New director brings international perspective to the future of food
Starting July 1, 2020, Carol Miles is the new interim director of Washington State University’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center (NWREC) at Mount Vernon.
A horticulturist who finds solutions for growing better vegetables, Miles has worked for 25 years at WSU.
“I like to say I have soil in my blood,” said Miles, whose father was a Dust Bowler, walking off the family farm in South Colorado at 6 years old “with a suitcase in one hand.”
Her father went from sweeping floors at a vegetable cannery to becoming a U.S. diplomat. Carol was born in Myanmar, and traveled the world throughout her young life. She encountered international communities steeped in poverty, where everyone grew food no matter their social status.
“You could be a doctor, you could be a lawyer, but you still grew your own food because you could never rely on food being available at a marketplace,” she said.
After graduating from the International School of Kabul, Afghanistan in 1979, Miles enrolled at Colorado State University. She finished her undergraduate studies in pre-vet training and completed her internships, before realizing she didn’t want to be a veterinarian after all. So, Miles joined the Peace Corps, spending two years in Cameroon, Africa, teaching vegetable production.
“That was the entryway into my new career,” said Miles.
In Africa, she learned about a research gap in vegetables, which are “such an important component of nutrition and the human diet.”
By 1993, Miles had graduated from Cornell University with a Ph.D. in vegetable crops.
Hired in 1994, Miles began her career at WSU Extension, leading and sharing on-farm research, and producing experience-based educational programs in horticulture production.
She is currently a vegetable extension specialist and a professor in the Department of Horticulture, based at NWREC, home to research programs in entomology, small fruit horticulture, vegetable pathology, vegetable seed pathology, weed science, and plant breeding. The campus includes a 140-acre research farm in the heart of the Skagit Valley, where scientists work on a diversity of crops to improve the future of food production and quality.
Miles focuses on crop production issues, investigating alternative crops, and investigates biodegradable plastic mulch, vegetable grafting, and cider apples. Her team includes 15 graduate students, and she is the major advisor for two doctoral and two master’s students.
Miles has continued to pioneer new methods to advance agricultural science. She successfully grafted watermelon to disease resistant rootstock, demonstrating that growers can use grafted plants to overcome verticillium wilt – a soil borne disease present throughout Washington. Her work in alternative crops revealed that fennel grows well in Northwest Washington, despite the fact that it is not commonly produced in our region, or the U.S. “Miles brings a legacy of leadership, hard work, and innovation in horticulture that will be instrumental in her leadership of the WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center,” said André-Denis Wright, dean of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.” Miles, who has a one-year interim appointment as NWREC Director, said she hopes she can empower the university to do more to track young faculty toward leadership earlier, so they see leadership as a career option.
WSU is working with farmers amid COVID-19, and it is important to continue the work of NWREC’s research programs while continuing research projects that allow students to safely move forward in their degree program, she added.
“I think we have to keep very positive attitudes,” said Miles of her leadership goals. “We need to stay constructive, and stay forward thinking.”