Why did you want to be a plant scientist?
First, I’m super uncomfortable with the concept of “Food Hero”. That’s Norman Borlaug’s space. I’m a schlub that was fortunate to grow up immersed in science, and I grew up in a home were science was the topic du jour. We talked about electricity, magnetism, space, radio, you name it. We had lots of pets, plants were part of our flower boxes, and sad tomato plants grown in five-gallon tar buckets outside of our Chicago apartment. It was easy to fall in love with science and be enthralled with biology.
Later I was lucky to get a break as the first kid in my family to ever attend college. I’d earn the opportunity to wash dishes for free in a lab that focused on plants. I guess that’s where I found the hard scientific inroad that formally stoked my interest. The swine sperm motility lab was the next one down, and this all could have turned out very differently.
But seriously, I was always told I had clever ideas and I always wanted to use technology to make our planet a little better. I’ve always enjoyed working long hours and driving new ideas. Applying these assets to plant biology is a great way to do that. I was lucky to have mentors that recognized that spark under an otherwise dim bulb.
Can you explain what your job involves?
I have three full-time jobs and I love them all. The first brings me joy and happiness. I have a wonderful research lab, where I work daily with outstanding students and postdocs, along with international scholars. We research light effects on plant growth and the genetic basis of flavors. We’re now working with synthetic molecules that can solve big problems. That’s a lot of fun. My second job is Chairman of the 9th ranked plant biology department on the planet, serving as the administrative, managerial and career-shaping contact for about 60 statewide faculty. That brings me a lot of satisfaction. My passions are really with sharing science of agriculture and farming with the pubic. I do literally hundreds of presentations and write a lot to bring science to the consumer, as well as produce a weekly podcast.
This three-careers-in-one approach is not sustainable. I’m heading into my sixth year of juggling three full time jobs and I silently hope for one of these to go sour. I spend only 50% of nights in my own bed. I’m overwhelmed, oversubscribed, and need to dial it back. But, I don’t think it will happen any time soon…
What crop enhancements are you working on?
We are interested in how we can use different light wavelengths as commands to shape plant growth and development. We call it ‘plant whispering’. We are also working on how to use molecular marker strategies to make fruits taste better. But the lab jewel these days is how we’ve been able to create new plant growth modulators and protection compounds from random information. It might be the dumbest idea I ever had, but it works like a charm.
Can you describe how damaging pests can be for farmers?
Growing crop plants will always be a battle against pests, pathogens, and weeds. Domesticated plants have had most of the fight bred out of them, so we need to care for them. Of course, these trends are reversing and the next generation of plants will thrive from better genetics that require fewer inputs. If we’re smart we’ll learn from our mistakes. Any pest problems must be met with multiple levels of integrated safe solutions. Evolution of resistance is powerful, and one-size-fits-all efforts simply invite problems. Integrated pest management is essential. This may involve new RNAi technologies or introduction of natural disease resistance by marker-assisted breeding, and even gene editing. These solutions will be most practical in places where chemical and biological controls are expensive, unavailable, or impractical.
Why is your profession important in the challenge to feed the world?
Whenever I see “feed the world” red flags go off. The best thing our profession can do to feed the world, is stop saying that it will feed the world. Such generalities (while I understand exactly what people mean) fall flat with the public. They seem like hyperbole and oversimplification at the same time. So my profession’s job is not to feed the world, it is to provide solutions for people in a world to feed themselves. That means tailored, local solutions where people are the stars, not the technologies.
Sometimes this will be building a road. Other times this will be overthrowing a regime. I’m not well trained in the former. I truly believe that technology can have an important role in many cases, but it is not a panacea. The best thing we can do is train scientists from areas in need. Help them establish local trust, train local trainers, and let the people connected with the communities provide the solutions to the communities.
Bring food technology hand-in-hand with medical care and education. I want to give Bill Gates a hug and a high-five for all he does in this area.
What inspires you about your job?
I think my best talent is surrounding myself with really good people that make me better. I’m grateful to have had mentors that provided wonderful opportunities along the way. Great students and postdocs helped me grow my career, and wonderful support from my university and colleagues is behind every success. I know that I stand on the shoulders of giants. That inspires me to push forward.
At the same time I love going to conferences and seeing the amazing breakthroughs and exciting new science. The people in my field inspire me. I like talking to students at their posters, and I make a point to understand their work. I want to be like Dr. Winslow Briggs—in his mid 80’s he still attends conferences, reads posters, and challenges students to think about their work. They don’t realize that they are talking to a legend and he doesn’t let them know they are talking to one. He’s a scientist teaching and learning science. That inspires me to be better at connecting with the next generation.
Kevin M. Folta is a professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida.