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Winners and Doers

This year’s Paul Ecke Jr. and Altman Family scholars are horticulture superstars!

Authored by Bruce Wright

Looking for reasons to feel optimistic about the future of the floral industry? Meet these four brilliant, engaging young people committed to making it better—recipients of this year’s AFE Paul Ecke, Jr. and Altman Family Scholarships.

All four are graduate students in plant science who are already doing research that could quickly translate into new and improved varieties and increased flower longevity. What’s even more encouraging is the quality of leadership demonstrated by all four recipients. There is no doubt they are already taking their place among the industry’s innovators and ambassadors.

For those who aren’t directly involved in the breeding and growing end of the industry, it’s easy to take for granted what plant science does to keep flower shops and garden centers supplied with novel, affordable, healthy and long-lived flowers and plants. It’s clear from talking with the four grad-student researchers profiled here that the scientists love what they do—but also that the science end of the industry keeps its eyes on the prize: improved understanding of how ornamental plants grow and thrive, with practical application throughout the chain.

Mary LewisMary Lewis, winner of the 2019 Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholarship

“I think ornamental horticulture often gets a bad rap as something people do to get away from other people,” says Mary, “when in reality, horticulturists are some of the best folks out there. Yes, sometimes they are strange as all get-out! But they are like most artists very passionate about what they do.”

Artists? “I think it would surprise most folks to realize how much artistry goes into it,” she continues. “Up until college, I was full-on art girl. Horticulture is the one science that I feel allows me to express both the artistic side of my nature and the cognitive, thinking side. It’s a wonderful blend of both worlds.”

Currently working toward a master’s degree in horticulture at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, Mary graduated from the same institution two years ago with an already impressive C.V. Among other activities, she interned at Walt Disney World Resort’s Epcot theme park (supported by an AFE Vic and Margaret Ball internship/scholarship), testing new floral cultivars for production, maintaining crops and displays, and conducting tours for guests.

During her undergraduate years, Mary was involved in as many horticulture groups and activities as possible. “Those events and groups poured inspiration and awareness into me,” she says. Later, she found herself in a position to give back, assisting those same organizations to draw in and teach younger students. For example, she took on major responsibility for the Horticulture Club’s annual plant sale, growing the crops and overseeing the teams that implement the sale.

Mary might be a familiar face to some: as a member of the AFE’s Young Professionals Council since 2016, she has represented AFE in promotional videos and provided a podcast interview to Greenhouse Management Magazine to encourage young professionals to join the green industry.

All of those activities might seem relatively remote from doing advanced research in plant breeding. But Mary, like all of this year’s scholarship recipients, has consciously sought out a wide range of experiences that could help her to become, not just a horticultural specialist, but also an effective and well-rounded scientist. At Disney, for example, she learned a lot about how to function effectively in the corporate world.

Following her graduation, she worked as an intern with PanAmerican Seed on all aspects of breeding. Here she headed the testing of improved methodology protocols for three floral crops. “I came away from the internship with an appreciation for how much teamwork it takes to breed a new cultivar,” she says, “and with a desire to become part of a culture that pushes the boundaries in bringing new plants to market.”

As a result, her career goal is to become an ornamental plant breeder. And, with her master’s project at the University of Georgia, she has already produced some exciting results. The project focuses on plants in a genus that is in demand among consumers and nurseries interested in native plants: Asclepias, or common milkweed.

“Of all the species of Asclepias that we have in the U.S., only one is commercially available,” Mary explains: “Asclepias tuberosa.” Other species have highly desirable characteristics, but are not produced commercially simply because they are too tall: up to six feet.

The goal of her project has been to create interspecific hybrids that combine the attractive features of other Asclepias species with the reduced height of A. tuberosa. Crossing ten other species with A. tuberosa, she has achieved remarkable success, with a new hybrid that is shorter than A. tuberosa but with increased branching and larger, darker leaves.

Along the way, Mary also experimented with a variety of techniques, including embryo rescue, tissue culture, and the use of plant growth regulators to increase branching. By manipulating daylight length, Mary found she was able to encourage flowering in the first, rather than the second year—which allows the research project to go forward faster.

Sharing the results of her project, Mary reveals an infectious enthusiasm that will serve the industry well in years to come. “I just really enjoy the work that I do,” she says. “I know that Ecke was a proponent of doing the new and unusual. And I’m grateful that my research has produced some things that are new and exciting and beyond anything I had dreamed.”

Mary also expresses gratitude for the encouragement and mentoring she has received from her professors and others in the horticulture world—and for the critical financial support of the Ecke scholarship.

Established in 2002, the Ecke 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.

2019 Altman Family Scholars: Paul Cockson, Yiyun Lin, and David Tork

The Altman Family Scholarship was created in 2015 by Ken and Deena Altman—owners of Altman Plants—as one of numerous efforts supported by the couple to improve education and research for the industry. Ken Altman has been actively involved in AFE’s Education and Scholarship Committees, and has served on the AFE Board for more than a decade, currently in an Emeritus status.

