Jul 13, 2021
UF/IFAS awarded first Ph.D. plant breeding program in Florida

Working in labs and fields across Florida, a new generation of students will start earning a Ph.D. in plant breeding from the University of Florida – the first program of its kind in Florida and one of a few in the nation.

The University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has received approval from the Florida Board of Governors to start the program. Seven students are in the first cohort to begin in August.

Coursework will be available in person in Gainesville and online for students conducting their dissertation research off-campus at one of the UF/IFAS research and education centers throughout the state. The ability to conduct their entire program where their crop is grown and bred, from vanilla in Homestead to peanuts in the Panhandle, will be a great benefit to students.

“The new Ph.D. program is important because it will help attract the best plant-breeding students to UF/IFAS, and it will help us as faculty to provide them the best possible education,” Vance Whitaker, a UF/IFAS associate professor of horticultural sciences and a strawberry breeder at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, said in a news release. “It will help create synergy among the plant-breeding students working across multiple departments.”

The students will do their coursework primarily in Gainesville and work on their dissertation research mostly in the location of their advisor’s lab.

“Students’ dissertation research will contribute substantially to breeding programs, because the success of varieties released by breeding programs is built on the science of breeding and genetics,”  Whitaker said. “Plant breeding is vital to meeting the food, feed, fiber and environmental quality needs of our burgeoning worldwide population. Developing better crops will help us produce more food with fewer resources in a sustainable manner. Our students are passionate about those needs and goals, and that is why they want to become plant breeders.”

Elaine Turner, dean of UF/IFAS CALS, said top-flight graduate students will help scientists as they work toward solving issues such as hunger.

“Plant breeding is an important element in our collective efforts toward global food security,” Turner said. “Recruiting top graduate students and providing them an outstanding academic program that incorporates traditional and modern breeding techniques along with applications of artificial intelligence, will help us achieve our goal of eliminating hunger through sustainable food production.”

UF/IFAS CALS already has many faculty members whose research focuses on plant breeding, with academic homes in four departments: agronomy, horticultural sciences, environmental horticulture and the School of Forest, Fisheries and Geomatics Sciences. Those faculty already regularly mentor graduate students, who also study plant breeding and earn graduate degrees in agronomy, horticultural sciences, forest resources and conservation or plant molecular and cellular biology.

“As the number of plant breeders has grown, there has been a growing interest in having a degree program called plant breeding, which makes it clearer that this is an academic emphasis at UF/IFAS CALS,” Turner said.

Students will start their hands-on learning in August. As they do, they’ll learn from about 27 UF/IFAS scientists across the state. Those researchers use traditional and newer breeding technologies, including gene editing.

Through plant breeding, researchers try to ensure crops and ornamental plants resist diseases, pests, droughts and flooding. They also hope to make sure the fruits taste good and that plants emit a wonderful aroma and look beautiful.

Those crops include citrus, tomatoes, strawberries, peanuts, blueberries, corn, lettuce and sugar cane. UF/IFAS breeders also develop ornamental plants and cattle forage.

“One of CALS’ highest priorities is to provide relevant curricula so we can meet our mission of preparing students to meet the world’s critical challenges in agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities,” Turner said. “This program integrates expertise of faculty across four different departments into one-degree program.”

Brad Buck, University of Florida

Geoffrey Meru, a vegetable geneticist at the Homestead-based Tropical Research and Education Center, working in his lab with a student. Photo: University of Florida

 




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