What aspect of genetics and/or genomics most interests you?
I am interested in adaptation and how plants are able to cope with changing environments. Plants are not able to just get up and move away when there is a stress so how plants can cope with novel environments and abiotic stresses, especially in terms of climate change, is fascinating. We can use plant genomes or their genetic backgrounds in combination with physiological, biochemical, and other data to understand how plants can thrive in a certain environment or survive when presented with a stress. Working with my peers in GG scholars, who utilize a variety of these techniques, and with the discussion sections from our courses are helping me to develop my research on plant response to the environment and give me a solid background in understanding techniques that we use for plant breeding in the face of climate change.
What (or Who) influenced you to go into your field of study?
Growing up my family had a huge garden in our backyard and I would crawl in the “tomato jungle” as a kid, which is where my fascination with plants began. My mom has about 40 orchids and many other house plants, and I’d help her take care of plants. With the amount of cultivating that we did as a family, we would joke that our house has the “best air in Champaign County.” I decided that I needed to pursue research in plants when I learned that climate change was presenting plants with unique stresses and I joined Dr. Lisa Ainsworth’s Plant Biology lab. I ended up getting a master’s degree in her lab focused on abiotic stress of ozone and how it impacts photosynthesis in maize. While working on my master’s project, I learned more about plant genetics and breeding and I began thinking about how my research on ozone and corn could be brought to use in plant breeding. I decided to come to NC State for my PhD to work with Dr. Jim Holland and to build skills in plant breeding and genetics. My current project uses genomic selection for adaptation of tropical maize to temperate environments.
Who or what do you hope benefits from your research?
The goal for my project is to use genetics to adapt maize from tropical environments to the temperate U.S. summer growing season. There are many different strains or types of maize, like there are of breeds of dogs, and not all of them are used in maize breeding in the U.S. Exotic maize, or maize that is of foreign, temperate, tropical, and semitropical origin, are rarely used in current U.S. maize breeding because it is maladapted to the U.S. This means that in the U.S, these exotic lines may not flower to produce an ear or will be really tall and fall over. This problem of not flowering can be from different day lengths in the growing season (i.e. long days in the U.S. and short days in tropical regions), different season lengths, or different environmental conditions in general (i.e. temperatures, water availability). Not producing and ear or falling over hides desirable characteristics, such as disease resistances or tolerance to drought or heat stress. These exotic maize lines are very diverse and will be key for future maize breeding because they can contribute novel sources of variation for many traits. My project directly focuses adapting these exotic lines to the U.S. so that they can flower and produce an ear, which the biggest obstacle from utilizing these lines in U.S. maize breeding. Then these lines can be evaluated by breeder for resistances to diseases and drought and used to produce better varieties for farmers.
How can your research be used to inform decision makers (e.g. policy makers, resource managers, health practitioners, K12 educators, etc etc)?
One major problem with growing maize is that it is resource intensive, it needs nitrogen fertilizer, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides for diseases, pests, and weeds, and irrigation. My research is to help broaden the diversity used in maize breeding to create maize varieties that are can be less resource intensive. In the future, we can work with corn growers’ associations, farmers, and even policy makers to push for farming practices that are more sustainable. Introducing new maize germplasm to breeding is a first step to creating these varieties to make corn production more sustainable.
What do you think is the most pressing issue or problem in your field of study?
Maize production uses a lot of resources and with a changing climate, resource use for maize production has the potential to increase substantially. If we can create maize varieties that are more resilient to drought stress, then farmers won’t have to irrigate as much, and the crop will be able to survive in rainfed corn growing areas. By widening the diversity in maize, we can bring in new alleles and variation in traits like disease resistance. There’s so much potential to improve many different traits in maize to make production of maize less resource intensive, like resistance to abiotic and biotic stresses, different soil nutrient availability, etc. We can use genetics to identify regions of the genome that are associated with these traits to make more informative breeding decisions as well as create varieties that are more resilient to climate change.
How do you expect the GG Scholars program to impact your work?
My friends in my GG Scholars cohort will definitely be friends and colleagues for life. Everyone is so supportive of each other and we are building a network that we can rely on for the rest of our lives. It is easy to become absorbed in your field of research and the GG scholars’ program has helped me branch out and learn about different topics and approaches in genetics research. This is so valuable because it allows me to use multifaceted techniques to answer questions in my research. Additionally, the network that I build here with faculty at NC state will be a system that I will rely on for my entire career.
How would you describe your research interests to a 3rd grader?
Plants are sessile organisms, which means that they cannot move from where they are planted and have to have the ability to deal with all sorts of stresses. Maize that is not from the U.S. has troubles growing in the U.S. If you live a sea level and then go to Colorado to climb mountains, you are going to have a really hard time breathing and feel like you have to take lots of breaths! This is because you are not adapted to the low oxygen at high altitudes and you have to take more breaths to get the same oxygen as you would at sea level. It’s the same for tropical maize. Tropical maize is used to having shorter day’s and a longer growing season in Mexico but, in the U.S., tropical maize is grown in longer days with a short growing season. This can stop the plant from flowering and producing an ear! We want to adapt the tropical maize to the U.S. growing season. But why do we want to use tropical maize? Tropical maize has a different genetic background than maize grown in the U.S. and can have some really cool traits. For example, maybe there’s a tropical maize plant that has purple kernels and a U.S. corn that has big leaves, I can breed the two together to create a plant that produces big leaves and purple kernels.
What’s your dream job?
I am not sure right now. I took a big jump from studying plant physiology for my master’s research to plant genetics and breeding for my PhD research. I would like to be in a position to utilize both of these to solve problems in agriculture. I also think I’d like to have a position where I am able to teach and help students learn, whether that be a professor, extension or industry position. I had many incredible teachers and professors who helped me get where I am today, and I’d like to do the same for the future generations of plant scientists.