Kevin Falk, a student at Iowa State University, is the grand prize winner of the American Seed Trade Association’s (ASTA) second annual “Better Seed, Better Life” student video contest, held in conjunction with the National Association of Plant Breeders (NAPB) and the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America (Tri-Societies). Kevin was honored last week during ASTA’s CSS 2018 & Seed Expo in Chicago.
The 2018 contest theme was “Rumor Has It.” University students were asked to create videos to help set the record straight on a common misconception or myth associated with the seed industry and/or plant science. Second and third place winners were Kshitij Khatri, University of Florida, and Nathalia Penna Cruzato, Texas A&M University. Videos were judged by an expert panel of volunteers from ASTA, NAPB and Tri-Societies; winning students received cash prizes.
Falk grew up in Carman, a small town of 3,000 in Manitoba. The town is home to a lot of research stations, and as a high school student he got summer jobs working at some. That led him to pursue canola breeding at the University of Manitoba.
“While I was there doing my undergrad and master’s degree, I saw there was a wave of soybean acres flowing north and thought it would be a great opportunity to influence the expansion of soybean across Canada,” the 34-year-old says. “I contacted an old wheat breeding colleague who got me in touch with a colleague of his, they were both wheat breeders for Agriculture Canada in Saskatchewan.
“One thing led to another and I found myself at Iowa State working with a former wheat breeder named Danny Singh, who’s now my adviser.”
Having those connections was hugely valuable for Falk. One project of his includes conducting a genetic scan of the diversity of root system architecture. For this project, Falk developed and improved research methods, as well as deployed advanced statistical tools including the integration of computer vision and machine learning to develop new insights that eluded previous studies on a complex set of traits.
“I love science and technology, farming and working with people. Plant breeding was and is a perfect fit for me,” he says.
For Falk, working closely with others is something that’s inseparable from the day-to-day business of plant breeding. Plant breeding is very much a collaborative effort, involving all kinds of different people, including those outside the breeding sphere. It’s a lesson he’s taken to heart — being a leader and bringing everyone into the fold is something he feels a responsibility to do.
He recently took part in a graduate student leadership workshop, where he participated in a DISC personality test, a behavior assessment tool based on the DISC theory of psychologist William Moulton Marston, which centers on four different behavioral traits: dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness.
“I ranked as an influencer, which really does describe me to a tee,” Falk says. “I advise people never to stand still for too long. Movement is life. Always be learning, creating and adapting. Put your relationships first, both personal and professional. And make sure you learn from older, more experienced plant breeders. They have so much legacy knowledge that’s hugely valuable.”
For Roy Cantrell, that’s good advice. The Florida-based plant breeding consultant has a long history in the industry, including 11 years as a professor at New Mexico State University and a decade as global cotton breeding lead for Monsanto. He’s now also a mentor for the Borlaug Scholars program of which Falk was named the 2018 winner.
“Plant breeding is very interactive. The days of having a single breeder working on a project are more or less over. You may be working with data scientists, someone in machine learning, genomic scientists, the list goes on,” he says.
“Plant breeders are looked upon as leaders. You get blamed if that variety or hybrid fails. You get rewarded if it’s successful. You have to be prepared for both and act with dignity and maturity no matter what you’re faced with. I try to instill that upon students. It’s crucial to know how to be a good leader and inspire people to want to work with you.”