Planting seeds and fighting pests: Scientist and SUNY Broome alum travels the world

SUNY Broome alumnus and agricultural scientist Alan Schroeder in a bean field in the African nation of Burundi

SUNY Broome alumnus and agricultural scientist Alan Schroeder in a bean field in the African nation of Burundi

Albania, Zambia, Kyrgyzstan, Nicaragua and, just last week, Rwanda: Alan Schroeder has lost count of the countries he has visited as an agricultural scientist and consultant. Out of the 195 countries in the world today, he has probably been to most of them – more than 100, at the very least.

The roots of his globetrotting career, however, first sprouted in his father’s incredible garden in Sidney, New York. Schroeder grew up in the rural community, where his dad was an electrical engineer and his mother a nurse at the local hospital. Outside of his career, Schroeder’s father had a passion for the rural life, evidenced in the family’s backyard.

“My dad – he grew everything possible, every fruit, every vegetable you could grow,” Schroeder remembered, during a recent visit to SUNY Broome. “We also had ducks and chickens, but we wouldn’t eat them because they were like pets.”

One thing that didn’t grow in his family garden: the travel bug, Schroeder admitted. That seed was planted later, after multiple degrees and experiences that led him around the world.

“I grew up a home boy around Sidney, NY, and my dad was a homeboy,” he said with a smile.

Planting the seed

A B-plus student in high school, Schroeder initially lacked direction when it came to his future path. He headed to SUNY Broome – then called BCC – where he majored in Liberal Arts and Sciences while staying with his grandparents nearby on Upper Front Street.

While there, he discovered a love for science, sparked by such professors as Anthony LoTempio in organic chemistry and Rick Firenze in biology.

“I had great teachers who gave me direction. It was inexpensive, which was great,” he said.

Schroeder initially considered pre-med and an eventual career as a physician, but took that option off the table after an applied learning experience at a hospital. Seeing organs and the structures of the body inside the confines of a textbook could be intriguing – in person was another matter. A doctor asked him, while he ate lunch, whether he wanted to see an autopsy. He declined.

While successful at SUNY Broome, the future scientist experienced a false start at his transfer school, Colorado State, where he studied microbiology – and flunked out. He headed home and worked for a year before deciding to try his hand at higher education again.

“A lot of kids, when that happens, they give up,” he reflected. “I was embarrassed. That gave me motivation.”

He ended up at the University of Delaware, where in 1982 he earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture with a double-major in entomology and plant pathology, and a (LoTempio-inspired) minor in chemistry, followed by a master’s in entomology two years later.

The master’s degree came by way of a research assistantship, itself the result of fortuitous circumstances. Schroeder wasn’t the initial choice for the position, but lucked out when the previous candidate chose not to accept. He also took his advisor’s advice to overcome his shyness and give as many professional talks as he could – a good move for his future career.

Another set of fortuitous circumstances led him to the University of Illinois – Champaign-Urbana, where he earned his Ph.D. in entomology. While there, however, he determined that he didn’t want to spend his career as a professor, managing students and applying for the ever-dwindling pool of research funding. After earning his degree in 1990, he started applying to international centers of agricultural research – and landed a post-doc position at the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat in Mexico.

From there, he headed to Washington, D.C., as a science, diplomacy and policy fellow for USAID’s Africa Bureau – spending seven months in Burkina Faso and visiting 15 different African countries. More international positions followed with USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he coordinated research into crops and the pests that plague them.

In 2001, his future wife Sonia, a marine biologist, offered him an unexpected opportunity: quit his job and come to New Mexico with her, where she landed a job at a university. Once he relocated, he was unable to find a job in his field and so set himself up as a consultant, dubbing his business E-NoeTec, for Environmental Knowledge, Education & Technologies.

He hated it at the time – the hustle for jobs, living from contract to contract.

His future wife alerted him to another opportunity: A chance to earn his MBA from the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Business Management. He jumped at the chance, at one point commuting back and forth to New Mexico for school when the couple relocated to Washington, D.C. The MBA smoothed the way for his consulting business, and jobs starting coming to him from around the world. Consulting was no longer a grind, but an incredible opportunity.

Around the world and back again

These days, you can find Alan Schroeder all over the world – at a café in Brussels, where his wife has a science advisor position at the US Embassy to the European Union. Perhaps in Rwanda, researching ways to fight the fall armyworm infestation, or in South America, looking at ways to battle mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus, or in Azerbaiijan, helping farmers fight the moths that afflict their pomegranate trees.

As a consultant, he can and does work anywhere – including the SUNY Broome Library. He has a year-round parking pass at the college, which he visits during his frequent trips to the Southern Tier.

He’s intrigued by the college’s future plans for a controlled environment agriculture (CEA) facility on campus, featuring a “smart” high-tech greenhouse, hydroponics and organic food production.

“You know who does the best greenhouses on earth? Belgians and the Dutch and the Israelis,” he said.

And while his job may involve outwitting actual insects, Schroeder is proud to be a Hornet – and glad he got his start at SUNY Broome.

“It’s a good transition and it’s inexpensive,” he said of his college experience. “It kills me now to see kids coming out with tons of debt.”