NORMAL, Ill. — Growing up just outside West Lafayette, Indiana, home of Purdue University, Rob Rhykerd had his sights set throughout high school on a career in engineering.
“Purdue was right there. It’s a good engineering school, and a lot of what our high school focused on — the math and science behind everything — was engineering,” said Rhykerd, Illinois State University agriculture professor.
Enrollment in Purdue’s engineering school required certain Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.
“I did really well in math, but I didn’t do enough in verbal to get in,” Rhykerd said.
His father, who was an agronomy professor at Purdue, suggested he enroll in agriculture “and then you can just see what you want to do from there.”
He followed his father’s advice and enrolled in Purdue as a freshman in agriculture.
“My goal at the time was to try to get a 3.5 GPA and then transfer to engineering after my freshman year. At the end of my freshman year, I had a 3.5 GPA, but I had absolutely fell in love with agriculture,” Rhykerd said.
“I think that was the good Lord shutting a door and saying, ‘You’re trying to go into the wrong place.’ It was obviously not a lot of fun to go through at the time, but after my freshman year, I couldn’t imagine being in a different place.”
“It’s a wonderful time to be in agriculture.”— Rob Rhykerd, agriculture professor, Illinois State University
His passion for soils kicked in during his sophomore year at Purdue when he took the introduction to soils class.
“I had a wonderful soil instructor. There were several soil instructors that taught at Purdue. My dad was a professor in the department, so I’d known these guys all of my life and they turned out to be just terrific mentors, great instructors,” he said.
“I’ve actually modeled a lot of my teaching after what they were trying to do — their enthusiasm, their passion and joy of teaching and working with students. I really liked what the professors were doing and maybe I thought that’s something I’d like to shoot for, and then realizing if you want to be a professor at a university that really means you’re heading for a Ph.D.”
With his father’s guidance, Rhykerd developed a plan of what he needed to do to reach that goal as a college professor.
His internships as a Purdue undergraduate included working at a wheat breeding company, spending a summer at Monsanto in St. Louis and working in an entomology department’s research lab.
“Through those experiences, I got familiar with the scientific method and analysis. I got to work with a lot of grad students. So, that really helped get me set up for grad school,” he said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Rhykerd stayed at Purdue to get his master’s degree.
“I worked in soil microbiology in the late 1980s. Atrazine was the concern of the day. It was showing up in ground water and so my master’s degree was looking at the fate of atrazine in the soil. I looked at decomposition kinetics a little bit and how it sorbs to soil particles and looked at different depth in the soil profile,” he said.
While finishing up his master’s degree program, Rhykerd also got married.
“My wife is a biochemist. I absolutely married up in life. She was one of the top ag students that graduated from Purdue,” he said.
After earning his master’s degree, he wanted to explore agriculture and doctoral degree prospects in another part of the country. He enrolled at Texas A&M and became involved in something completely different.
“When we got to A&M, my wife got into veterinary school there. So, when I graduated with my Ph.D., she still had two years left in her vet program,” he said
Rhykerd began his Ph.D. work on a project cleaning up crude oil spills on land while still enrolled in the crops and soil science department.
“My Ph.D. was looking at anything we could do when there’s an oil spill on the soil and how we can manage the soil to try to speed up microbial decomposition of that crude oil,” he said.
Upon completing his doctorate, Rhykerd found post-doctorate work on research projects.
“I still got a little bit of the teaching because I was still working with undergrad students on projects. There was a funded project I ended up working on that was across three departments on campus — horticulture, ag engineering and civil engineering,” he said.
“I had moved out of the crop and soil science department and brought the soil expertise. The remediation research project involved the utilization of plants to clean-up the soil.”
The research project on the A&M university farm included remediation on soil that was contaminated with TNT and other contaminants.
“It was a neat project, but my passion really was teaching, and so as my wife graduated, a teaching job opened up at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, about an hour and a half from the Dallas-Forth Worth area,” Rhykerd said.
“It was a small town. The university at the time had an enrollment of about 6,500 students, and Stephenville had maybe 16,000 people. We moved there and I absolutely loved it. It was 100% teaching, but they did have a grad program, so I had a grad student I was working with. I was coaching the soils team. I was the only soils person in the department and really enjoyed that.”
A unexpected change was on the horizon after he’d been at Tarleton for one and a half years.
