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The Ferguson College of Agriculture recognized the Louis and Betty Gardner Outstanding Senior each year. This year's award recipient is Rio Bonham. (Photo by Aly Francis)

Distinction by Diligence

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Media Contact: Kristin Knight | Communications and Marketing Manager | 405-744-1130 |

An outstanding senior is someone who sets the standard. However, Rio Bonham of Madill, Oklahoma, has gone above and beyond the standard for the Ferguson College of Agriculture.

“I cannot say I fully understood what I was signing up for when I chose biosystems engineering as my major,” Bonham said. “I only knew I was intrigued by the dynamics at the interface of agricultural production and natural resource conservation and had the goal of being a top researcher.”

Bonham’s positive attitude along with strong agricultural passion earned him the distinction of being the 2023 Louis and Betty Gardner Outstanding Senior for the Ferguson College of Agriculture.

“It was easy to sort him to a top group because he not only got involved, but also he found his home,” said Deb VanOverbeke, assistant dean of the Ferguson College of Agriculture.

Bonham said his college success did not come easily.

“Going into freshman year, being nonchalant and ambitious was how I approached things,” Bonham said. “I could join every club, devote little time to class work, and solve the world’s worst water problems at 18 years old, right? Wrong. Very wrong.”

He continued to face hardships through complex courses and curriculum, he said. Bonham felt disappointed after he was not accepted into the Wentz Research Scholar Program in his sophomore year, he said.

He thought about taking a break from research for a year; however, the support from faculty and staff in the Ferguson College of Agriculture allowed him to persevere, Bonham said.

“Even working through difficult class work brought me closer to peers in the same classes,” Bonham said. “It helped me get to know professors, which allowed me to continue to pursue new experiences, attend a study-abroad course, perform research, and be involved in clubs.”

The math, science and physics general education classes began to apply when he developed an interest in water research, Bonham said. The design hydrology class in biosystems and agricultural engineering is where all the tough lower-division courses started to mean something, Bonham said.

“It is definitely where everything came together and confirmed I was on the right track with what I want to do,” Bonham said.

Scott Frazier, BAE associate professor, first became acquainted with Bonham in a survey class required for biosystems engineering freshman students and quickly recognized Bonham was top notch, Frazier said.

Frazier tasked Bonham with a high-level research project associated with a continuing grant to determine how to install and pull data from a piece of power monitoring equipment.

“It’s a bit much to ask an undergraduate student to do,” Frazier said. “I asked other faculty their thoughts on tasking Rio to do the project, and they said, ‘If anyone can do it as an undergraduate, Rio could.’”

After Bonham was assigned the task, he quickly completed the design portion. Frazier and Bonham tested the device in Guymon to ensure its success. To Frazier’s surprise, it worked the first time and resulted in retrieving usable data from the device, Frazier said.

“Being involved in research throughout college has definitely been something that helped keep me grounded to what I want to do moving forward,” Bonham said.

As he began advancing his skill set throughout upper-level classes, Bonham became self-sufficient and independent with different projects, he said.

“Research provides a way to take what you’re learning and make it apply in a way you can’t get outside of other experiences,” Bonham said.

Bonham took the BAE senior design project course as a capstone experience to do a real-world industry sponsored project, said Paul Weckler, BAE capstone professor. Bonham served as the team’s point leader, spearheaded the technical design process, and interacted with the client’s engineers at the Koch Industries’ fertilizer plant in Enid, Oklahoma, Weckler said.

“He really has done some pretty remarkable and interesting computer programming and modeling for the team,” Weckler said. “He is very talented and confident in what he does.”

Bonham’s professionalism and communication between his fellow team members and their client allowed him to get upper management from Koch Industries in Wichita, Kansas, to travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to listen in on their final presentations, Weckler said.

Aside from research projects and academic achievements, Bonham has given back to OSU through community service, VanOverbeke said. Bonham developed curriculum for rural high school students interested in computer coding. He also was active in OSU Homecoming, Agriculture Future of America and FarmHouse Fraternity.

“That’s a part of what we try to get all students to do — to find where they belong, be engaged, and thrive — and Rio did that,” VanOverbeke said.

 During the past four years at OSU, Bonham has been involved in many capacities in his academic department, the Ferguson College of Agriculture, the College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology, and the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

“Taking stock of all that OSU gave to me, I made a conscious effort to pay forward all that was poured into my development,” Bonham said. “I have served as an ambassador for both my academic department and the Office of Scholar Development.”

One can look at anything Bonham has done in the last four years and will see it left a positive reflection on the OSU Ferguson College of Agriculture, said John Long, BAE associate professor and Bonham’s adviser.

Biosystems engineering is a challenging major, Long said, and the ability to maintain academics, extracurricular involvement, volunteer work, and work or other experiences is a testament to Bonham’s ability to balance all these things and still excel as a student.

As a high school senior, Bonham toured other universities but realized he had every reason to attend OSU, he said. Every bit of his four years at OSU has been packed full of experiences and lessons, he said. Bonham said he is forever grateful to be selected as the 2023 Ferguson College of Agriculture Outstanding Senior.

“The family and the support system that characterizes the Ferguson College of Agriculture is second to none,” Bonham added.

Bonham has accepted an offer to attend the University of Florida following graduation to focus on a doctorate in hydrological modeling. Bonham said he will continue the educational journey he started and learned to love at OSU.

“I wish we could have kept him at OSU, but he is going to get a different perspective, viewpoint and environment,” Frazier said.

Professors, advisers and mentors describe Bonham as a professional and committed individual with drive to pursue opportunities while maintaining a positive attitude toward learning and bettering himself, the community and the university.

“When you look at what Rio has done and how he’s been involved since he stepped foot on campus, he’s taken a path where his goal was to not only be successful academically but also to grow personally and professionally,” VanOverbeke said.

Bonham believes his story shows how success does not come easy and comes with many transformative moments, he said.

“My goals have shifted from just getting through the week to seeking a Ph.D. in a field of study I once thought was beyond my reach,” Bonham said. “I have watched myself grow from just another small-town kid to a capable researcher with a deep technical skillset and a broad world perspective.”

Bonham achieved success by learning from mistakes, working hard, and devoting time to help others, he said.

“After my experience, I now know this is what it means to be a Cowboy,” Bonham said.

Story By: Alyssa Francis | Cowboy Journal

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