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Meet this year’s Paul Ecke Jr. and Altman Family scholars: plant-powered people, creating people-powered plants.

Talk to the five graduate students selected to receive this year’s AFE Paul Ecke Jr. and Altman Family scholarships, and some common themes quickly emerge. They are self-described plant nerds with a passion for horticulture—and enthusiastic advocates for their chosen field.

Young as they are, they are already leaders, with an impressive record of volunteer activity. Each of them is also a well-rounded individual who pays attention to soft skills like communication and time management.

More than most students, they have the benefit of real-life experience (because they took initiative to seek it out) that informs their understanding and their sense of purpose.

As dedicated graduate students, they are engaged in research projects that promise real, near-future results: improved crops or growing techniques, with both economic and environmental benefits.

All of them, undoubtedly, have felt an impact from the COVID-19 pandemic on their studies—but they are rolling with the punches and moving unfazed toward bright futures in horticulture and floriculture.

 

2020 Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholar: Annika Kohler

“One of the best things about being a graduate research assistant is that you can work on projects that will actually help growers with everyday problems,” says Annika.

That’s not a statement you would hear from just any graduate-level researcher. But Annika has always sought out opportunities for practical experience that would complement her academic career, giving it direction and focus.

“My mom always told me, the answer is never no until you ask,” says Annika. “So, I’m always trying to put myself out there.”

Her efforts have paid off. Following her graduation from the University of Georgia with a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture, she interned for five months with a local greenhouse grower and later served an internship at the University of Georgia Gardens.

As her current advisor at Michigan State University, Roberto Lopez, noted in his letter recommending her for the Paul Ecke, Jr., scholarship, “These experiences have not turned her away from the long hours and hard work associated with occupations in the horticulture industry.” On the contrary, they were turning points in her commitment to the field.  

At Michigan State, she has already engaged in research that could benefit the horticulture industry as a whole. Her master’s thesis will explore the use of energy-efficient LED lighting in ornamental young plant production.

Critical to the success of LEDs in replacing traditional HPS lamps is the percentage of far-red radiation in each. Annika has conducted experiments designed to quantify production time and quality under various lighting conditions, including supplemental lighting with far-red LEDs. Better plants, at a lower cost and with less environmental impact? What’s not to like?

Over the long term, Annika hopes to continue to work in research and development within the horticulture sector. One of the ways that scholarship money comes in handy, she notes, is in funding opportunities to attend conferences, both to learn and to share her own findings, and just to network: “I love meeting new people, especially other plant nerds; it just clicks instantly.”

For now, the coronavirus pandemic has curtailed those opportunities somewhat. But over the long term, Annika expects they will resume. Funding aside, she values the scholarship also for the recognition it affords: “It is really a high honor. Just being able to say that I am an AFE scholar opens up opportunities in our horticulture world.”

Established in 2002, the Paul Ecke, Jr. fund offers $5,000 a year for two years to one graduate student who demonstrates the skills and passion to become a leading floricultural scientist and educator. The scholarship honors the late Paul Ecke, Jr., who made significant contributions to the floriculture industry and believed strongly in research and education.

 

2020 Altman Family Scholars: Mason Marshall, Rhiannon Newton, Brooks Parrish, and Erin Pfarr

Every year since 2015, the Altman Family Scholarship has offered support to outstanding graduate students in horticulture at leading institutions—students already making significant contributions to the industry and likely to do so far into the future.

Created by Ken and Deena Altman, owners of Altman Plants, the scholarship fund is one of numerous efforts supported by the couple to improve education and research for the industry. This year the Altman family provided additional funds to allow expansion of the program to four recipients, deserving scholars all.

 

Mason Marshall, Texas A&M University

Where and when does the passion for plants and horticulture begin? For Mason Marshall—as for so many in the floral and floriculture industries—it all started with a high school job, working at a local nursery. He continued in that job for the first two years of college before transferring to Texas A&M University, where he graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and a minor in plant breeding.

Currently, Mason is working toward a Master of Science in Horticulture degree from the same prestigious university. Along the way, however, he began to feel a tug toward floriculture. Along with taking classes and conducting research, he teaches hands-on floral design labs to undergrads in a wide variety of disciplines.

“I come from a family of educators,” says Mason, “so I have a really big passion for teaching.” That passion bore fruit last semester when two of his students switched majors to horticulture, thanks to the interest that he inspired in the subject. “One of them even started her own flower farm back home and started selling flowers at a flower market and on Facebook; it was extremely successful. This was my first semester teaching, so, seeing something like that come out of my floral class—that was probably one of the highlights of my spring.”

