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Cultivating Excellence: Announcing the 2024 Paul Ecke, Jr. and Altman Family Scholars

Six individuals dedicated to the horticulture industry have excelled in their fields, earning them scholar status in two prestigious educational funding programs through the American Floral Endowment (AFE).

The Paul Ecke, Jr. and Altman Family scholarships help fund the education of full-time graduate students pursuing a career in horticulture or floriculture. Those who receive the scholarships are rewarded for their accomplishments as they continue working toward growth in the industry.

The 2024 recipients are Savannah Mead, West Virginia University, Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholarship, first year; Jack Bobo, North Carolina State University, Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholarship, second year; Greta Gallina, University of Georgia, Altman Family Scholarship; Jessica Brown, Michigan State University, Altman Family Scholarship; Haramrit Gill, Texas A&M University, Altman Family Scholarship; and Manjot Sidhu, Michigan State University, Altman Family Scholarship. 

“The goal of AFE is to support young professionals and help them in their journeys as they become the next generation of innovators and leaders in the industry,” said Debi Chedester, executive director of AFE. “These endowed scholarships are at the heart of the mission of our organization, and we are honored to help support these post-graduate students who are standouts among their peers.”

About the Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholarship

The scholarship honors the late Paul Ecke, Jr., a horticulturist from California credited with moving the industry forward with his innovation and educational program development in the field. The scholarship awards the chosen scholar with $5,000 for two consecutive years ($10,000 total). The recipient must be pursuing a Master’s or Doctorate degree at a U.S. land-grant university. For more information about the scholarship, click here

Savannah Mead – West Virginia University
2024 Paul Ecke, Jr. and Altman Family Scholar, Savannah Mead

Savannah’s interest in horticulture began as a child, growing up gardening with her parents and grandparents.

“I think I realized in early high school that plants were just the thing that I never got tired of,” she said. “It really fascinated me, and I never got bored working in horticulture, especially with flowers.”

Savannah set off to WVU to earn her bachelor’s degree in agriculture with the goal of working in public horticulture. However, she said an opportunity to research hormone mutations in petunias inspired her to advance her education in the field.

“I wasn’t even considering graduate school until I started doing that research in my undergrad. I became so interested in the mechanics and the nitty gritty science behind it all,” she said. “It really changed things for me.”

Savannah was an undergraduate teaching assistant and, now in the WVU Honors College, she is a graduate teaching assistant for general horticulture and greenhouse management. She has tutored horticulture students in degree-related courses and trains students regarding lab techniques that she uses in her floriculture research. 

While Savannah said she sees a future in obtaining her doctorate and serving as a research and teaching professor, she is keeping her options open to the vast career opportunities that await her.

“We are kind of at a point in time where we have to shift into a problem-solving mode to see how we can make things better in the industry,” she said. “I am open to the different possibilities for me, specifically in the area of sustainable floriculture. Having an emphasis on the future of this research will hopefully keep me in this industry and show others that this direction of sustainable floriculture is for the betterment of the industry and the climate.”

Savannah said she is grateful for the opportunities AFE has given her, including the chance to attend her first industry-related conference. She was the recipient of the Altman Family Scholarship in 2023. She is excited to delve deeper into her research through the Paul Ecke, Jr. scholarship, which she said goes far beyond financial assistance.

“The scholarship is important financially, but I also think it serves as a boost of confidence. Receiving the honor shows me that what I am doing is important,” she said. “It helps me feel better about the impact of my research. It inspires me to move the industry forward.”

Jack Bobo – North Carolina State University
2024 Paul Ecke, Jr. and Altman Family Scholar, Jack Bobo

As a veterinarian sciences student at Texas A&M, Jack was simply satisfying a general science credit when horticulture found him. His academic track took a turn, and he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in horticulture science before setting off to the University of Georgia to further study in the field and obtain his master’s degree. 

It was during his Doctorate program at North Carolina State University (NCSU) that in 2023, Jack received the first year of the Paul Ecke, Jr. scholarship.

“Being a part of this scholarship and this ability to do more research has been incredible,” said Jack, who was approved for his second year of funding this year after submitting a first-year report, a requirement for all scholarship recipients. 

