Retiring scientific assistant reflects on 40 years at WSU IAREC

Lynn Mills head shot next to yellow flowers.
After 40 years at IAREC, Lynn Mills has gained meaningful learning experiences and a community that feels like family. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Mills)

PROSSER, Wash. — When Lynn Mills moved to the Pacific Northwest to work at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC) in the 1980s, she thought it might be a brief stop in her career trajectory. Four decades later, Mills has gained meaningful learning experiences and a community that feels like family.

“It has been a good career,” said Mills. “Time goes by so fast, it’s unbelievable. What I’ll miss most is the people.”

A Kansas native, Mills hails from a family of engineers and scientists. After studying biology as an undergraduate, Mills earned a master’s degree in plant breeding and genetics, with a forest tree emphasis, from the University of Wisconsin.

In 1982, a bean breeding position opened at IAREC, and Mills moved cross-country to start the new role, joining a USDA scientist whose research was funded through a WSU-administered grant.

In the early 1990s, when that scientist retired, Mills decided to try something new, applying for a scientific assistant position in WSU’s burgeoning viticulture and enology program. She stayed for 32 years.

“I didn’t think I would get the job, but I’m glad I did,” she said. “Though it didn’t involve working with genetics, it still involved a lot of other biology.”

That flexible nature has served Mills well professionally.

A group of seven people stand, kneel, and lean over, working in a vineyard. Hills, trees, and fields are in the background.
Lynn Mills (second from right) teaching an undergraduate student intern how to field-graft grapevines in 2002. (Photo courtesy of Markus Keller)

“I’ve learned to keep my mind open,” Mills said. “I went to school for biology and forest genetics, but I ended up in viticulture. That was a big change, but I learned a lot along the way by being open to other crops and projects.”

When Mills’ latest supervisor, Markus Keller, joined WSU in 2001, Mills had already been running field experiments in growers’ vineyards by herself for a year.

“Lynn knew the ins and outs of everything, and she had a very good rapport with growers,” said Keller, WSU’s Chateau Ste. Michelle Distinguished Professor in Viticulture. “When I first started here, I was usually the one asking for help. I often joked that she was actually my boss! We figured problems out together, and that was extremely valuable to me. We developed an excellent relationship and worked very well together as a team.”

Mills demonstrated her reliability and extensive knowledge through her involvement in numerous projects, from assisting Keller with irrigation efficiency experiments to helping postdoctoral researchers, grad students, and visiting scientists with their many diverse projects, and organizing the annual grape harvest.

“We had a very good team,” Mills said. “Helping each other is how things are accomplished. You learn more when you’re working on other people’s projects.”

Mills helped design WSU’s custom grapevine cold hardiness service for growers, a project she ran independently for more than 30 years.

“Lynn was one of the viticulture program’s pillars,” said IAREC Director Naidu Rayapati. “She played a key role in evaluating diverse grapevine cultivars for winter damage and providing time-sensitive data on cold hardiness for grape growers, helping them implement mitigation strategies. She provided an outstanding benefit to Washington’s grape industry.”

Mills frequently went above and beyond her job requirements by helping graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from other countries feel welcome at IAREC, Keller said.

A group of three kneels in a vineyard, planting grapevines. Hills and fields are in the background.
Lynn Mills (left) assisting with the planting of the IAREC research vineyard in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Markus Keller)

“Lynn was like a mother to the students,” he added. “She was always there to help them find their way around the community and get settled. Her presence was so important to them — she was the calm in the middle of a storm.”

Mills found those relationships equally rewarding.

“I haven’t traveled a lot, but they brought the world to me,” Mills said. “We had many interesting conversations, and our potlucks have been a great way to experience food from around the world. We were like a family.”

Mills’s retirement plans include camping in the southwestern U.S. with her husband, visiting family throughout the country, and spending time with her two daughters, who live locally. She also knows she’s still only a short drive away from her IAREC family.

“I miss everyone already, but I’ll go back,” Mills said. “They said they’ll let me know when they’re having a potluck!”