On the research side, Mason is conducting studies with sunflower varieties suitable for cultivation either as garden ornamentals or as potted plants. These are branching sunflowers that bloom all season long. The trick is to induce more branching than happens naturally and to keep them from growing too tall, so they will develop into a marketable size, like a flowering shrub. This can be done manually, with pinching, or with the application of plant growth regulators.

And that, in a nutshell, is the kind of research Mason wants to continue doing: to be on the cutting edge with new crops, and able to advise growers about how to have success with that crop, where growing protocols haven’t been established or can be improved.

“My end goal would be to serve the industry with an open-access platform for sharing that kind of information—growing guidelines for new crops, how to reduce post-harvest losses, how to increase usage for floriculture crops. Like a floriculture almanac where you can come and find this information.”

Looking to the long term, Mason would like to get experience working in the industry, perhaps for a large company involved in breeding, like Ball SB or Dümmen Orange, and eventually transition into teaching at a university. That would be a career path similar to the one followed by his current advisor at Texas A&M, Dr. Terri Starman. And so, the horticulture torch is passed on!

 

Rhiannon Newton, West Virginia University

Most horticulture majors find their way to the field midway through their undergraduate years. Rhiannon Newton began to zero in on horticulture quite early, as a career as a junior in high school.

“I always loved plants, but I didn’t know about horticulture until I was browsing through a college website looking at majors,” she remembers. “Right away I thought, that’s the perfect fit for me.”

From this story, you can already tell about Rhiannon that she is a planner with a long-term vision for herself. “I’ve been hearing my whole life about how expensive college is and the debt problem,” she continues. “So, I knew I wanted to prepare for college as much as possible, so I wouldn’t waste the opportunity.”

Prepare she did, arriving at West Virginia University with 38 college credits already on her transcript, from advanced placement courses she had taken in high school. Searching out the most challenging and interesting options for earning honors credit, she began doing research in her very first semester as an undergrad.

“Research is not so much advertised as an opportunity that’s available to undergrads, but if you take initiative, you can do it,” she explains. “It definitely sounded more relevant to my goals than taking another introductory class.”

Her college credits earned in high school allowed her to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Science, majoring in Horticulture, after only three and a half years—even after taking six months to do an internship at Tagawa Greenhouses, assisted by a scholarship through the Vic and Margaret Ball Internship Program.

“I wasn’t able to get as much credit for that semester as if I had been a full-time student,” says Rhiannon, “but it was 100 percent worth it. Being completely immersed in the greenhouse industry for six months, you learn things you cannot learn at school.”

Now working on her Master’s in Science in Horticulture, also from West Virginia University, Rhiannon Newton is already conducting research that holds out hope for both cost savings and enhanced sustainability. Her project explores the use of a novel soil amendment: iron-coated sand.

Because it retains phosphorus, the sand offers the benefit of reducing phosphorus in the water runoff from greenhouses. It also reduces the need to add phosphorus as fertilizer, since the plants can get some of the phosphorus they need from the sand.

As an added bonus, the iron can be derived from mining as a waste product, which is then repurposed. As part of her project, Rhiannon works with an advisory panel that includes a greenhouse grower and a fertilizer company, ensuring the direct, practical relevance of her research.

Rhiannon also served, during her final full year as an undergrad, as president of the West Virginia University horticulture club. “She showed she could organize, motivate and inspire her fellow horticulture students,” wrote Sven Verlinden, club advisor and at that time also an academic advisor to Rhiannon. “She has a bright future”—one that will brighten the future of the horticulture industry as well.

 

Brooks Parrish, University of Florida

We caught up with Brooks Parrish on a day when he was working in the lab: taking tissue from the root tips of caladium plants, staining it and placing it on a slide, so that he could look at it under a microscope to determine whether this particular variant had doubled its chromosomes.

It was all part of a research project relating to the risks and benefits of micropropagation: the technique widely used in floriculture to produce plants that are free of disease and, when all goes well, genetically uniform. Genetic variations do arise, however, even with micropropagation. They can even be induced, and sometimes—rarely—they introduce a novel feature that is prized by growers and consumers alike.

Working with micropropagation and genetics might seem a far distance from how Brooks grew up, on a family farm that raised watermelons. But the variety of experiences working in horticulture is one of the things he enjoys about the field: “I enjoy the lab work, but I love to be outside too. Especially in a breeding program, you can do inside work, but also be able to go walk in the field, use your senses, look for those beneficial traits. It’s a great mix.”