In his report, Jack noted he and the team in the Horticultural Substrates Laboratory at NCSU were approached by an entrepreneur hopeful to start a horticultural substrate manufacturing plant utilizing wood fiber in Northern California. The project allowed the researchers to discover that wood fiber from five tree species could be utilized as growing media. He said they plan to take the research further in 2024.

“2023 was an incredible year for professional growth and development,” he wrote in the report. “Being able to go out and visit some growers and hear what their problems were and how we could address them, that in and of itself was more compounding than what we can do in the lab every day. To visit with those growers that utilize the exact methods of my research for their entire operation — it really shows me that I make an impact.”

Throughout the last year, Jack, who is a member of AFE’s Young Professionals Council, said he was able to present his findings of the western conifer project during the International Society of Horticultural Science Symposium on Growing Media in Quebec City, Canada. He also won first place in the ASHS Oral Floriculture Competition and second place in the Ph.D. poster competition. Additionally, he instructed a course on ornamental plant identification to undergraduate students at NCSU.

“One of the most exciting things has been that earlier this year, my lab hosted a visit from AFE. I got to meet the people who chose me for this award,” Jack said. “The Paul Ecke, Jr. scholarship is the first real scholarship I have ever received, so it was so formative for me because it was an outside source compounding the affirmation. It has really encouraged me to move forward.”

About the Altman Family Scholarship

Created in 2015 by Ken and Deena Altman, the Altman Family Scholarship seeks to support improvement in horticulture education and research by investing in outstanding, young industry professionals. The Altmans believe in the power of giving back and do so through the reach of this scholarship and Altman Plants programs that offer growing expertise to the industry. This scholarship provides an annual scholarship ($5,000) to promising and dedicated graduate students pursuing a career in horticulture. For more information, click here.

Jessica Brown – Michigan State University
2024 Altman Family Scholar, Jessica Brown

Jessica began her academic career at Western Michigan University where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biomedical science. But it was during her time there that she realized her future would take a turn.

“I needed to fill classes, so I took a botany class. I was never into plants before, but through that class, I was recommended for a job at a commercial greenhouse in the area. I needed a job, so I took it,” she said. “I started there and was wowed. I was never exposed to ornamental production before. I interned for a year and a half and fell in love with floriculture.”

While she would go on to finish her biomedical degree, Jessica set her sights on graduate school at Michigan State University, where horticulture is her focus.

As a graduate student, Jessica works with undergraduate students in her lab to teach them about conducting research while working together on various cut flower research projects. She has been involved in developing work schedules for undergraduate students to coordinate tasks such as harvest, data collection, and data entry.

Her career goals include working in the commercial industry with ornamentals and/or cut flowers as part of a research or technical team. She aspires to work in a position where she can develop solutions to the problems growers experience, where she can utilize her industry and academic experience as well as leadership skills to perhaps manage a team of floriculturists. 

“I would love to find myself a part of a R&D or technical team at a horticulture company and work my way up. I also really enjoy working hands-on in the greenhouse,” she said. “I think I would thrive in a role that combines those two things.”

Jessica said the financial assistance from the Altman Family Scholarship will be a tremendous gift to her education and research. She said it also provides an opportunity for her to make up for lost time in terms of industry learning.

“It was definitely an adjustment to switch fields. I don’t have the same background as someone who went to Michigan State as an undergrad in the horticulture track,” she said. “I am catching up as a Master’s student, but I can handle it and do so even more with the scholarship.”

Manjot Sidhu – Michigan State University
2024 Altman Family Scholar, Manjot Side

When it was time for Manjot to start college, there was no question about what undergrad path she would take. 

“I grew up on a farm in India. Coming from a farming family, I was always familiar with how crops grow. I always had an interest in agriculture, so I went for it,” said Manjot, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Punjab Agricultural University in India. “But during that time, I worked on different side projects and developed an interest in research. I liked working with growers, and I loved working with fruits and flowers. That intrigued me. I wanted to research specialty crops. So, I decided to focus my graduate studies on horticulture.”

As a graduate student, Manjot has had the opportunity to strengthen her leadership skills by conducting floricultural trials to study herbicide and fungicide efficacies and testing the chemicals for their phytotoxic effects on floricultural crops. Her research has enabled her to work closely with growers, greenhouses, and nurseries.

