Natalie Sturm, MSU agriculture student, earns national leadership honor |

Natalie Sturm, MSU agriculture student, earns national leadership honor

Natalie Sturm leads a class for elementary school students during a 2017 research trip to Morocco.

BOZEMAN — A Montana State University student will travel to Washington, D.C. after earning a spot in a selective national program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Natalie Sturm, a senior studying agroecology in MSU’s Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems program in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, was one of 20 undergraduate students selected as part of the USDA’s 2020 Future Leaders in Agriculture Program. The goal of USDA program is to assist young agriculturalists from around the nation in shaping the current and future state of agriculture by interacting with policymakers, producers and industry leaders at the annual USDA Agriculture Outlook Forum.

“Natalie always amazes as she leaps to new heights with her achievements in academics, discovery, leadership and service to Montana State University, the Bozeman community and the field of sustainable food systems,” said Selena Ahmed, associate professor in sustainable food and bioenergy systems, an interdisciplinary program between College of Agriculture and the College of Education, Health and Human Development, who nominated Sturm for the program. “She shines in every class and in the lab with her unparalleled enthusiasm and deep curiosity characteristic of a strong researcher.”

Natalie Sturm leads a class for elementary school students during a 2017 research trip to Morocco.

Sturm became involved with Ahmed’s work in MSU’s Food and Health Lab after her freshman year at MSU, but she said she was inspired to pursue work in the field of sustainable food and agriculture much earlier, after taking a human nutrition class while in middle school in her home state of Illinois.

“I grew up north of Chicago, definitely not an agricultural area at all. That class opened my eyes to the idea that agriculture doesn’t have to be harmful to the environment, which was the story I’d always been told,” said Sturm. “When I realized that agriculture can actually help to solve some of our most pressing environmental problems, I knew that was what I needed to do with my life, from the time I was 13 or 14.”

Drawn by MSU’s Honors College and sustainable agriculture curriculum options, Sturm arrived in Bozeman in 2016 and immediately became involved in both research and her new community. She spent the summer after her freshman year studying local food systems in eastern Montana and later took a trip to Morocco to participate in a research project focused on sheep grazing and plant surveying. But some of her favorite work has been done in the Food and Health Lab, examining how agricultural management and the environment impact the nutrient density of agricultural crops.

“I had never really thought of that before I started working in Dr. Ahmed’s lab,” Sturm said. “I’d never made the connection that where and how a crop is grown can actually impact how nutritious that crop is. It’s been really neat to get to experiment with that both in the lab and in the field.”

While busy with undergraduate research projects, Sturm has reserved time for engagement in the greater MSU and Montana communities. She’s been a member of the College of Agriculture’s ambassador program for three years, currently serving as chair, and calls it one of her favorite parts of her college experience. As an ambassador, Sturm interacts with prospective students and their families and helps organize events such as MSU Friday and the college’s annual Celebrate Agriculture weekend. She judges middle school and high school FFA events, coordinates ambassador involvement in the annual FFA convention and has long been engaged in showing younger students how agriculture can become a career.

“A lot of times it’s hard for people to feel connected and find a community and being an ambassador has really helped me with that,” Sturm said. “It’s helped me to cultivate that community for myself and has also given me the opportunity to hopefully show prospective students that those communities can exist at a university.”

Sturm will travel to Washington, D.C. later this month for the Agricultural Outlook Forum and a week of networking with legislators, agricultural experts and the 19 other undergraduate and 10 graduate members of the Future Leaders in Agriculture program. That trip will cause her to miss the presentation of MSU’s annual Awards for Excellence, of which she is one of three student recipients from the College of Agriculture.

Once she returns, she plans to present her research at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research to be hosted by MSU March 26-28 — a weekend that coincides with Montana’s annual FFA convention in Great Falls, an important event for agriculture ambassadors. She plans to make room for both events.

“Natalie is that student, only once or twice in your entire faculty career, that you have a chance to watch grow as a person and an academic at every turn,” said Perry Miller, one of Sturm’s advisers. “It seems like yesterday when a bright-eyed freshman cornered me after a lecture, asking questions about sustainable agriculture and literally abuzz with the unlimited potential of her degree.”

For Sturm, who hopes to pursue a master’s degree after she graduates in the spring, the same curiosity and drive sparked by that first middle school nutrition class burns just as brightly nearly a decade later.

“My time here has been a lesson in being open to things happening in ways that I didn’t expect,” she said. “It’s been a lot of learning about how to be a problem solver and how to approach questions. I definitely have a much more refined understanding of agriculture now, but I feel really grateful that I still get to carry that initial passion for sustainable agriculture with me.”

–MSU Extension