MSU graduate student receives inaugural agronomy fellowship

Paul O'Neil
Paul O’Neal, a graduate student in the Mississippi State Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, examines soil in a field at MSU’s R.R. Foil Plant Science Research Center. (Photo by Dominique Belcher)

Contact: Meg Henderson

STARKVILLE, Miss.—A newly established fellowship is carrying the legacy of excellence in Mississippi soybean research into the future, and a Mississippi State graduate student is leading the way.

Paul O’Neal in the MSU Department of Plant and Soil Sciences recently was named the first recipient of the Dr. Larry G. Heatherly Graduate Fellow in Agronomy Excellence.

Paul O'Neil
Paul O’Neal (Photo by Grace Cockrell)

The fellowship honors Heatherly’s long and impactful U.S. Department of Agriculture career in soybean research. During his 30-year employment as a USDA Agricultural Research Service research scientist in Stoneville, Heatherly pioneered soybean management strategies that transformed industry practices throughout the mid-southern U.S.

In pursuit of honoring Heatherly’s revered legacy and dedication to soybean research, the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board gifted $250,000 to the MSU Foundation to establish the fellowship. The endowment will fund graduate student research, including scholarships and stipend support, to fellowship recipients.

O’Neal grew up in a farm family from the Mississippi Delta town of Shelby. His father is an agricultural producer in Bolivar County, growing soybeans, among other crops.

“I’ve known Paul and his family since I started my career as soybean specialist 12 years ago,” said Trent Irby, extension professor in the plant and soil sciences department. “I’ve had the opportunity to work on several Extension activities with his father over the years.  When Paul was pursuing his undergraduate degree, he applied for a position as a student worker in my program.”

O’Neal graduated with his bachelor’s degree last May and immediately began his graduate studies with Irby as his major professor. He is working with Irby to evaluate soybean crop management decisions concerning early-season replanting.

Because soybean planting season in Mississippi spans from late March through early July, vast changes in weather conditions occur that impact stand establishment, and replanting often becomes a necessary part of managing the crop. Irby and O’Neal have designed a project evaluating best management practices for maximizing yield and profitability when faced with replant decisions.

“I’m thankful that Paul chose to be in my program,” Irby said. “He’s inquisitive, determined and talented, and he’s a joy to work with. I’m also grateful to the Soybean Promotion Board for their generosity and commitment to helping fund student education.”

“To receive this fellowship is such an honor,” O’Neal said. “Dr. Heatherly has done so much for soybean production systems, and I feel blessed to receive this opportunity while I am doing my own research with soybeans.”

For more on the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in the MSU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, visit

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