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In Conversation with #WomeninAg: Dr. Lois Wright Morton

Posted by Rachael Dubinsky, USDA Office of Communications in Conservation
Dec 14, 2015
Dr. Morton (R) and her colleagues looking at the layout of one of the more than 35 field sites they are gathering data on
As project director for the USDA-NIFA Climate and Corn-based Cropping System Coordinated Agricultural Project, Dr. Lois Wright Morton (R) spends a lot of time in corn fields from Iowa to Ohio talking with farmers across the Midwest cornbelt. In this picture, Dr. Morton and her colleagues are looking at the layout of one of the more than 35 field sites they are gathering data on.

As part of our ongoing #womeninag series, we are highlighting a different leading woman in agriculture each month.  This month, we profile Dr. Lois Wright Morton, professor of sociology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University and director of the USDA-NIFA Climate & Corn-based Cropping System Coordinated Agricultural Project.

Dr. Morton’s research focuses on the relationship between people and the natural environment as it relates to climate change. She discusses with us the impact research has on women worldwide and how the field continues to evolve.

How do you start your day?

I start every day with two activities about 5am every morning. The first is meditation and reflection, followed by a 2-3 mile walk outside. The walk and fresh air energize me and together they prepare me to take on the planned and unexpected (which there always are) events of the day.

What inspired you to pursue a career in research?

I grew up on a farm in northeast Ohio--sheep, cattle, hay and pasturelands with some grain as well as hardwood forests. It is beautiful country.  A great place to experiment and learn about the natural environment and working agricultural lands. My Mom loved the outdoors and was always observing and talking about her discoveries. She encouraged me to be open to new ideas and follow my curiosity.  I have always loved growing things and working with the soil. Water and soil are the source of living things. Yet as I grew older I observed that not everyone understood these relationships and appreciated the dependent synergies among agriculture and ecology that make up an agroecosystem.  I wanted to understand the variations and motivations among farmers and land managers that influenced how they managed land and water resources to make a living.

How has the research field changed for women?

As a rural sociologist, my research examines the coupled human-natural system. In my current project, I focus on the iterative human and social relationships with the natural environment and a changing climate. Of interest are the feedback processes that drive social learning that lead to adaptation and changed behaviors or reaffirmation of the status quo. One major change in science is the opportunity for women scientists (both social and biophysical scientists) to become members or lead transdisciplinary science teams. These teams are exploring questions about complex and dynamic processes in the human-natural system relationships. This has encouraged a number of women scientists to look at aspects of human-natural systems at different scales of geography, time, and institutions.

How does your research impact women worldwide?

Women worldwide tend to be the producers of food and stewards of the land in comparison to U.S. agriculture which is viewed as more male dominated. My work encompasses key global societal concerns of food, energy, and water security associated with changing conditions. Co-production of agricultural products and ecological services is an urgent goal if we are to meet current and future societal needs. The better we understand the social factors, including gender, that influence decision making, uses of technologies and land/water management, the easier it will be for individuals and policymakers to develop strategies to assure rural livelihoods, food security, and protection of soil and water resources that affect women and their families.

Who are your role models?

I have had some wonderful role models throughout my career ranging from my parents, my older sister, and colleagues who were never too busy to help me. Soil scientists have played important roles in how I’ve framed the human-agroecosystem challenges and formulation of research questions. Early in my career Dr. Jerry Miller, a soil scientist and Senior Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Science at Iowa State University, invested in me by making me a co-PI on a large multi-state USDA water project. In addition to his willingness to try unconventional approaches and philosophy of connecting human and agronomic sciences, I learned some great people-management skills by observing his techniques for team building, conflict resolution and getting groups to accomplish collective goals.

What are you watching, reading or listening to?

One of the greatest rewards of my job as professor of sociology is that I am paid to read science papers! I read economics and sociology as well as ecology, soil, hydrology, plants, and other agronomic refereed journal papers. I don’t claim to understand the biophysical sciences, but reading them gives me a new lens on the coupled human-natural system and how human and social relationships shape our agroecosystems.  And then just for fun, I end the day reading the Wall Street Journal.

In seven words or less, what is some advice you would offer your fellow women in agriculture?

Never assume. Observe. Be open to change.

Is there a leading woman in agriculture you would like to hear from?  Send us your suggestions using #womeninag or via email at

Category/Topic: Conservation