This year, the Altman Fund is supporting three graduate students currently enrolled in masters programs at leading institutions. Like Mary Lewis, all three not only are already engaged in meaningful research but demonstrate qualities of leadership and commitment to the industry, along with excellent communication skills.

Paul Cockson, North Carolina State University

Paul became interested in plant science well before he was an undergraduate at North Carolina State University, where he is currently enrolled in the Masters of Horticulture Science program. A summer internship, working on a project relating to tobacco-plant nutrient disorders, turned into two years of undergraduate work. The project ultimately resulted in five articles in peer-reviewed journals, two awards for Paul’s work at national and international conferences, four popular press magazine articles, and over twenty extension publications—an astonishing output of productivity.

On top of his academic achievement, volunteer activities have been part of Paul’s agenda from early on. For example, he developed and taught a composting program at a second-chance school for youth under academic probation, and acted as a local YMCA youth coordinator for a community garden. He has even traveled as far as a remote province in China, where he helped build a simple greenhouse to extend the growing season for impoverished villagers, who were then able to launch their own local market for vegetables.

A passion for horticulture and floriculture was ignited during a university lab tour of Florida greenhouses. The tour brought to light a research opportunity: information was missing about plant nutrition that could be helpful to growers of young goji plants. Goji is a woody shrub, relatively new to ornamental horticulture, with laurel-like foliage and abundant red, teardrop berries, which are considered by some to be a “superfood.”

After devising experiments to fill the gap, Paul was able to present his findings at the International Horticultural Congress, earning the Young Minds Award from the sponsoring organization, the International Society of Horticultural Science. He also took the lead in publishing a goji production guide in GrowerTalks and is currently working to publish a free e-book on the same subject.

One of Paul’s current research projects is aimed at one of the floral industry’s trendiest and most in-demand products: succulents. With the use of plant growth regulators, he hopes to enhance production of new shoots in different species, reducing the time it takes for a pot to fill out. Later in the year, he and an undergraduate mentee will grow poinsettia cultivars sent by different companies and will ask members of the public to rate them, gathering useful market data.

While some of his work has focused specifically on floriculture crops, Paul’s broader interest lies in plant nutrition. With another project he is looking at the impact of nutrient values on a new and emerging biofuel crop, Brassica carinata. This plant’s seed oil, he writes, produces an aviation biofuel that has already fueled three flights across the Atlantic and Pacific. It has huge potential for growers on the East Coast as an off-season cash crop.

Could the research results be useful for growers of other Brassica species, including ornamental kale? Absolutely. “I am definitely taking full advantage of the opportunity to plug my research project into ornamental horticulture species,” says Paul, who will be presenting some of his work with ornamental kale at a scientific conference this fall, the III International Symposium on Growing Media, Composting and Substrate Analysis.

This kind of cross-pollination—not of plants, but of ideas and techniques—is where the future of plant science lies, says Paul: “In academic research we are going to have to find creative ways and solutions to start beautifying as well as feeding the world. I think that starts with conversations—sitting down with someone that you would maybe not ordinarily sit down with and discussing options. We’re going to need to be more multidisciplinary, multifocused and multidirectional to bring in a just and verdant future.”

YiyunYiyun Lin, Ohio State University

What could be more important to the floral industry than research on flower longevity? At Ohio State University, Yiyun Lin’s graduate research is focused on unlocking the key to what causes petals to wilt and die, in terms of physiology and genetics.

How are genes involved in this process? “You know that plants need food to grow, just like humans,” Yiyun patiently explains. “When they run out of food, they go into starvation mode. Certain genes are very good at regulating what happens in starvation mode. They go to a part of the cell that is not very useful and feed that to the plant so it can keep going even when it is starving.”

The activity of these genes can make all the difference to flower longevity. Yiyun has identified three genes that could potentially influence flower longevity—genes that can help to delay the onset of petal senescence, especially in low-nutrient conditions, because they are also responsible for nutrient recycling.

Her research takes advantage of very precise biotechnology. While many people think of biotechnology as expensive and even dangerous, “actually it may save time and money,” says Yiyun. “The reason that people have not been using it was because of public acceptance and government regulation.” The general pubic associates biotechnology with genetic modified organisms (GMOs), which are subject to extensive and expensive testing and regulation.

By contrast, Yiyun is interested in a relatively new technique, the genome editing tool called CRISPR. Compared to traditional biotechnology, CRISPR “can add the genes more accurately, more precisely,” she says, “so it reduces the potential risk and has the potential of making non-GMO products. That’s why the government and the public are more open to this technology, and I imagine the floral industry will also be more willing to apply it.”

Yiyun is doing her pioneering work in a floriculture lab that is supported by the D.C. Kiplinger Endowment and Chair in Floriculture at the Ohio State University. Originally from China, she earned her Bachelor of Science in Biology from China Agricultural University.

