when you grow up on a farm,” Thompson said. “Coming from a small community, there aren’t plant scientists there who you can look up to who do research. I knew doctors, so that was who I talked to and looked up to.”
Thompson was interested in human health because of an interest in learning more about disease – how they develop, what causes them and how they spread. While getting her undergraduate degree, Thompson learned that plants have to fight disease as well.
“Once I started learning more about how we grow our food and make it healthier, I was excited,” Thompson said. “I was onboard right away, 100 percent.”
Thompson’s graduate work is an extension of her undergraduate research, which focuses on how corn roots enable plants to respond better to drought conditions. Thompson has used the rainout shelters, essentially mobile greenhouses on tracks, at the Bradford Research Center, in Columbia, to simulate drought conditions. She is co-advised by Robert Sharp and Felix Fritschi in the Division of Plant Sciences. She is also a member of the campus-wide Interdisciplinary Plant Group, of which Sharp is the director.
“It’s amazing to have these type of facilities so close to the university,” Thompson said. “Being able to come out here and do research, as well as bring items back to the lab, is amazing. I can dig things up and run them back into the lab quickly. It’s key that we have these rainout shelters. It’s a unique thing.”
The Missouri soils vary across the state, making research on those soils vital to gain an understanding of how crops operate. Fighting drought is incredibly important as well, as Missouri climate also varies.
“I went into corn research because I know it’s an important crop for Missouri, for the Midwest and for the world,” Thompson said. “Corn is also a model for a lot of other research. What we find in corn can be used in other crops, too.
“That’s what drives me as well – knowing that the research is going to help the farmer to have a more resilient crop, to make a better living and to feed an ever-growing population. It’s going to be a challenge. To be able to help tackle that challenge – it’s amazing.”
Thompson digs up the roots from the plants growing under the rainout shelters. She sections the regions of the roots where the majority of the growth takes place.
“I take those root systems and measure what is happening in terms of water status,” Thompson said. “Are the tissues hydrated or not?”
The rainout shelters have an automated system that senses if it’s raining. The shelters move over the crops as soon as they sense rain. There are three sections of the shelter that represent three fields. Thompson said that when she designs an experiment, the north and south sections are used. The center section is the parking zone for the shelters.
“Simulating drought is extremely important because a lot of our research is in the lab,” Thompson said. “Lab conditions don’t extend directly to field conditions. The work in the field allows us to ask more applied questions. The lab is important, too, as it helps us really understand what is going on with the roots.
“It’s important to go from the lab to the field. We can do things in the lab in a detailed manner that we can’t do in the field – they require equipment that we can’t bring out here. In the field, we’re able to do things that are more relevant for farmers.”
Thompson has taken her research to the public as well. She has talked with farmers during the Missouri State Fair and has engaged with community members during her congressional run.
“Root systems are something we don’t see,” Thompson said. “It’s hard to understand their importance. We need to study these systems, as they enable the plant to respond. For a farmer, it’s difficult to do. We need to do the groundwork.
“As I’m finishing my Ph.D., I really value how science can help us to address big problems across the world. I see myself fitting into that through the science-policy interface.”