Shelby Orton in a sugar beets field.

From the Fields to Weaver Labs: An Unforgettable Undergraduate Experience

By Laura Riddle

Shelby Orton was drawn to agriculture at an early age. From childhood experiences going on veterinary calls with her father to a summer camp tour of NC State, she always wanted to learn more. “I always liked to tinker with things,” she says. “I turned off the lights in the bank one time because I just love buttons.” 

When it came time to apply for college, she knew North Carolina State University was where she wanted to be. 

Pathway to NC State

Orton’s interest in STEM emerged somewhere between middle and high school. By junior year, she had enrolled in the North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM) online program. Through NCSSM, she took a summer accelerator course called Food Science: Farm to Fork which would be the beginning of her pathway to NC State University.  

Shelby Orton in a field. “I didn’t really discover my appreciation for [agriculture] until the food science program,” she explains. “We did a tour of NC State’s ice cream lab in Schaub Hall, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. We did some cooking and volunteered at a community garden. That experience opened my eyes to the agricultural side of things.”

She briefly considered veterinary medicine before learning about the bachelor’s in biological and agricultural engineering technology (BAET) at NC State University. The degree combined all of her interests including environmental science, agriculture and hands-on, outdoor activities.  

“When I came to orientation, they separated everybody off by major. I walked in, and I was the only girl. I was terrified…for like the first five minutes,” she says. “About a month later, we started at NC State, and I quickly found common ground and made friends within the group of us that were in BAET.”  

Navigating Weaver Labs

Once she started, she was immediately drawn to the hands-on nature of the program. She enjoyed being outdoors, working with plants and soil, and learning about sustainable agriculture practices. The coursework was challenging but rewarding, and she appreciated the small class sizes that allowed for more individual attention from her professors. 

 The pandemic ended Orton’s first-year experience. Students would not return to in-person learning until the spring of the following year.  For Orton, that was the Shop Processes and Management course with BAE alumnus and Lecturer Tommy Stephenson

Shelby Orton and Tommy Stephenson train on the drill press.
Shelby Orton and Tommy Stephenson train on the drill press.

“I had Tommy’s shop class and it was my only in-person class that semester. I looked forward to it every week,” she recalls. “It was so fun to be hands-on and learn so many new skills like bending, welding, and using new equipment like band saws and drill presses.”

The course teaches students metal fabrication skills such as cutting, forming and welding processes through the completion of a semester-long project. Skills developed in this course prepare students on how to fabricate a project using technical drawing and how to safely work and navigate a machine shop.

“Right away, it was obvious that Shelby was excited to be in the shop working with her hands,” says Stephenson. “Throughout the semester she showed outstanding academic performance in both the lecture and lab portions of the course. More importantly, along with her gifted academic abilities, she exhibited a strong work ethic and outgoing personality that was respected and embraced by her peers, which is what I believe paved the way to leadership roles within the BAE program.” 

The BAET program introduced Orton to another side of agriculture, and the focus on interdisciplinary studies gave her a better perspective on global challenges and solutions. 

She loved other BAE courses, especially geomatics, electrification, and water management, as they covered many topics, allowing her to broaden her knowledge and apply what she was learning in the classroom. And precision agriculture was a particular field of interest because she had been gradually learning about it through her networks. 

Stephenson, Suggs Distinguished Professor and Extension Specialist Gary Roberson and Assistant Professor Lucie Guertault all made a significant contribution to Shelby’s undergraduate experience. “I’ve had thorough learning in all of the subjects they teach, while at the same time being encouraged to think about professional or other academic opportunities,” she says.

Guertault was also Orton’s undergraduate academic advisor. “I first met Shelby when she was a sophomore for a virtual academic advising meeting during the pandemic. I was really impressed by her academic performance and organization. She had already prepared her entire course plan for her degree,” Guertault says. “Shelby is very curious and has a strong ability to connect the material that she learns in the classroom to her real-life experiences. After my water management course, she did an internship in Idaho where she enjoyed seeing the irrigation systems that we had discussed in class. Academically gifted students like Shelby often have opportunities in their careers to assume leadership roles, and it is important for them to start developing the skills necessary for these roles in college.”

Outside Weaver Labs

ASABE NC State chapter officers (Left to right, first row) Agri-Life Representative Michael Ankner, Treasurer Rosie Maloney, Argi-Life Representative Paige Seibert, E-Council Representative and Outreach Chair Morgan Ayscue, (second row) Vice-President Erin Cartner, President Shelby Orton, Secretary Lindsay Dodson

Outside of her academic pursuits, Orton was heavily involved in extracurricular activities. 

She was a member of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) throughout her undergraduate studies and served as chapter president this past year. “ASABE brought me into the department, even before I had classes in Weaver,” she says. “I loved being involved. As ASABE President, I gained leadership skills that will last a lifetime. Working alongside other officers to provide opportunities to other students in the department was exciting and fulfilling. We spent the year collaborating with BAE and BAET students, industry representatives, the larger campus community, and other universities. My network and awareness of opportunities grew tremendously through ASABE.”

In addition to ASABE, Orton was also a member of Agriculture Future of America (AFA), a national organization that hosts experiences for young leaders studying agriculture, food and natural resources. As a freshman, she attended the annual conference as a delegate. And in 2021, she became an ambassador with 30 other students from other institutions across the country. Her role as an ambassador was to promote experiences for visiting students on NC State’s campus by bridging networks with other student organizations and faculty.

Shelby Orton speaks at the 2022 AFA Leadership Conference
Shelby Orton speaks at the 2022 AFA Leadership Conference.

For the last two years, she has served as a peer career coach for CALS Career Services where she helped organize professional development opportunities for other students. She was also a Pack Chat representative for BAE, as well as a department ambassador, vice president for the Student Wolfpack Club and worked part-time as a sports programs supervisor for NC State Wellness and Recreation

Along with her extracurricular activities, Orton made the Deans List all four years of undergraduate studies and was the recipient of the Elijah J. Tyson Scholarship from 2020 – 2022. Her scholastic performance and leadership position were recognized with an invitation to speak as a panelist at the 2022 Sustainable Agriculture Summit in Phoenix, Arizona. She was awarded the 2021 NC State Wellness and Recreation Sports Programs Supervisor Rookie of the Year, and this year she received the BAET and CALS Outstanding Senior awards. 

Looking back on her journey, Orton is grateful for the opportunities and experiences that NC State had provided her. The time helped her grow both personally and professionally and has set her on a path toward a fulfilling and impactful career. After graduation, she will begin working for BASF Agricultural Solutions in Research Triangle Park in their professional development program. 

“I feel like this department is unique in its kind-of hybridization between agriculture engineering concepts and the hands-on experiences. The things you can see and do in this department that’s got so many resources and faculty members who work in interdisciplinary fields is really valuable.”

Orton graduated with her peers on Saturday, May 6, 2023, and delivered the address to her fellow graduates in a special ceremony under Weaver Pavilion.