Research HighlightsUSB Fellowships: Seeds for the Future
United Soybean Board (USB) has always been known for its future-based investments in research and promotion. But did you know USB grows not only the next generation of soybean, but also the next generation of soybean researchers?
Between 2005 and 2019, USB provided fellowships to 17 graduate students in the plant sciences. Each student received annual support for up to four years, while they worked towards their doctorate degree and conducted a cumulative 85 years of research into better ways to grow soybeans in the US.
Now, one year after the program ended, the final students have graduated. Now, the alumni of this program are working on improved seeds, seed treatments, crop protection, crop trait development, agronomy, education, and much more, in industry, government, and education.
While the fellowship program may have ended, US soybean farmers continue to reap the benefits they have sown for generations to come.
Ryan Merry, Ph.D. Plant Breeding and Molecular Genetics, Farmer
Ryan is a self-described plant enthusiast. He recalls “my grandpa and I started a hobby farm when I was about 12 years old. We started with a few horses and cutting about ten acres of hay. That’s when I first became interested in agriculture.” Not knowing what careers were available in agriculture, he attended University of St. Thomas (UST) in St. Paul, Minn., as a biology student, “but fell in love with plant science through my research.”
Specifically, Ryan investigated how evergreen trees recover from winter stress, and how they reinitiate photosynthesis after being dormant in the cold. Upon graduation, he decided to combine his passions in agriculture and plant sciences, and work towards improving crop species.
He moved to the University of Minnesota for graduate school, where he identified a gene that would give soybeans improved tolerance to iron deficiency chlorosis (IDC), an important nutrient stressor that occurs in the Midwest in soils with high pH. He then used traditional breeding methods to put this gene into several elite soybean varieties, and was able to improve IDC tolerance by as much as 20%.
Dr. Merry completed his degree in June, and is currently working as a post-doc and exploring options in industry. That small farm he started with his grandfather has grown to about 80 acres of hay and a small herd of polled Hereford beef cattle. This connects him to the land, allows him to talk with other farmers, and reminds him of why his research is important to the farming community.
Ryan feels that because of the USB Fellowship, he was able to interact with a lot of growers on the national and state soybean boards. It also gave him the freedom to follow his own research interests, and the passion of the USB board members inspired him to ask growers what their needs were and how he could help them. Wherever he goes next, he will continue to make discoveries in crops for growers, working to make the world better for growers and the consumers they serve.
Clinton Steketee, Corn Breeding Project Specialist, Syngenta
Clint Steketee grew up on a farm, and became interested in plant breeding while a student at Michigan State University (MSU), where his first exposure to plant research was with turfgrass at the Hancock Turfgrass Research Center, and later at The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company. He earned a B.S. in Crop and Soil Sciences from MSU in 2012 and went on to graduate school at the University of Georgia (UGA). His M.S. research at UGA was focused on the characterization of dollar spot resistance in seashore paspalum.
Clint decided to diversify his crop research experience while earning his Ph.D., while learning about the genetic and genomic technologies more prevalent in soybean research.
Clint went on to earn his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Genomics at UGA in 2018, supported by the USB Fellowship. His dissertation research involved discovering germplasm and genomic regions to improve soybean drought tolerance.
Upon completing his Ph.D., Clint started to work for Inari in Cambridge, Mass., and then relocated to West Lafayette, IN, in 2019. As Inari’s Soybean Breeding Lead, he was responsible for the strategy, design, and operation of a new soybean breeding program for MG 0-4 and was also a member of a cross-functional, crop-focused team bridging Inari’s product pipeline between the lab and the field. In December 2020, Clint joined Syngenta as a Corn Breeding Project Specialist and will ultimately be stationed at a new R&D site in Malta, IL. In this role, he is part of a team developing corn inbred lines and hybrids in RM 103-120 and implementing strategies to enhance genetic gain for Syngenta’s East Market Segment.
Clint plans to continue his work in plant breeding to help develop new, improved cultivars for farmers. He is grateful for the funding that the USB Fellowship provided to support his Ph.D. research which helped lead him to his current career at Syngenta and looks forward to the challenges and opportunities facing agriculture in the years to come.
David Eickholt, Crop Trait Deployment Lead, PepsiCo
David Eickholt, Ph.D., is a Plant Geneticist and the Crop Trait Deployment Lead at PepsiCo’s University of Minnesota office. He works in agriculture raw material discovery, applying his plant breeding and analytics expertise to potatoes, oats, citrus, corn, and stevia. His team recently published the first-ever open-source sequence for the oat genome (https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2020/06/24/PepsiCo-and-Corteva-Agriscience-unveil-first-ever-open-source-sequencing-of-oat-genome).
David’s interest in plants began early, with his family’s farm and wheat seed business. While a pre-dental student at Michigan State University (MSU), David was exposed to the science of plant breeding through research at a corn breeding site for DuPont Pioneer. When he learned that he could get paid to study plant breeding, as opposed to paying to study dentistry, his future was set.
