Sebastian Mejia Turcios is a Ph.D. Candidate and Research Assistant at the University of California, Davis. Originally from Honduras, Turcios moved to the United States to continue his education in agriculture. His love for which started very young on the farm with his father and grandfather. Along with his passion for livestock sustainability, he is a talented photographer, capturing mostly cattle and sunsets. Sebastian shared his story and the unique path he took to get to where he is today with Of The West below. One of our favorite quotes from the career spotlight is, “the agriculture industry brings me a feeling of belonging. It has given me so many opportunities and has taken me to places I never thought I would go.”
Please describe your career.
I am currently a Ph.D. Candidate and Research Assistant at the University of California Davis. Here at Davis, I focus my work on investigating strategies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants from beef production systems with the goal of reducing the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Prior to my Ph.D., I received a Master’s Degree in Animal Science from Texas Tech University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Agronomy from EARTH University in Costa Rica.
What made you decide to pursue this career and the specificity of it?
Born and raised in Honduras, I was introduced to agriculture very early on by my father and grandfather. Growing up, there was nothing I enjoyed more than spending time at the farm doing any chores I could and especially working with cattle, so I knew I had an inclination for agriculture since I was a kid, and I decided to pursue an education in the field starting from high school all the way through college. Because my degree in agronomy is so broad and I was always more interested in cattle, I chose to pursue a Master’s Degree in Animal Science with an emphasis on Ruminant Nutrition but I never intended to continue my education as far as I have.
During my time at Texas Tech, I realized the importance of animal agriculture in our climate and I learned the role of science and the goals that the livestock industry has to find new technologies to reduce the environmental impact of the livestock. So, I packed everything I owned at the moment into the back of my little sedan and headed to California to pursue a Ph.D. in animal biology that would allow me to contribute to that goal.
Did you always know this is what you wanted to do for a living? If not, what led you to this field?
I definitely did not see myself going to school for this long. If you told me back in high school that I would be doing a Ph.D., I would have laughed out loud and then asked you what a Ph.D. is. Now, at the risk of sounding poetic, I would say that looking back introspectively to understand where and why I decided to go down this path, I would say purpose is what motivated me. Not the type of purpose that tells you “this is good for me and my career” but a bigger and more subtle one that tells you “this is going to have an impact on the lives of those around you, and those who will come after you”.
I have been very fortunate to be presented with extraordinary opportunities and in the quest of pursuing bigger things I always take them, even if that comes at a cost like leaving home and loved ones behind, thousands of miles away. Currently, with the negative narratives about animal agriculture, having the opportunity to pursue a degree in such a prestigious institution known to be a leader in sustainability research was something that I saw as part of that bigger purpose. So, I decided to take on the challenge.
What did your path look like that helped you become the professional/expert you are today?
I started studying agriculture at a technical high school. From there, I knew I wanted to continue pursuing an education in agriculture so I went to college for a Bachelor’s in Agronomy but that was too broad for me. I wanted to narrow it down more.
During my junior year of college, I came to the U.S. to do an internship in agriculture and I was exposed to remarkable technologies that are implemented in the U.S. to produce food, so I decided that I wanted to return after finishing up my bachelor’s, and I did.
Right after graduation, I packed my bags and moved to Wisconsin as an exchange student to work at a dairy farm. My experience there was eye-opening but I wanted to do something more involved in science and research so went to the University of Florida to do an internship in beef cattle nutrition with an emphasis on methane mitigation research with beef cattle. That is when I first learned that you could measure methane coming out of a cow and that you could reduce methane emissions by manipulating the diet of cattle, so that is when I decided that I wanted to learn more about nutrition and beef cattle, and the rest is history.
There were many experiences, mentors, and definitely traveling involved in my path but the common denominator was always curiosity, the willingness to be exposed to the unknown, and the drive to pursue what seemed meaningful at the time.
Have you ever come to a crossroads with your career and questioned if this is really what you should be doing? If so, how did you overcome that?
Yes, I have. I think everyone does, sooner or later, especially when you are doing something that is hard and keeps testing you in every way possible. As I mentioned before, I never thought I would be where I am today, even though I have a passion for agriculture. When you find yourself navigating uncharted territory, you will be met with hardship, and no matter how much meaning you see in what you are doing, you will sometimes question if that is the thing you are supposed to do, especially on those particularly hard days. But hard times come and go, and they will test your determination, but knowing that they are temporary will help you overcome them. I suppose I always tried to see beyond the hardship and kept the meaning of what I was doing as clear as possible so I would not be deterred.
What was the biggest struggle or challenge you faced that ultimately helped you achieve some of your career goals?
I would say the moment I left my country and decided to go to places where I did not know anyone, nor did I speak the language was a definitive moment for my life and career, but certainly one of the biggest struggles that challenged me in ways I had never experienced before. You see, I come from a place where no matter how hard you try there is a limit to the opportunities you can attain because that’s just how it is. So ultimately you have a high chance of never reaching your true potential. When I moved to the U.S., I saw endless opportunities – the only thing was that I needed to overcome the challenges I was being faced with at the moment. Once I overcame them, I knew there would be something meaningful at the other end, and there was.
What’s your favorite part of your career?
There are a few things that make it to this list. I would say definitely getting to know people from different places, getting to visit different places and the fact that I have stayed in the agriculture industry even though I left my home. Also, the opportunity to be at the forefront of science and research that brings value to our industry at a national and global scale.
What is the best way for someone who is interested in a career like yours, to get started?
For those who are interested in grad school, I would recommend talking to professors who teach a topic you like. Tell them about your interest in the field and that you would like to go to grad school, and they will likely point you in the right direction. Another way to find opportunities is to go to the student advising office at your school and ask about internships in your field of interest. An internship will give you the chance of experiencing firsthand what working in that sector would be like. Once you are involved in that particular field, talk to graduate students, professors, and ask them how their experience was, and ask them for their help. I am certain they will give it to you.
If you could leave people who want to work in your same field one piece of advice, what would that be?
Find something that is meaningful, something that inspires you and picks your curiosity, and go for it. Even if you are not sure how everything will work out, you will find a way to make it work.
What do agriculture and the western industry mean to you?
Agriculture is part of my identity. I have never seen myself outside of this industry so it means everything to me. Coming from a different country with cultural differences, I find myself sharing values with people in the agriculture and western industry here in the U.S., and that is priceless. The agriculture industry brings me a feeling of belonging. It has given me so many opportunities and has taken me to places I never thought I would go.
If you want to connect further with Sebastian, you can follow him on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.