Seed World sits down with some of the best young minds to find out what it takes to succeed in the modern world of plant breeding.
Known as the father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug saved millions of lives throughout the world by developing high-yielding wheat varieties during the mid-20th century. He was also known for training large numbers of young people, whom he referred to as “hunger fighters,” to follow in his footsteps.
Nine years after his death, we sat down with a few of these modern hunger-fighters during the recent 2018 National Association of Plant Breeders (NAPB) meeting in Guelph, Ontario. These eight individuals comprise this year’s Borlaug Scholars, young people who represent the next generation of plant breeding leaders.
Each scholar offers important advice and lessons for how to succeed in the challenging modern world of plant breeding, including how to stay focused and motivated and how to shatter old myths such as the belief that sacrificing sleep for studying is a recipe for success, and the opinion that science and spirituality can’t coexist.
But we didn’t just take their word for it. The advice they give and lessons they offer are backed up by experienced stalwarts of the plant breeding world who can attest that young breeders are coming up in a different time, but one that’s still governed by timeless wisdom as true today as it was in the past.
Manage Your Time
Dorothy Kirsch lives a life familiar to most undergrads. The 21-year-old biology major at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota studies plant and ear height in maize. She’s originally from Wesley, Iowa, and is an intern at the DuPont Pioneer Research Station in Algona.
Kirsch is a member of the National Biological Honor Society Beta Beta Beta and the National Scholastic Honor Society Delta Epsilon Sigma. Getting the most out of life is in her DNA. After finishing her bachelor’s degree, she plans to complete her doctorate in applied plant sciences with an emphasis on plant breeding and bioinformatics.
She has a simple secret that underpins her success: she’s a morning person. This helps her to manage her time well and stay fresh.
“I try to plan all my classes for early in the morning and get my schedule planned in the morning before most people are awake. I also often do some homework at work depending on how busy we are,” she says.
Elizabeth Lee began her own education in plant breeding in the early 1980s and says one important lesson she’s learned over the years is to not fall victim to workaholism. Lee is a plant scientist at the University of Guelph specializing in maize. She’s been involved with NAPB since its inception and helped organize this year’s meeting.
“You have to acknowledge times have changed,” she says. “There is more stress in breeding — the profession has changed because you’re always plugged in now. We need to start thinking of the expectations we have of grad students working six or even seven days a week. Just because we did that back in the day, that shouldn’t necessarily be the expectation we have now.”
Put Relationships First
Iowa State University graduate student Kevin Falk grew up in Carman, a small town of 3,000 in the Canadian province of Manitoba. The town is home to many research stations, some of which Falk worked at throughout high school, and helped lead him to pursue canola breeding at the University of Manitoba.
“While I was there doing my undergraduate and master’s degrees, 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.
One project of his includes conducting a genetic scan of the diversity of root system architecture. 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.
Roy Cantrell is a Florida-based plant breeding consultant who 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.
“Plant breeding is very interactive,” he says. “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.”
“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.”
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Make Sure You’re Well-Equipped
Austin Dobbels loves to fly drones. Dobbels, 27, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota studying how unmanned aerial vehicles can be used for high-throughput phenotyping of soybean iron deficiency chlorosis.
Iron deficiency chlorosis causes reduced soybean yields due to lack of available iron in the soil. Applying nutrients is costly, so the best tool for the farmer is to plant a variety tolerant to iron deficiency chlorosis.
“With a drone we can fly the field in five minutes, capture images and go back to the computer and use image processing to get data from each plot to inform our breeding decisions. With a drone we can capture images every week and it literally takes five minutes.”
Having the right tools and knowing how to use them is not a new concept to plant breeders, of course. Arron Carter is a Washington State University wheat breeder and mentor for NAPB’s Borlaug Scholarship program. He says being adept at using the latest tools has always been a crucial skill of successful breeders.
“In the past it was about phenotyping and walking into the field and looking with your eye,” Carter explains. “Now we have sensors, drones, we can look at photosynthesis and canopy temperature that you can’t see with your eye, and a lot more. There’s a lot of things we have at our fingertips now to figure out what will be useful and beneficial for breeding in the future.”
