Student Spotlight: Carlie Johnston

Carlie Johnston profile photo in sustainable greenhouse

I’m originally from Brandon, and I went out to the University of Western Ontario in London and received my undergraduate there. I ended up finishing with a Bachelor of Medical Science with honours in biochemistry. Now, I’m in the Sustainable Food Systems program at Assiniboine.

I graduated this past spring with my B.S.C, right in the middle of the pandemic. It was a very unfortunate time to be graduating, but it also allowed me to take a second, sit back and think about what I wanted to do next. It gave me time to figure out what I was really interested in, what I’m passionate about and where my priorities are. Did I want to stay in Ontario or come back to Brandon and be closer to family?

I realized that I was passionate about agriculture. I did some past work over the last three summers here at the Brandon Research and Development Centre, and I loved it. We had a great team and managers that provided a lot of mentorship. They really got me even more interested in agriculture than I already was. I knew I wanted to go down this pathway, but I didn’t know if this meant pursuing my masters yet or what. The pandemic put some ideas on hold, but it also let me take some time to think.

I knew I was interested in both agriculture and sustainability. I also wanted to use my biochemistry background and keep up with research. It was Lisa Huston at Assiniboine who actually recommended the program to me. She’s a great family friend. When she talked about the Sustainable Food Systems program a little with me, I knew right away that the program aligned with my interests and background. It was exactly what I was looking for at the time.

During my time at the Brandon Research and Development Centre I worked in the Sustainable Systems and Agronomy Department. It was a lot of field agronomy and trials taking place outside. I loved being outside and working with the plants. I just learned so much being out there everyday. It was very agronomy-focused research.

My instructors here in the Sustainable Food Systems program at Assiniboine have absolutely blown my mind. At university, we had HUGE class sizes. We now have six people in our cohort at Assiniboine, and it allows a lot of one-on-one time with the instructors.

The instructors are all so knowledgeable and professional. They have really taken the time to ensure we’re ready for employability when we graduate. The hands-on learning I feel has really prepared us for employment compared to what I’ve mostly experienced in the past with post-secondary, which always involved a lot of theory and studies. It’s nice being able to work inside the sustainable greenhouse at the North Hill campus and to be able to physically work on research and projects. I learned about the research that Dr. Poonam Singh and Dr. Rao were doing here. I had no idea that was happening here before and the type of professionals they had teaching the program. It’s very cool to be able to learn from them, especially this close to home. It’s nice being local and to get this type of experience. It’s all been very surprising. It’s just a very different experience here, and it’s been super nice.

The first day of class, it was crazy for me to learn about my classmates' different backgrounds. We all gave each other an introduction, and it surprised me to learn how different each one of our paths were that led us into the program. Very different paths ranging from coming straight out of high school to others even coming here after taking art and history in university. It was really cool to learn about the variety of backgrounds and what brought them into the program.

For this semester, we’ve been broken up into two separate cohorts to help with social distancing inside the classroom and greenhouse. We have different schedules and get to use the facilities at different times. Now, I get to see a few people every day for a few hours.

It’s been great to be able to keep coming in and actually getting some hands-on learning and physically working with the plants instead of just learning about it online. We get to grow cucumbers, strawberries and many different types of plants. I had never grown a cucumber in my life before coming to the program. Being able to experience the process really helps apply the theory I’ve learned.

Carlie Johnston inspecting plants in greenhouse

I feel like after every class I have something to text or share with my friends and family. “Hey this is what we did in class today!” and fun things like that. One of coolest things I’ve done here is grow microgreens in our food production class with Jennifer Roscow. I had no idea what microgreens even were and how interesting they would be to grow. Microgreens are a very popular health food at the moment, and it’s interesting to be able to work on it here. They are seeds you let germinate to an early stage and grow a few inches tall. You cut them off at the base and use them as a fresh green product; they are similar to baby greens but much smaller. We’re actually growing some and integrating them as part of a marketing project. They were supposed to be used during a special event here at the college but the COVID situation has put that on hold, at least some of it, for the time being.

Some of the research that Sajjad is doing involves growing sweet potatoes here on campus at the grow plot. I had no idea the amount and kind of research happening right here locally. We’ve been able to help with some of the research and be part of the harvesting process. Poonam is working on a lot of research with onions and working on the plant garden.

Each instructor has something they are very passionate about and use the facilities for their research. A lot of this is incorporated into the program and classes. With Sajjad, we were involved with some of the sweet potato research; with Jennifer, we worked on growing market items and the microgreens; and with Poonam, we got to be involved in her onion research and testing. It’s all very interesting work and the scope of the research and everything involved is incredible. The impact from their work will be huge.

I never came into the program with a green thumb, per say. I knew the theory and a lot of the textbook knowledge behind the research and testing, but being in the program has let me develop a lot of the practical and hands-on side of it all. I can identify which plants need water or other nutrients now after my time working with them. I leave the greenhouse every day with pictures I’m sharing with my friends and family, showing the different types of things we’re growing and doing.

I figured once I got my university education that I was set on my path. I was caught off guard about the program and how much I’m learning. It’s a perfect fit for me, and I never expected to be here, but I’m so glad I am. It’s a great transition from my biochemistry background to the agriculture field that I want to be a part of.

Learn more about the Sustainable Food Systems or Horticultural Production programs.