Kayla Altendorf

Taken From: College of Saint Benedict: Winter 2015 Issue

With corn and soybeans as the dominant crops on Minnesota’s farmland, many fields lay barren during the winter. This can lead to soil erosion and water pollution. Kayla Altendorf ’12, a graduate student in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota, wants to help. “I’m initiating a multifaceted breeding program for field pennycress,” she says of her project, which is part of the Forever Green Initiative. Pennycress can be used as a cover crop (grown in the off season to protect the soil and reduce nutrient loss)  and a biofuel feedstock.

Major at CSB:

Environmental studies, minor in Hispanic studies

First-year residence hall:


Favorite course/professor at CSB:

Environmental science with Gordon Brown. It’s where I was initially exposed to my current area of research.

Favorite Bennie memory:

Participating and eventually facilitating two sessions of Collegebound, the pre-orientation wilderness trip for first-years led by the Peer Resource Program

Little-known talent:

Knot tying. I did a semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School when I was a sophomore at Saint Ben’s, and I learned quite a bit about securing shelters, boats, clotheslines, etc.

Latest great adventure:

I want to say graduate school in general, because re-inventing myself academically has been quite the adventure so far. If I had to be more specific I would say traveling to Long Beach, Calif. For the Agronomy Society of America Annual Meetings in November to present a poster of my research.

My hero:

My mother. She has an impressive amount of dedication and compassion, which is something I can only hope to emulate as a professional and a mother someday.

Describe the journey of your interest in the environment – where did this begin and how did it evolve?

I knew as a senior in high school that I wanted to study the environment and so I chose Saint Ben’s for the environmental studies major. I always had an interest in it and I was able to really thrive at Saint Ben’s where I was given an opportunity to study it from many different angles including ethics, theology, geography and ecology.

What is one piece of advice you would give to current students?

Take advantage of the endless opportunities (educational, work-related or travel) you have at a liberal arts college for two reasons: 1) You never know where you’ll end up and it’s best to experience and gain skills in a variety of areas while you can. 2) A diverse educational and professional background will indeed set you apart in the future.

What is one thing you would like everyone to know about the environment/agriculture?

One thing that has really amazed me so far in my career is just how much science, how many people and the sheer number of years it takes to improve and release new crop varieties. I used to take this for granted when I purchased produce (or seeds, for that matter). It’s important to remember that produce you buy from the store, farmers market, roadside stand, etc., has been bred or improved in some way (unless you’re foraging). I would argue that our ability to improve and domesticate new species is a necessary component for diversifying and improving the sustainability of agriculture.