David earned his B.S. in Crop and Soil Science in 2009, and started his graduate career at North Carolina State University. David’s father saw an advertisement for the USB fellowship program, and encouraged David to apply. “Coming from a production farm, receiving money from a commodity organization was very unusual. You always knew the checkoff dollars went somewhere, but it was great to benefit directly from all those years my family paid in,” David recalls. This also impressed upon him the link between research and farmers.
David began his graduate career working on tobacco, both because of a great advisor and because there was funding. After completing an M.S. in plant breeding, he moved to projects developing and refining methods to breed present-day soybean with its genetically diverse ancestor, to improve protein quantity and quality, as well as yield. Much of this is considered the kind of basic research that commercial breeders don’t have the autonomy or incentives to do.
David learned that while companies are focus on increasing yield, higher yields do not drive more demand for soybeans. In order to drive demand, you need novel applications, uses, and products. Food companies are one of the gateways – if they create new soy food products, or use more soybean oil, that will drive demand. “We need to be competitive on yield and protein globally, but more yield without more end-use is a recipe for price and profitability disaster.”
In early 2017, David completed his Ph.D. in Crop Science (with a statistics minor), and started at PepsiCo, where he remains today.
Trulie Campbell, Data Compilation and Management, Limagrain Cereal Seeds
Trulie Campbell did not grow up on a family farm, but learned to love the land, production, and the principles of harvest. Her first experience with plant breeding was spending a summer working for the Orville Redenbacher Popcorn breeding team in her hometown, where she learned hybridization techniques for corn. She earned her B.S. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics several years later from Purdue University in 2003.
Post-graduation, she worked for multiple R&D laboratories developing skills in data analytics and molecular biology. Research and development had endless possibilities for anyone willing to search out an answer to a problem. She began her Ph.D. in soybean breeding in 2009 with no funding, but worked as a research associate and accepted two Monsanto Company internships to pay her way through her first year of graduate school. At Monsanto, she characterized soybean varieties (Glycine max) for resistance to the soybean aphid (Aphis glycines). During that time, she applied for the USB Fellowship and was awarded a four-year stipend. She is grateful to American farm families that support the soy checkoff investment, which allowed her to focus on her coursework and thesis research. Her research characterized resistance alleles in wild soybeans (Glycine soja), including soybean aphid resistance, to look at cross-compatibility of accessions in order to bring useful resistance from wild relatives into the domesticated soybean. This work was done with genomic tools including marker assisted backcrossing (MABC) and genotype by sequencing (GBS) to quickly remove yield drag in a wide cross and identify single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with pest resistance at low cost. In 2013, she graduated with her Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from Purdue University.
During her last year of graduate school she was hired by Dow AgroSciences as a Soybean Trait Manager and transitioned from that to a Corn Breeder for Agreliant Genetics LLC in 2015. She is quite literally, “Beyond the Bean” having worked with corn, soybean, and now wheat (Limagrain Cereal Seeds) during her career, while raising two young boys with her husband, Tom. She will never tire of her love of agriculture, the power of a seed planted, and admiring farmers that work hard to secure it for future generations.
Zachary King, Corn Breeding Product Placement Scientist, Syngenta
Growing up with a grandfather and uncles who farm, Zach developed a passion for breeding plants for a better tomorrow. He loves the continual improvement that produces genetic gain and resistance to pathogens.
Zach earned his B.S. in Biotechnology in 2008 from the State University of New York College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry.
He earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in Plant Breeding, Genetics, & Genomics from the University of Georgia in 2015. While there, he mapped several novel soybean resistance genes (quantitative trait loci) to soybean rust, including three novel resistance alleles. Zach also collaborated to fine map Rpp2, which allows the creation of more accurate genetic markers in soybean breeding. He developed elite soybean germplasm with rust resistance for the southern USA, that is now freely available to both the public and industry members. He also helped develop transgenic switchgrass that would break down more efficiently into ethanol.
While in graduate school, Zach participated in a soybean breeding co-op program at Monsanto, shadowing a Line Development Breeder and ran two independent projects focused on identifying genetic resistance to insects. He also spent time talking to farmers at USB about his research. He is extremely thankful that, “the fellowship allowed my lab to focus monies on supplies and extend the research even after I was gone, allowing the mapping of Rpp7 and the training of an additional graduate student.”
The co-op went well, and lead to a position as a Development Breeder at Monsanto upon graduation where Zach developed corn inbreds with top-end yield potential, biotechnology traits, and key native resistance genes to be deployed in the 95-100 RM zones of the United States. He moved up to the role of Germplasm Enhancement Breeder, where he identified and harnessed diverse genetic maize resources to breed inbreds with top-end yield potential and performance for farmers. During that time, he learned how to identify and explore useful haplotypes using data-driven science.
In June 2020, Zach moved to Syngenta, where he characterizes corn hybrids to ensure they get put on the right acres in the 95-100 RM. His long-term plan is to move back to line breeding, and continue to help make better seeds for farmers to prosper.