Coming from Heaton—believed to be the first graduate student in the United States to research the use of Miscanthus as a perennial biofuel feedstock and now an assistant professor and biofuels agronomist at Iowa State University—her personal quest doesn't seem too lofty a mission.
“What I do, in a nutshell, is try to save the world with giant grass,” Heaton says, calling Miscanthus “the best thing since sliced bread.” Likening her work to that of a soybean agronomist in the 1930s, Heaton explains she is preparing Iowa farmers “for what’s coming” by “figuring out what crops to grow and how they work together – and how that crop mix impacts fuel availability, quality and supply.”
“I have no reason to think we can’t do this,” she says. “We just have to make people want to do it.” Heaton, 32, grew up on her family’s farm in Monticello, IL, and remains actively involved with it.
While pursuing her doctorate in crop sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Heaton’s research in dedicated Miscanthus grown in the U.S. could produce 250 percent more ethanol than corn, without requiring additional land.
After earning her doctorate, Heaton worked as an agronomist at Ceres, Inc., a California agricultural biotechnology company where she led the development of the largest dedicated biofuels variety evaluation network in the country. She joined the faculty of Iowa State’s biomass engineering program in 2008.
“I’m not the only woman in the room anymore,” Heaton says. “A lot more women are either land owners or representing land owners, or in grad school. Women are advancing in this field and it’s working just fine.”
There’s an especially personal aspect to Heaton’s world-changing quest: She and husband, Andy, welcomed their first child in December. “I want to make the world better for him,” Heaton says. “If we don’t clean up our air and CO2 concentrations, that can’t happen.