His sister’s husband had taken a job at Illinois State University, and while the Rhykerds were visiting relatives back in the Midwest over Christmas break, his wife and sister “started giving me a hard time that I should come back here and get a job in the ISU ag department,” Rhykerd said.
“I’m so embarrassed to admit this, but my first comment was ‘Illinois State is not the land-grant. They won’t even have an ag program.’ That’s how little I knew about the program. This is the future department chair telling you this is why it’s so embarrassing.
“My sisters said there is an ag department and it’s a lot like Tarleton and they probably have one soils position and what are the odds that that’s going to open up.”
After returning to Texas, Rhykerd was looking through an agronomy news publication for a job for a grad student and there it was — an open soils post at ISU.
“It’s weird how things work out,” he said.
Then-department chair Randy Winter hired Rhykerd and he started at ISU in 2001.
“It’s been a terrific move. This is a wonderful department. My wife is from Indianapolis and I’m from West Lafayette, so being close to home was nice,” he said.
“My mom is an alumnus of ISU. She grew up in southern Illinois. They moved around quite a bit and they settled in the Jacksonville area. My dad is from near Galesburg, so a lot of family roots right here in Illinois.”
Rhykerd’s favorite part of teaching is working with students and also watching them begin to realize their potential, talents and skills.
He shared a story about his introduction to the agriculture industry course. Professional development is included in that course’s curriculum, and part of that is writing cover letters and résumés and attending ISU’s career fair.
“What’s been neat is the students will go to the career fair and then the next thing you know, they have an interview. They talked to a company and now they’re running back saying they talked with whoever it might be. They’ll come back two weeks later and say they got an internship offer or a job offer,” he said. “Hearing those students’ successes and watching their careers unfold is just incredible.
“One that stands out — and there’s been a lot of examples like this — I was at the Farm Progress Show several years ago and a father and son walked up and the son had been a student in my class. The father was just beaming.
“The students said, ‘I just wanted to thank you. I went to that career fair that you made us do in class and I got an internship this past summer and during my last week they offered me a full-time job. All I have to do is finish my senior year.’
“Those kinds of examples keep you fired up and it’s neat to hear those successes. The student did all the work. They put the résumé together. They did the interview. They did everything, but it’s neat to think we had a part in pushing them in that direction or the encouragement or something to get them to move into that direction.”
Rhykerd was asked what he sees for himself career-wise in the next 10 years. Moving to climate-smart and regenerative ag practices to improve the soil is exciting for this soil scientist.
“Whether it’s cover crops and trying to trap carbon and get that into the soil or whatever it might be, or just trying to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the soil, nutrient management is really important. All of these things are going to improve the soil and so it’s really easy to get behind this,” he said.
“The challenge is for us to try to figure out how we can make this work so it economically makes sense to the farmer. There has to be a rate of return on that. That’s the challenge, and so collecting data to help demonstrate those things, looking at some of these production systems.”
There has been multiple years of research at the ISU Farm with pennycress utilized as both an over-winter cover crop and a second cash crop.
The by-product from the harvested crop can be used for a wide range of purposes, including biofuel and livestock feed.
“It’s a second source of income, so maybe you can take a little bit of a hit on your corn and soybeans. No one likes to hear that, but if you look at the big picture for the year, you could still be coming out ahead, plus you’re trapping carbon, you’re building our soils back up, reducing nutrient runoff,” Rhykerd said.
“I think in the next 10 years I’d like to be able to look back and say we helped to contribute to figure out how we can do climate-smart farming or regenerative ag and get that implemented and see that spread. It’s hard to change and that’s where we need good numbers to support what we’re trying to do.
“We all know environmentally it’s the thing to do, but we can’t have someone implement something and lose the farm over it. We have to figure out ways that it’s going to make it work. It’s finding the system that works.”
The ever-enthusiastic Rhykerd thoroughly enjoys coming to work each day to teach, do research and collaborate with his colleagues in the agriculture and biology departments and from other universities.
“It’s a wonderful time to be in agriculture. It’s a great time to be an ag professor. I think there’s a lot of reason for us to be optimistic as we look to the future, and I think agriculture is going to be really seen as a hero in making a lot of these changes to help with things like climate change and reducing nutrient runoff,” he said.
“It’s a fun place to be and this is a neat university with a really good emphasis on the teaching and the research.”