After almost seven years of discussions and proposals, UF will welcome its first class of Ph.D. plant breeding students Fall. The new program is one of six in the country and the only one in Florida.
Led by newly established plant breeding graduate program director Patricio Muñoz, the program will bring students hands-on experience in the fields and labs ensuring crops resists diseases, fruits taste good and plants emit a pleasant aroma.
“Every product that we create or we develop, it can have a huge impact on the sustainability of the way things are done in agriculture,” Muñoz, an associate professor at UF’s Horticulture Science Department and a blueberry breeder, said. “One of my goals as an educator is to transmit this passion to my students.”
Muñoz said the state depends on the products or varieties that have been developed by plant breeders. UF has created two industry hybrids, Yellowstone and Everglades, from the sweet corn breeding program, which is now available commercially.
“We already have an excellent group of plant breeders creating a huge impact, not just for the university, the state, the country, but also globally,” Muñoz said.
As one of the seven students in the first cohort, Mark Porter, a 22-year-old Pennsylvania State plant sciences graduate, will specialize in genetics of strawberry flavor.
"I was confident that I wanted to do the program at University of Florida," Porter said. "That kind of was an advantage in that sense because I knew right away what I was going to get to work on."
Porter remembers being amazed at the different variations of fruits and vegetables as a kid. He credits his trips to the grocery store and gardening for his love of plants and passion for plant breeding.
“I saw, like, a red banana for the first time and I was like, ‘What? I thought bananas were only yellow,’” Porter said. “Like it almost blew my mind.”
During his sophomore year at Pennsylvania State, he took a class on plant breeding with professor of plant genetics Majid Foolad, who opened his eyes to the significance of the field and inspired him to continue down this career path.
“He stressed this need for plant breeders and how, you know, as the world changes, the climate changes — we're going to need to really innovate with our approach to creating new varieties,” Porter said.
UF/IFAS employs 27 faculty members across seven research and education centers in Florida. They breed 50 diverse plant species, including blueberries located at UF’s main campus and strawberries in the Gulf Coast.
Vance Whitaker, chair of the plant breeding working group and associate professor of horticulture, works with strawberries at the Gulf Coast research and education center. In his department, precision breeding faculty will be hired specifically for the plant breeding program.
The program is funded by UF/IFAS and UF/CALS for personnel, recruitment, fellowships and tuition assistance, Whitaker said.
“One of the big motivations for creating this unified graduate program was the hope that it would help us attract the very best students to come to UF,” Whitaker said. “Having this cross departmental program gives us greater visibility to compete with other land grant institutions around the U.S. that have strong plant breeding programs.”
In the proposal to the Board of Governors, Whitaker said it was easy to justify the need for the plant breeding program.
“It's just an area with a lot of demand right now,” Whitaker said. “Creating better crops that you know yield more and on less land and can be more sustainably produced are you know going to have to be a huge part of the solution to feeding a world that has a burgeoning population.”
The program will include in-person and online coursework. Plant breeding working group overall coordinator Eliana Kampf wrote the program will include molecular techniques, quantitative genetics and analysis of breeding trials. It will attract federal and private funding which in turn will be used toward educating new plant breeding graduates.
“In the future we plan to recruit additional top-notch students by broadly targeting prospective students in peer institutions,” Kampf wrote. “A proactive recruitment plan to identify and attract top state, national and international students to the University of Florida and align it with its pre-eminence goals is in motion.”
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Isabella Douglas is a second-year journalism major and the criminal justice reporter for The Alligator's Metro desk. She previously worked as a news assistant for The Alligator's University team and as a contributing writer for the New Tampa & Wesley Chapel Neighborhood News. When she isn't reporting, she can be found reorganizing her bookshelf and adding books to her ever-growing TBR.