Beyond City Lights: Catherine Lechnars’ Journey to Texas Tech

Exhausted and anxious Catherine Lechnar glances down at her phone. It is 5:54 p.m., and Cinco Ranch FFA has only six minutes to spare before the Texas State FFA award ceremony begins. Unfamiliar with the Texas Tech University campus, the high school students wander lost and looking for the livestock arena. Before the contest results are announced, the students rush in the door and find a seat.

Lechnar and her entomology team would go on to claim the second place spot at the state competition, however, this would not be her last memory at Texas Tech.

Lechnar, who is a daughter of a nurse and AT&T Inc. tester, didn’t have a tie to agriculture or Texas Tech, but she followed her own interests and chose the university so she could study in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. Lechnar is now conducting her own research based on entomology.

The start of her agricultural journey

Now a 19-year-old, Lechnar began her FFA journey as a freshman in high school. With the choice of band or agricultural education and a dream of raising a pig, Lechnar chose FFA. Little did she know the long-term impact the program would have on her life. Lechnar said for the next four years her FFA involvement was her main focus and took up all of her extracurricular time.

“FFA takes up a lot of time at my school, and I’m sure it does at others too, so that’s what I chose to focus on,” Lechnar said.

She competed in the chapter conducting, quiz, radio and entomology contests. Lechnar quickly realized her interest in entomology and found quick success in the career development event. Her team was just points away from a state title both her junior and senior years.

With the freedom to follow her own dreams, Lechnar decided to go to Texas Tech. She said she would not have even known about Texas Tech if it was not for the FFA State Entomology Contest held on campus in the spring. It was then she met Scott Longing, Ph.D., assistant professor of entomology in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

“It is important to provide opportunities like FFA programs and facilitate them to nurture and expose students that otherwise wouldn’t know much about agriculture,” Longing said.

Longing said hosting FFA contests is a great tool to allow faculty to meet talented prospective students who are interested in studying what they have learned so much about through FFA. Over the past few years, Longing has used that networking to give students like Lechnar an opportunity to get involved in entomology research. Without connections to FFA, Longing said he would not have met some of the greatest students he works with today.

Despite touring other schools, Lechnar said Texas Tech felt like home to her.

“When I came here I felt really welcomed,” Lechnar said, “I felt like the people really wanted to talk to me personally.”

Going above and beyond at Texas Tech

Since starting at Texas Tech during the fall 2017, Lechnar has started her own research project that will continue for the next four years and hopefully be a published study. Lechnar said with Longing’s guidance they formed the idea for her research and worked together to get a project started.

Lechnar uses a vacuum to collect pollinator insects from pollen bearing plants to evaluate how pollinator population density changes throughout the seasons. This research will help form restoration strategies for the High Plains in order to rebuild insect habitats needed for farming operations.

“By linking plants to pollinators, we can really begin to understand very specifically what pollinators are being effected by what we plant,” Longing said. “What Catherine will do is help to build a foundation of what we know about pollinator biodiversity and the habitat resources that they use.”

Lechnar said even in her preliminary research they have found different results than they expected. At the start of her research in October, she collected a sample of five insects; toward the end of the winter season she recorded a sample of near 80 insects.

“We thought there would be a decline in the number of pollinators because it was getting colder, and they would die,” Lechnar said, “but we ended up seeing the density increase because there were less flowers for them to go to.”

Catherine Lechnar’s research is guided by Dr. Longing, who has encouraged her to get a head-start on undergraduate research.

After submitting her abstract, Lechnar received approval to present her preliminary research poster “Preliminary assessment of late-season insect communities occurring on flowering plants in a semi-arid region” at the Center for Active Learning and Undergraduate Engagement conference in March. Not only is Lechnar already involved in undergraduate research as a freshman, but she also hopes to attend graduate school and eventually get her Ph.D.

“The way I see it, if I start early, then I’ll be ahead later,” Lechnar said.

The FFA mission is to make a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education. Today, FFA strives to help the next generation rise up to meet new agricultural challenges by helping members develop their own unique talents and explore their interests in a broad range of career pathways. FFA opened a door for Lechnar and sparked an interest she otherwise may not have come across living in the city.

“It is important for everyone to take a look at what they don’t know and take on new experiences to learn,” Longing said.

It is important for everyone to take a look at what they don’t know and take on new experiences to learn.

Studying conservation science, Lechnar said she offers a unique understanding of current issues because of her new knowledge of the agriculture industry and her passion for conservation. Her dream is to save the mangrove forests, and she said she finds it crucial to understand agriculture’s role to do so.

“I like that I am in the middle, and I am able to see both sides,” Lechnar said, “it gives me a lot of different insight.”

Lechnar said she is the only one in her family who has taken a career path in the agriculture industry, but she has big aspirations and plans to make a difference. She advises incoming students to fully dive into their interests and passions but not to be discouraged should their plans change.

“Sometimes you just need to sit down and think about what you want and not what the other people around you are telling you to do,” Lechnar said.

Lechnar said a lot has changed since she was one of many high school FFA competitors visiting Texas Tech, and she is happy with her decision to follow her dreams.

“All I really remembered about Texas Tech when we came for FFA was always getting lost,” Lechnar said, “but now that I’m studying here I can’t imagine any other place being better.”