If it wasn’t for the Boy Scouts, Andrew Herr may never have become a plant breeder. It was his experience in Scouts that gave him an appreciation for the natural world.
“Scouting gave me a lot of respect for nature and the world we live in and how wild it is and that we have to respect the earth,” Herr says. “As kids we often are taught to follow, but in Scouting we are given a chance to show our potential [as leaders].”
Now an undergraduate at Iowa State University majoring in agronomy, Herr conducts undergraduate research using image analysis to extract corn root phenotypes for use in genomic prediction.
“They are the foundation of the plant, and if we can understand what traits make a healthy root system, we can hopefully boost yields and have a more reliable crop for the consumer and farmer,” he says.
Robert Duncan is a brassica breeder at the University of Manitoba and winner of NAPB’s Early Career Scientist Award. Like Herr, he didn’t have experience in plant breeding when he began his studies.
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 doctorate, 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.”
Try a Bit of Everything
Adam Bolton isn’t one to limit himself. The 27-year-old fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been all over the map in terms of plant breeding. He is now focusing on what’s become his favorite plant, the carrot.
For his PhD studies, he looks at the physiology and genetics of salt and heat tolerance in diverse carrot germplasm with the goal of developing new breeding material. Climate change has necessitated the development of salt- and heat-tolerant varieties of carrots, especially for developing countries where a lack of Vitamin A in the diet is an issue.
Ksenija Gasic, a peach breeder at Clemson University in South Carolina and incoming chair of the Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee, has made a career out of applying the right tools to fulfill the tastes of consumers. She began as a fruit breeder in Serbia and came to North America to use new molecular tools in her work.
For Gasic, breeding the perfect peach is a pleasure that never gets old.
“The fun thing is seeing something you created that brings pleasure to others,” she says. “I was evaluating crosses I made in 2015 and, after walking through the field tasting plenty of bad, acidic peaches, finally found one that had the perfect flavor. Everyone in the lab loved it. That’s the highlight for me, finding that unique combination of traits that impact consumers’ lives.”
In 2017, when the American Seed Trade Association put out the call for entries in its Better Seed, Better Life video contest, Katelyn Fritz was intrigued. An undergraduate from Iowa State University double majoring in agronomy and global resource systems with focus areas in plant breeding and biotechnology as well as Central America, she felt she had something to offer.
Having spent nine months in Guatemala helping researchers start up a plant breeding program, she felt she could not only put together a great video, but help the world see the important biofortification work being done in the country.
“In high school I got involved with the World Food Prize and from there, I was lucky enough to be selected as a Borlaug intern at the International Rice Research Facility in the Philippines. I did two months there working, going through different laboratories and that’s where my passion was and where I saw my future going — working in biofortification,” she says.
Fritz met the founder and CEO of an NGO in Guatemala and he welcomed her to come intern with them.
“I was looking at how to create a laboratory in the middle of Guatemala and to create a breeding program,” Fritz says. “It was a huge opportunity.”
Robert Allan is one of the people who helped usher in the Green Revolution. Winner of NAPB’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Allan is an accomplished wheat breeder who worked with Norman Borlaug. He says the next generation of breeders is in a good position to pick up where previous generations left off.
“To be at this meeting and to see so many young people is really surprising to me, and it’s a very good thing they’re able to interact with scientists as well as each other. “[Modern technology] has taken a lot of the guesswork out of plant breeding,” says the 87-year-old.
Tackle Uncertainty Head-On
“The uncertainty is something I struggle with a lot. Right now, the best thing for me to keep motivated is to just try to open my opportunities and broaden my horizons,” says Tavin Schneider, a 22-year-old senior at Montana State University. She’ll graduate in December and will attend Washington State University for her master’s degree. She studies plant sciences with a minor in genetics. “You never know what opportunities are going to come in your future, so take the ones you are excited for, learn all the time and be open to anything,” she says.
That’s good advice in a time where technology has opened up a world of possibilities for young breeders.
“It’s a lifelong learning experience. Today, that is especially true with so much technological innovation in plant breeding,” says Todd Campbell, a geneticist with the United States Department of Agriculture and the new president of NAPB.
