UF Plant Breeding Program Draws Top Talent to Help Florida Growers

A reigning Big Ten Conference track and field champion is training on the front lawn at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. It’s the only spot at the center where he can throw a javelin 200 feet without spearing a crop or puncturing an irrigation line.


What Mark Porter really wants, though, is to be a gene jock. That’s slang for a molecular biologist. Porter came to the University of Florida because he saw it as the best place to pursue the Ph.D. he needs to be a champion plant breeder.


For at least the next four years, Porter will be working for Dr. Seonghee Lee in Balm on how to develop strawberries that make money for Hillsborough and Polk growers. He’ll search the strawberry genome for clues on what makes sweeter and flavorful berries.


Porter is one of seven budding scientists from around the world who arrived in Florida in August to work with Plant Breeders Working Group faculty in creating Florida crops. They’re the first UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences College of Agricultural and Life Sciences students whose Ph.Ds. will have a specific plant breeding designation.


They join a UF/IFAS team that has released more than 250 fruit, vegetable, and other plant cultivars in the past decade. The Ph.D. students’ job is to advance the work of your front-line breeders across the state. 


The Ph.D. program adds momentum to a plant breeding program that I would argue is already the nation’s finest. It’s got 27 faculty working on more than 50 crops, a royalty stream that has financed state-of-the-art lab facilities, one of the nation’s most robust reinvestment of royalties into research, and a UF artificial intelligence initiative that will give the team better tools and at least three more faculty.


The Ph.D. candidates help researchers take even more shots at identifying the best plants for your fields. For example, GCREC tomato breeder Dr. Sam Hutton’s student will work on building resistance in tomato varieties to prevent the emergence of any potential future strains of fusarium wilt. All seven will get the training and the Florida industry focus to prepare them for careers breeding solutions to Florida farmers’ challenges.
Our breeders have long had Ph.D. students, of course, in horticultural sciences, agronomy and other disciplines. The new plant breeding curriculum offers specialized instruction and research in creating cultivars. Employers sifting through resumes look specifically for degrees in plant breeding. So do students looking for degree programs.


Porter was on the cusp of accepting an offer at another land-grant university. If UF/IFAS had not offered the degree specifically in plant breeding, Porter says, he and his javelin and his ambition to help farmers through science would likely have gone to another state.


The UF/IFAS program has few peers in the nation. UC Davis, for example, does not offer a plant breeding Ph.D., nor does Penn State, where Porter studied as an undergrad.


Our edge is your edge. Better breeding will help the Florida fruit and vegetable industry keep ahead of your global competitors in agriculture.


Porter still has a year of eligibility left to compete in athletics, and he hopes to participate in his first Gator track and field meet on March 31 in Gainesville. Because he’s so far from campus, he trains in isolation at GCREC. Throw, walk 200 feet, retrieve, throw again.


Porter can throw on almost any day that he has the energy left after working with his most important teammates—other graduate students and scientists in Lee’s lab—in the greenhouse, the field, or the lab. 


Any day except one. The field is off-limits to him on Florida Ag Expo Day in November. I expect the field will be full of your trucks, and I don’t want to have to explain to you why there’s a javelin through your windshield.

J. Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

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