Cultivating Rapeseed and Early Careers

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In his early career, Rob Duncan has been awarded for his efforts in developing a high-erucic acid rapeseed and helping students develop as plant breeders.

Who has strong research foundations, interacts with multidisciplinary teams and participates in professional societies enough to represent the National Association of Plant Breeders (NAPB) as the Early Career Scientist Award winner?

The answer: Rob Duncan.

However, Duncan didn’t originally get his start in plant breeding.

“My parents owned a pedigree seed farm,” Duncan says. “Other than seed production and farming, I didn’t have experience in plant breeding. While I was working toward my agronomy degree, I didn’t know the area I wanted to pursue. I had several jobs, including a job at BASF and Proven Seed, and focused on pest management and variety comparison trials before I discovered I really enjoyed plant pathology.”

During his master’s program, Duncan realized one of the best methods to manage plant disease was through plant breeding and host resistance. This led him to the University of California, Davis, for his PhD, where he focused on breeding for disease resistance in dark red kidney beans.

Without much experience in plant breeding, Duncan wishes he had known one thing in his early career: “Such a small percentage of your crosses produce new cultivars or actually become commercial products, either the parents didn’t get combined well or the hybrid didn’t have the trait you wanted. There is a lot of failure for each new cultivar registered.”

Duncan is an associate professor and breeder at the University of Manitoba, where his research focuses on canola and rapeseed cultivar development.

“The core part of my breeding program is in high-erucic acid rapeseed development, but because it’s the same species as canola, a lot of traits I work with can be applied to canola quality Brassica napus,” Duncan says. “I work on both the basic genetics of how traits are controlled, as well as the production of commercial cultivars. This is great for my students, because they acquire experience working on both ends.”

Duncan’s research is important for many reasons.

“Erucic acid is used for industrial products like lubricants,” he says, “But in an academic setting like mine, my team has the luxury of spending time on the basic genetic questions and on the mechanisms of what causes certain traits to work.”

Duncan spoke on his rapeseed program at the NAPB annual meeting in August.

However, he is not only being recognized for his research, but also his influence with the students. Along with research, Duncan also teaches Genetics, Advanced Plant Breeding and Cereal and Oilseed Production Practices at the University of Manitoba.

“I’d really like my students to be able to walk away from my classes with a sense of whether or not they can be passionate about plant breeding,” Duncan says. “It can be challenging, and either students realize that they love it and can do it for the rest of their lives or that plant breeding isn’t the right field for them. I try to give real-world examples so students can see what life’s like as a plant breeder.”

“Agriculture’s such a broad field; you never really know where you’re going to end up!” Duncan says, “Whether you’re still in school or in an internship, I encourage students to gain experience in all aspects of agricultural research. It is these additional experiences where you often gain the necessary knowledge to become successful and set yourself apart from other candidates.”

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