According to Campbell, that process of discovery is something that comes naturally for plant breeders, who generally are exposed to a range of opportunities early on. Coming on as chair for NAPB, Campbell sees a young, vibrant organization that’s quickly attracting the attention of young breeders. NAPB now has more than 400 members, the highest number since its founding eight years ago.
“The first thing [I want to do as chair] is to continue to build on successful collaborations we have with other organizations like the American Seed Trade Association, Crop Science Society of America and the American Society of Agronomy. We need to all work together for the same common goal to improve our ag system,” Campbell says.
Liz Prenger grew up in a farming family. She loved being outside, loved working with her hands, and found it hard to leave the farm when it came time to do her post-secondary studies.
The 24-year-old master’s student at the University of Georgia now works in soybean breeding, focusing on the genetics and improvement of soybean seed composition.
“You have the ability to focus on different projects and different aspects of breeding. These little projects might not have a huge direct impact necessarily in monetary value, but if you add this trait you are studying into your soybean lines, it may make them better able to withstand pressures and whatever specific environment they are growing in — and that contributes to the yield and the performance of the variety in that particular location,” she says.
The result of following the breeding path to wherever it leads is the chance to make an impact in places where you may least expect, says John Clarke, fruit breeder at the University of Arkansas and winner of NAPB’s Impact Award.
He’s become known not only for his fruit breeding program that’s accomplished innovative things in the world of blackberries, wine grapes, peaches and nectarines, but also for his musical skills which are featured in promotional videos produced by the university to promote new fruit varieties and featured on YouTube.
“I was trying to envision another way to communicate with the public about our varieties. You know in fruit crops, generally you would go to grower meetings and talk and maybe share information about new varieties. Getting the word out is not always easy. Our technology in communications is entirely different than just catalogs and meetings now.”
Three Honored for Plant Breeding Excellence
The Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes distinguished long-term service to the plant breeding discipline through research, teaching, outreach and leadership. This year’s recipient is Shawn Kaeppler, a professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Kaeppler received his bachelor’s degree in genetics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1987, and his doctorate in plant breeding and genetics at the University of Minnesota under the mentorship of Ronald Phillips. He has been a faculty member in the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, since 1995 working in the areas of maize genetics and breeding and crop functional genomics.
An overall passion has been understanding how genetic variation results in altered phenotypes, and how that knowledge can be harnessed to make better crops. His collaborative team has made significant discoveries in crop epigenetics, somaclonal variation, and crop genome composition including extensive presence-absence variation. He has made important discoveries in maize seed size and composition, and maize abiotic stress tolerance. As outcomes of his research goals, he develops maize lines with utility to seed producers in the northern maturity zones.
Donald Bockelman was honored with the Plant Breeding Impact Award., which recognizes an individual in the public or private sector who has made significant advancements in the field of plant breeding, specifically in the area of applied variety and/or technology development. Bockelman is a corn breeder who retired from Monsanto in July 2018 after 37 years of highly impactful plant breeding activities.
Inbreds developed by Bockelman represented step changes in Monsanto’s product performance for North America and have had significant relevance outside North America as part of the global germplasm exchange.
Equally important to his commercial success are his contributions to promote breeding for diversity efforts around the world and mentoring many new corn breeders and research team members.
On the other end of the spectrum is Jeffrey Endelman, who won the Early Career Scientist Award. This award recognizes a scientist in early stages of their plant breeding career who exhibits the ability to establish strong research foundations, to interact with multi-disciplinary teams, and to participate in relevant professional societies.
Endelman is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and leads the potato breeding program studied computational science for many years before discovering his calling as a plant breeder. As a graduate student in bioengineering at Caltech, he developed computational methods to optimize the in vitro evolution of enzymes and spent many weekends observing native plants in the wilderness areas of southern California.
Endelman left academia for two years to work on small vegetable farms, by which time he realized a career in plant breeding was the perfect way to combine his interests. He returned to graduate school to complete a doctorate in crop science at Washington State University, and in 2013 he joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to lead the potato breeding program. During the past five years, he has overseen the release of 10 potato varieties, spanning all U.S. market categories.
Endelman has been active in training students and postdocs at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He teaches an undergraduate course on genetically modified crops and graduate courses on genetic mapping, polyploid genetics, and selection theory.