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Charles Gagne

About Charles

  • Area of study: Controlled Environment Agriculture
  • Hometown: Wauwatosa, WI

  • Fun fact: I'm from the cheese state, but don't eat cheese!

  • View Charles's LinkedIn Profile

What were you doing prior to your degree program?

After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in civil engineering from Vanderbilt University and prior to pursuing my MPS degree, I worked with Kimley-Horn, an engineering consulting firm in Los Angeles, CA on the roadway infrastructure team, The projects I worked on ranged from local road and public transportation design to large-scale freeway and interchange design.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome in order to participate in the program?

The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was the transition from work-life to student-life. I had become accustomed to my work schedule, having a steady income, and to the customs and norms of my workplace. I had to remind myself what it was like to be a student again and prepare myself for the many changes associated with moving across the country to start my studies at Cornell.

Why did you choose to pursue the MPS degree?

After working for two years I decided to change career paths from civil engineering to controlled environment agriculture. I knew that I had developed many useful skills in my engineering education and in my work experiences, however, I didn’t have any practical experience in controlled environment agriculture. I considered different programs to facilitate this transition and discovered the MPS program at Cornell. I instantly knew that it was the path for me. Cornell has a great horticulture department and I like the one-year program.

What are your post-MPS plans?

My goal in pursuing the MPS program was to gain the knowledge and skills to grow local, sustainable food in a variety of seasons and climates. I plan to apply what I’ve learned to communities that don’t have access to fresh, healthy food year-round. I think CEA is amazing because it has the ability to create small oases in otherwise inhospitable areas. My goal is to use my MPS degree to make farming more sustainable and to shift our perception of how food can be grown to feed our changing world.

What are the strengths of the Horticulture program, in your opinion?

In my opinion it is the diversity which sets the Horticulture program apart. The faculty – each of whom are among the best in the world at what they do – are doing research and teaching classes in an extremely wide variety of subject matters. This creates a lot of opportunities for unique collaborations, chances to take classes in subjects that you may not know much about, and to be surrounded by people to learn from. The horticulture community at Cornell also happens to be incredibly kind, helpful, and supportive which makes coming to campus each day a pleasant experience.

What have been some of your most rewarding moments while in your program?

Many of the most rewarding moments I have had in the MPS program come from looking back and realizing how much I have learned and grown in just one year. The realization that I can now have an engaging conversation with a professor or industry professional about a subject I knew nothing about just months ago brings me a lot of joy.

What are your short term and long term career goals?

My short-term career goal is to find a job utilizing my professional skills and experiences as well as the skills and knowledge I have gained from the MPS program. I want to leverage this combination to find a position in controlled environment agriculture where I can work to creatively solve some of the industry’s largest problems. My long-term career goal is to find a management position within a company where I can create long term, big-picture change.

What courses stand out as most helpful for your specific career goals?

The two most impactful courses I have taken are a class in hydroponic production taught by my advisor Neil Mattson and a leadership class for graduate students taught by Marvin Pritts. The hydroponic production class gave me my first taste of the technical skills and knowledge that I will use daily in the controlled environment agriculture industry and the leadership class allowed me to better understand my personality, how I function within a team, and what kind of a leader I am. Although very different from each other, I think that both of these classes have allowed me to develop the skills that I will need to achieve my career goals.

What advice would you give to your younger self embarking on the journey of graduate school?

I would tell myself that although there will be a lot of change and challenges in the future, I am giving myself the best tools possible to find success in the industry that I am passionate about.

How has your MPS experience changed you, both personally and professionally?

My MPS experience has had a lot of major effects on me, both personally and professionally. One of the most important of these effects is that it has allowed me to become a part of an incredibly diverse and intelligent community of people who share my interests and passions. This has allowed me to learn more than I ever could have from classes alone and to continuously see things from unique perspectives. Also, this program has given me the time and space to think deeply about my goals for the future and it has given me the tools and knowledge to go out and achieve them.

What student organizations are you involved in?

I am in the Society for Horticulture (SoHo) which is an organization that is open to all horticulture graduate students. They help the new horticulture graduate students get adjusted to life at Cornell, do many activities throughout the year, and offer an opportunity to get to know your fellow graduate students socially.