Continuing Education Sparks Innovation

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Rita H. Mumm PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and GeneMax Services

Rita H. Mumm
PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and GeneMax Services

A great deal of focus has been given to plant breeding education at the graduate level, and rightly so, as this relates to basic preparation of the next generation of scientists in crop improvement to tackle challenges of world hunger and malnutrition. Once on the job, a newly-minted plant breeder might have been encouraged in years past to attend one to two conferences per year to stay abreast of new scientific advancements. However, now, with the pace of such advancements and their value to development of improved crop cultivars that are commercially competitive, the question arises as to whether this level of continuing education is sufficient? Based on the programs for continuing education of plant breeders that have been initiated since 2005, the answer may be “no.”

For the past 52 years, the Illinois Corn Breeders’ School, organized by the University of Illinois, has delivered a 1.5-day program on hot issues in corn hybrid development. Illinois Corn Breeders’ School is but one of the earlier options that may have been sufficient at informing breeders of new technologies and approaches; these days it is likely to be only one component of a continuing education regime.

Sensitive to the need for expanded post-graduate education opportunities, some scientific conferences such as American Society of Agronomy and the Crop Science Society of America and the Plant and Animal Genome Conference have instituted application-focused workshops to supplement presentations by keynote speakers. A number of short courses have been offered by U.S. land-grant universities such as Tucson Plant Breeding Institute at the University of Arizona, the Marker-Assisted Plant Breeding module at University of Minnesota, the Summer Institute in Statistical Genetics at North Carolina State University, and Plant Breeding for Drought Tolerance short course at Colorado State University. Beyond the United States, continuing education programs are offered through CGIAR centers, as well as key agricultural universities.

For more comprehensive training, the University of California, Davis, offers a six-week course delivered over one to two years, the Plant Breeding Academy. Unlike some, this program targets all levels and types of plant breeders: bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral.

In addition to keeping breeders current with new technologies and methodologies, continuing education upgrades one’s knowledge base and skills. The latter objective has taken on increasing importance as the private sector takes a more predominant role in seed product development. Private sector employees may be more likely to seek promotion, and be encouraged to do so. Of Plant Breeding Academy graduates, a vast majority have been promoted or received an increase in compensation within three years of completion.

In this vein, online graduate courses have sprung up to meet this demand through land-grant universities such as University of Nebraska, Texas A&M University, and North Carolina State University. Iowa State University offers a full master’s curriculum through distance learning, which can result in a terminal, ‘no-thesis’ degree. In addition to a non-thesis option, TAMU offers a thesis option master’s degree in plant breeding, whereby the student conducts his research at their work location co-located with a doctorate-level scientist who qualifies as an adjunct member faculty.

In addition, companies are taking on the responsibility for continuing education internally. Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences, Limagrain and Syngenta all have some organized form of continuing education for their scientists. For example, Ray Riley, then-head of germplasm technology, established the Syngenta Breeding Academy in 2011. Today, Heather Merk manages the global-scale program, which involves personnel in all crop pipelines.

My advice? As a seasoned plant breeder, I see continuing education in some form as essential to maintaining high productivity and relevance in cultivar improvement. You could go it alone and spend significant time in the library, or you could take advantage of “packaged” information assembled by topical experts, targeted to your needs and desires. Whether you want to keep current with scientific advancements and the new efficient approaches these can enable, cultivate and nurture your innovative mindset, or grow your knowledge base and skill set to a whole new level, there are options for continuing education that can serve you well while you remain fully employed. Check them out!

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