Having graduated in December from the University of Florida with a Bachelor of Science in Plant Science, Brooks now anticipates his Master’s in Science degree from the same institution in December of 2021 and is also working on a Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics.

“A history in food production set me up for a path in crop breeding—but the potential for research in ornamentals drew me in,” he wrote in his scholarship application.

Why ornamentals? “The way my undergrad professor explained it to me, if we can produce a plant by a seed, we will.” That’s basically how all agricultural crops are produced. For both botanical and economic reasons, however, horticultural crops lend themselves to a wider variety of propagation techniques, including micropropagation.

“There are so many research opportunities there, to find more ways to speed that process up, to make new cultivars, to clonally propagate those,” says Brooks. “The tissue culture side was definitely a draw for me as well.”

He learned the fundamentals of tissue culture as an undergrad and was given the responsibility to maintain cultures of the famous Florida Everglades’ ghost orchids. Here, and through his involvement in a grant project that produced 13,000 disease-eradicated caladiums to distribute to growers, he gained skills in conducting experiments, leading a team of researchers, and managing large populations of plants in micropropagation.

One of Brooks’ career goals is to be a mentor to other young people who might aspire to work in horticulture. Wait—isn’t he a little young to be thinking that way? Not when you consider that he has already been recognized as a youth leader, taking a year off between high school and college to serve as the elected president of the Florida Future Farmers of America Association.

“We spent that year visiting different high schools, going to the legislature, visiting Washington, D.C.,” Brooks tells. “It was so exciting to go into an urban classroom and talk with students who don’t know what a farm looks like, what horticulture is, and getting to explain to them how production happens, that you don’t just go to Lowes and buy a plant: it had to start somewhere. It’s really cool to see students’ eyes light up when you get to tell them about things they don’t otherwise experience.

“My heart is in trying to get them to come into horticultural science,” says Brooks. If anyone can do it, he can.

 

Erin Pfarr, Rutgers University

Like Brooks Parrish, Erin Pfarr grew up on a family farm. “Flower gardening was a hobby my mother and I shared,” she remembers. “Every summer, I exhibited cut flowers from my garden at the county fair.”

Today, she is a Ph.D. candidate in plant biology at Rutgers, anticipating graduation in May 2022. “I love the creative aspect of breeding flowers and ornamental plants,” she wrote in her scholarship application: “it allows me to merge my passions for art and science.” At the University of Minnesota, where she graduated in 2015, she majored in horticulture, with an emphasis on plant breeding and genetics—and minored in art, focused on painting.

When it comes to research, floriculture and horticulture crops, she notes, are virgin territory, relatively speaking: the lack of existing research means the field is wide open for making significant gains. That’s certainly true of dogwood (Cornus florida), the subject of her current research.

With one project, she is studying the genetic diversity of the many dogwood cultivars that are currently on the market, creating a database that can be used to guide future plant collection and breeding. With another, she is investigating the genetics of dogwood populations that are naturally resistant to powdery mildew.

With both projects, she is applying cutting-edge technology: for the first study, a powerful new genotyping technique; for the second, the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, which creates the possibility of directly altering the genes responsible for susceptibility to powdery mildew. The result could be dogwoods that require less fungicide for nursery production.

Such techniques hold potential for working with a wide variety of floriculture crops. “I’m also just learning how to learn and be independent,” Erin confidently reflects. “With the training I’ve had, as techniques evolve in the future, I’ll be able to move along with them, adopt the newest thing.”  

Like other scholarship recipients, Erin was able to present as one of her strengths her ability to communicate and be a leader in a way that redounds to the benefit of horticulture as an industry. As an undergrad, she organized an entirely new research symposium in horticulture, for both students and faculty. At Rutgers, she has likewise served as committee chair for plant science symposiums.

What does she hope to achieve in the future? “I’m definitely interested in disease resistance,” she notes. “Whatever crop I end up working with, there’s always going to be at least one disease or insect problem that’s super hard to solve. So, if I can come up with solutions that will be durable and sustainable, that would be awesome. And I love the idea of coming up with a new type of cut flower or ornamental plant that might be out there, but we haven’t realized it to its full potential.”

 

That’s where AFE scholarships come in: helping people, plants, and the entire horticulture and floriculture industry make big leaps toward reaching their full potential.

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