January 23, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Plant Biology Alum Has Tasty Career Based on Coffee and Chocolate

Courtney Denning

Courtney Denning

By Heather Willard ’17

Courtney Denning ’10 graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences at Ohio University with bachelor degrees in Applied Ecology and Women’s and Gender Studies.

Now, seven years later, Denning is a successful professional with a career that takes advantage of some tasty tropical plants.

What is your current profession?

I am the social media manager and tour director for Winans Chocolates + Coffees. Winans was founded by another OHIO alum, Max Winans ’52, in my hometown, Piqua, Ohio, in 1961. My first job was working at Winans as a barista when I was in high school. We make chocolates and roast coffee in what used to be the Piqua Daily Call building in downtown Piqua. I manage our social media accounts, lead tours of the factory, and can occasionally be found working in the factory marking chocolates or pulling espresso in one of our shops. I also will be taking on the role of barista educator in the very near future!

I also run my personal blog, This Ohio Life. I write about different attractions in Ohio and try to promote Miami County, where I live, as much as I can.

The most rewarding thing in your job?

The most rewarding part of my job is being able to share the journey chocolate and coffee go on before they reach us. Both chocolate and coffee are extremely labor-intensive foods that, for the most part, are entirely hand harvested. It’s very humbling to think about how much work has been put into my morning cup of coffee, or a piece of chocolate.

Some of that hard work I can show our customers in our factory and roastery. Most of it I explain to them with visuals: our live coffee tree and cacao tree, dried cacao seeds and coffee cherry skins and images of the trees on farms.

Room at Winans Chocolates and Coffess including table with information and chocolate and coffee plants

Winans Chocolates & Coffees Tour Room

The thing you’re most proud of in your job/career?

Right now I’m most proud of the shape our tour program is starting to take at Winans. Social media is a fun part of my job, but I feel that connecting our customers with the tropical plants our business is built upon is the most important aspect of my position. Right now we offer two different behind-the-scenes factory tours. I am in the final stages of a history tour and will start working on a tour just for kids next.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is the people I work with. It sounds cliché, but my work family really does feel like family. Free chocolates and coffee helps, too.

How did your experience as a Plant Biology major prepare you and shape your career path?

I wouldn’t be able to understand chocolate or coffee as plants without the foundation PBIO gave me. I think studying a broad range of PBIO topics has made it easier for me to relate this information to our customers.

What’s your favorite memory of the department?

I have so many memories of the Environmental & Plant Biology Department. My favorite classes were ones with field trips, identifying trees in local parks in Dr. Philip Cantino’s Trees & Shrubs course or searching for fungus in the Biology of Fungi. We had so much fun and it was a completely different way to learn, being outside of the classroom. These classes were a great way to get to know my classmates. After our class found a nice collection of oyster mushrooms, one of the grad students, Melanie Schori ’10Ph.D., cooked up some oyster mushroom pasta for us. It was fantastic!

One of Dr. Harvey Ballard’s classes I took included a weekend trip to the Edge of Appalachia to study and look for some of the rarer plants found there in the field. I have so many cheesy plant jokes from that weekend. PBIO folks are Dad-joke/naturalist-joke level cheesy, and I love it!

Probably one of my favorite single memories is from Dr. Glenn Matlack’s Americans and Their Forests class. Every day he came to lecture dressed like a lumberjack, complete with a small hatchet and full beard. On the day of our midterm, he came to class freshly shaven, sans hatchet and wearing a Hawaiian shirt. I didn’t recognize him and thought he was a new TA!

What has your career path been like?

My career path has not been a straight line. I have worked as an educator, tour guide, events planner, cashier, library assistant and barista and not in that exact order (some jobs were also at the same time).

I’ve learned that there is no one right or correct path and not to compare my career to that of my peers.

It’s hard to do with social media and the selective editing that we do when we share parts of our lives of Facebook or Instagram. While my career has taken a bumpy, windy road, I can honestly say I’m really happy where it’s currently headed.

What was the biggest challenge you had to conquer that helped shape your path?

Finding a place to work where I felt I could contribute and that my ideas were valued has been my biggest challenge. I’m really happy to say that my current position fulfills that requirement for me, but it took me awhile to get here.

Why did you want to study plants?

I originally wanted to study wildlife biology, but when I visited Ohio University I was given a tour of one of the dissection labs. I have always been squeamish, and at the time I was a vegetarian. I did not want to dissect animals, but I still wanted to study ecology and science. So I transferred from wildlife biology to plant biology before classes started. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to transfer. PBIO was an amazing department to study in, and I really enjoyed my classes. Plant dissection is also so much cooler than animal dissection and not at all gruesome!

What advice would you give current students?

Take as many hands-on classes with field trips and field study as you can. They are a really fun way to learn, and it’s a nice change to studying in a lecture hall or indoor lab.

What was your most important experience as a Plant Biology major?

I would say founding and heading up my student group, ReLeaf for OHIO was one of my most important experiences as a PBIO student. I had help from PBIO professors, fellow OHIO students and employees as well as local Athens leaders. We were a short-lived student organization but we managed to plant over 1,000 trees in the Athens area. Running ReLeaf gave me experience in leadership, organizational planning and social media.

If you did an internship or undergraduate research, how did that experience prepare you for the real world?

I did an internship right before college at Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm and during college with Community Food Initiatives and the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative. All three helped prepare me with real work experience. I learned better time management skills, became better at public speaking, and learned what I wanted (and did not want) in a job.

What was one mistake in college that you would warn against?

I wasn’t very social in college. I’ve always been an introvert, which I think there is nothing wrong with, but I didn’t always make an effort to get outside of my comfort zone when I should have. I would encourage my fellow introverts to join a student organization, take a weekly fitness class at Ping, find something that you enjoy doing that you cannot do on your own in your dorm room.

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