Lest her interest in biotech should lead you to stereotype Yiyun as an ivory-tower scientist, looking only down a microscope: a specific reason she gives for wanting the scholarship funds is to enable her to attend and participate in professional events, like Cultivate and the National Floriculture Forum, where she can interact with industry stakeholders and learn more about their perspectives and priorities. “I believe science, and especially biotechnology, is about two-way communication,” she says. “In order to apply my science, I need to know what people need.”

Yiyun has also been active in efforts to reach out to young people who might have an interest in horticulture careers. She has been an activity group leader for a science education event aimed at middle schoolers, introducing them to greenhouse crop production, and a team leader for another event designed to help high school students identify future careers.

“People imagine horticulturists as just a bunch of gardeners,” she says; many have no idea of the wider scope and sophistication of the industry. “I do want to make the general public more aware about what horticulture is, especially the young people, because they’re the future.”

Where does that impulse come from? In part, passing it forward. “I appreciate that everyone here in the horticulture field—professors, students, and even industry stakeholders—has been very welcoming,” says Yiyun, “especially since I come from a different country and I am a woman. Maybe horticulture used to be an old boys’ club, but I feel very well embraced by the industry. It’s also great that the industry is willing to support the research.”

Yiyun’s goals are high: she aims at nothing less than becoming a pioneer in biotechnology research as it applies to floriculture crops. “What helps me the most,” she affirms, “is being surrounded by really awesome, passionate people who are trying to make an impact in the world.”

DavidDavid Tork, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities

If you are a florist, when you think of flax, you probably think of the long blades of foliage often called New Zealand flax, in the genus Phormium. But search the phrase “perennial flax” on the internet and you will see images of five-petaled blue flowers with slender leaves.

These belong to the genus Linum, and they show promise in two directions at once: as a year-round green ground cover that can survive even Minnesota’s harsh winters, and as an intriguing new cut flower. This dual potential is what makes David Tork’s thesis project, at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, both engaging and challenging.

“Part of what makes it fun is that my project has a lot of different objectives, a lot of things I get to look at,” says David. “But that can pose a challenge organizationally. For example, when we’re making selections, rather than having just one spreadsheet to make those decisions, we have two for everything, because I’m working across both the agronomy and the horticulture side. So we have to look at each end user objective individually. Keeping all the files straight is definitely a challenge, but that kind of organization is key to plant breeding.”

David is working with two cultivars: one with long, unbranched flowering stems, another with short, highly branched stems and dense foliage. “By quantifying the vase life potential, and by identifying ideal cut flower plant habit,” he writes in his scholarship application, “we will be able to select and breed lines which are ideal candidates for the cut-flower industry.”

The flax study is part of a larger initiative known as Forever Green, which aims to increase the use of year-round green cover in Minnesota (since leaving the soil uncovered leads to problems with soil erosion and water management). The cut-flower potential is a big bonus.

This July, David will be presenting the results of his study at the 2019 Annual Conference of the American Society for Horticultural Science. Earlier this year he participated in the National Floriculture Forum, a meeting supported by the American Floral Endowment that brings together academics, government scientists, and industry leaders.

“That was a great experience,” he relates. “The floriculture world fairly small, so in terms of meeting some of the people in it, it was a priceless opportunity to hear their perspective on the industry. Also, presenting my work in front of them was a great opportunity for feedback in terms of things like what points to emphasize. Every time you give a presentation, as long as you ask for that feedback, you get something out of it—especially talking to professors who have been doing this for, in some cases, 30-plus years.”

David considers that he discovered his passion for plant science relatively late: not until his junior year in college. Once he did so, it was a short step to realize that he wanted to specialize in flower breeding, which he calls “a profession that would allow me to exercise both the analytical and creative sides of my personality.”

Like this year’s other scholarship winners, David notices that many if not most people outside the field are ill informed about what it’s like to work in plant science, and particularly horticulture. A career as a plant breeder requires a wide range of interpersonal skills along with scientific understanding, he notes—and that’s something his mentors have driven home: “In plant breeding, a lot of it is a managerial role, because when you’re actually working as a breeder in a company, you’re managing project objectives but also a lot of personnel.”

It’s the creative, open-ended possibilities that have drawn David toward the horticultural side of plant breeding. At his first internship, he worked with soy. “I wouldn’t knock what those people are doing,” he says. “As a breeder there are definitely ways you can find that work very interesting. But for me it didn’t have that creative side to it.”

With his thesis project, David says he feels like he continues to learn something every day. “There are so many objectives, do many directions the research can go in. Because there’s only one of me, and the project has so many angles to it, in a kind of good way I feel like I can’t cover all the bases. So every time I give a presentation, someone will say, ‘Have you tried this?’, or, ‘Hey, there’s this paper that I think you’d be interested in.’ It’s really engaging. I personally like to have those new ideas churning, going around in my head.

“My advisor always joked with me when I started, ‘You’ll know when you’re plugged into this and you can’t turn it off, because you start having dreams about it.’ That does start to happen after a while.”

Those are good dreams to have—dreams that will soon turn into realities to benefit all of us who have a professional passion for flowers and plants.