With the financial help from the Altman Family Scholarship, Manjot plans to use the funds to purchase a statistical software license and citation manager software and attend the American Society for Horticulture Science annual conference set for September in Honolulu, Hawaii. 

“Being awarded a scholarship by the American Floral Endowment is such an honor. It adds so much value to my career just being affiliated with AFE,” she said. “I am so proud of that.”

Manjot said while she has many options for a future career, she is sure she wants to work with growers to share her research area of weed science and biology in ornamental and floricultural crops and addressing cropping, integrated weed management, and grower difficulties. 

“One of the things I love most about the industry is the innovations that are coming along. There are so many integrated technological things like drones, for instance, which are helping the industry; that evolution, that growth, it is amazing,” she said. “I want to use that innovation along with my knowledge and my skills to help the growers. Wherever I am in my career, my focus will be on helping the growers.”

Greta Gallina – University of Georgia
2024 Altman Family Scholar, Greta Gallina

Greta found horticulture while she was a student studying biology at the University of Florida. She enjoyed the lessons that involved plants in some of her classes. However, it was a class dedicated to plant sciences that piqued her interest in the industry as a whole.

“As a child, I was always interested in plants. But I never knew what career path there would be in plant sciences,” she said. “That class was the reason I decided to go into horticulture. I discovered there were so many different things I could do.”

Now, as a graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in horticulture at the University of Georgia, Greta focuses on ornamental plant breeding and genetics. She is grateful to be an Altman Family Scholarship recipient to help move her goals forward.

“In my research, I am hoping to do some genetic sequencing and be on the cutting edge of innovation of hibiscus research,” she said. 

Throughout her academic career, Greta has published three papers in peer-reviewed journals and two extension articles and presented at seven conferences. She said research and education are much needed in her focus area of horticulture.

“With ornamental plants, there are so little genetic resources about them in terms of research. This is a good time to study less common plants, learn more about them, and educate others about those findings,” she said. “It is definitely important to the industry that we can provide new information to everyone.”

Greta said her goal is to become a professor of horticulture at a research institution and continue to work in ornamental plant breeding, utilizing the skills she gained while obtaining her Ph.D.

“Specifically, I hope to improve various floriculture crops in both the aesthetic appeal and resistance to various stresses, including pests and environmental changes,” she said. “Additionally, I hope to delve further into biotechnology research and applications in floriculture plants. I also hope to teach and provide the next generation with knowledge and practice in floriculture plant development.”

Haramrit Gill – Texas A&M University
2024 Altman Family Scholar, Haramrit Gill

Haramrit grew up with a farming background in India. Since her childhood, agriculture has been part of her life. During her bachelor’s degree in agriculture at Punjab Agricultural University in India, Haramrit was introduced to farmers in a rural region of the country during a Rural Awareness Work Experience (RAWE) program where she discovered the prevalent practice of monocropping, particularly with wheat and paddy.

“In that program, I came across many farmers who practiced wheat and paddy monocropping systems and I noted the need for diversification towards horticultural crops like vegetables, fruits, and ornamental crops,” she said. “I chose horticulture as my focus for my Master’s degree because as I studied agriculture, I noticed crops such as wheat, rice, and forage crops have been studied extensively,” she continued. “But there was little research on horticultural crops specifically ornamental plants.”

As a graduate student at Texas A&M University, Haramrit is working on the genetics of various traits such as flower color transition, fragrance, and plant height in roses. She said she is equipping herself with all the tools she can to apply her research and disseminate it globally to nursery growers to help them move forward in the industry. She is grateful to be one of the Altman Family Scholarship recipients and plans to become a member of AFE’s Young Professionals Council. 

In the future, Haramrit wishes to become a research and extension professor of ornamental horticulture, where she can contribute to the development of sustainable ornamental plants using plant genetics, breeding methodologies, quantitative trait mapping, transcriptomic analysis, and candidate gene identification.

She has accepted a position as an environmental horticultural advisor with the University of California Agricultural Resources to help further her experience and skills in the industry. She said the upcoming role will “offer invaluable opportunities to engage with industry stakeholders, disseminate research findings, and provide expert guidance on sustainable landscaping practices.”

To learn more about our Paul Ecke, Jr. and Altman Family Scholarships and to apply, click here. Applications are due by Feb. 1 each year!