‘Aha moment’ for future career path came during international experience

Payten Watson kneeling among a group of school children. Some of the children are holding plates.
Payten Watson, senior in food science, participated in the ISU-Uganda Program last summer, during which she realized she wants to use her food science degree to tackle global food and climate change challenges.

By Whitney Baxter

Getting out of her comfort zone enabled Payten Watson to gain new perspectives beyond her area of study.

Watson, a senior in food science from Urbandale, Iowa, has been selected as the fall 2022 semester College of Agriculture and Life Sciences student marshal. She will lead fellow graduates as they enter Hilton Coliseum during Iowa State University’s undergraduate commencement ceremony Dec. 17, at 1:30 p.m. She will be escorted by Lee Burras, Morrill Professor of agronomy.

A first-generation college student and the daughter of a single mother, Watson knew a college degree would open many opportunities for her, including chances to travel the world.

Payten Watson pictured wearing a navy suit jacket with a white shirt underneath.
Payten Watson

She worked hard in high school, earning 44 college credits to jump-start her associate degree at Des Moines Area Community College. While at DMACC, she was accepted into the honors program and took leadership and team-building courses that would prove beneficial as she transferred to Iowa State during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With many classes still held online during the fall 2020 semester, Watson focused on getting to know people. She became involved at Iowa State as much as possible, using those leadership and team-building skills.

One of the connections she made was with fellow transfer student Sarah Mattingly, a senior in food science. Mattingly introduced Watson to two student organizations she could join to help people and use her food science expertise: Engineers Without Borders, where Watson helped design pit latrines for a medical clinic in Ullo, Ghana, and Good Earth Student Farm, where she harvested vegetables for Iowa State’s food pantry, the SHOP.

“Gaining these hands-on experiences has helped shape Payten into a more critical thinker, as well as given her practical understanding of how to grow and harvest vegetables and herbs,” Mattingly said. “These are all invaluable experiences for anyone wanting to go into the non-profit side of food to help them better address sustainable development needs.”

Watson’s first opportunity to travel the world led to a memorable “aha moment” about what she wanted to do with her degree. During her GLOBE 201: Introduction to Global Resource Systems class, she learned about the ISU-Uganda Program and opportunities to use food science to tackle global food and climate change challenges.

“I saw how people were using food science in a more applied way than just taking the industry route,” Watson said. “I realized I could take the skills I’m learning at Iowa State and use them to help people.”

Last summer, she traveled to Uganda with Burras and others to participate in the ISU-Uganda Program, which led to her current youth programming and education internship with the World Food Prize Foundation in Des Moines.

Thinking about the benefits these student organizations and study abroad experiences have provided, Watson encourages fellow students to try new opportunities outside their area of study, even if they may not feel qualified for them.

“You grow by being uncomfortable. Be comfortable enough to get out of your comfort zone and try something new,” Watson said.

She also encourages students to advocate for themselves and not be afraid to ask their professors for assistance if they struggle to understand a concept presented in class.

“I always encourage students to come before or after class for clarification. Payten was one of the students that took part in the opportunity,” said Shannon Coleman, associate professor of food science and human nutrition. “She would always come with pre-written questions. She was also not afraid to come back for clarification. That is a trait that will take her far in her career.”

After graduation, Watson will continue her World Food Prize Foundation internship. She aspires to combine her passions for food science and helping people into a career that involves working with youth.