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Plant science interest has Emmet ‘roots’

By Staff | Jul 7, 2010

Looking back it seems natural that Landon Ries’ interest in a career would be rooted in plant science. “It was in my early years when I would follow my dad around the family farm in rural Ringsted/Armstrong that I acquired tremendous appreciation and knowledge for production agriculture.”

It was this heightened interest that encouraged him to study agronomy (plant breeding and genetics option) at Iowa State University. “When I first began working toward my B.S. at ISU, my intention was to complete my degree, then work in agricultural retail (chemical, seed and fertilizer sales) and/or return home to farm right after graduation. However, as I began taking classes, I discovered a new interest – research!”

Ries thoroughly explored this interest through a part-time position with a United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Services (USDA-ARS) Research Geneticist (corn breeding and genetics project).

“From my first day on the job I knew crop improvement was a possible career path so I pursued this interest further by completing two industry internships: an agronomy sales and services internship with Agriliance and another in corn breeding/research with Monsanto (while continuing to working for the USDA when class was in session).

The Emmet County native said it was these experiences that enabled him to see the entire product-development pipeline from the first cross-pollination to commercially available products.

As he began his fourth and final year at ISU, he decided to continue on to graduate school. “I began investigating masters programs to pursue. At that time as well as currently, my long-term interest was to eventually obtain a Ph.D. in genetics and plant breeding. In the meantime I decided that a solid plan for a successful career in research would be to gain as much perspective in a different yet related field of plant science which would ultimately benefit me as a future plant breeder.”

It wasn’t until he had investigated the fields of plant pathology, crop physiology and weed science, he decided to pursue a master’s degree in crop physiology. During his search for potential MS programs, he used the following criteria, including:

n The researcher had to be one of the best in the field of research (plant physiology).

n The project’s focus had to be on an agronomic crop species.

After gathering input from various sources on who supervised outstanding plant physiology programs, Ries noticed one recurring name -Larry Purcell, a soybean physiologist at the University of Arkansas.

“His reputation as an excellent physiologist and scientist convinced me I would gain the core competencies for conducting research while at Arkansas. A good portion of Purcell’s career was spent investigating various topics involving the effects of drought stress on soybean.”

Ries said his M.S. thesis research followed a similar trend. “The focus of my project was to investigate the mechanisms contributing to a prospective drought tolerance trait termed delayed canopy wilting. After two years of field research and collecting data, we now have a better understanding of the basis of this trait. This better understanding enables us to evaluate the potential this trait has at combating the yield losses due to drought.”

Ries made the decision to work with soybean research when he was looking for master’s degree programs. “Up until that time, all of my research experience was with corn. When I set out to choose an M.S. program I sought the best crop physiology program out there, which led me to Dr. Purcell who happened to work in soybean research.”

It wasn’t long before it was time for Ries to begin searching for Ph.D. programs. “I focused on evaluating programs that specialized in plant genetics and breeding. Additionally, because I had such a good experience working with soybean physiology during my M.S. studies, I wanted to find a program that would allow flexibility in the type of research I would be conducting. In essence, I wanted to incorporate a physiological component to my primary breeding and genetics projects.”

Ultimately, he selected the Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota. This decision was made for a number of reasons, including:

n The Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the U of M is notoriously strong in the area of plant genetics across the board.

n The department is recognized nationally and internationally as a powerful institution for plant genetic research.

n The project Ries selected: A soybean breeding and genetics project that would allow him flexibility in developing his research projects and allow him to design an integrated soybean research dissertation project (spanning soybean breeding, genetics and physiology).

“I chose stay in soybean research for my Ph.D. for a couple of reasons, including:

n I learned a lot about the species when I worked on physiology and I decided to learn more, down to the genetic and molecular level, of soybean.

n My major advisors and graduate committee have established themselves at successful and respected soybean researchers. I hope to gain new perspectives from them.

n The chance to be considered for the United Soybean Board Doctoral Fellowship. The combination of my previous experiences and my desire to continue in soybean research, I became qualified for the award. Fortunately, I was the 2009 selection.”

As for the future, Ries is keeping all of his options open. “The ‘options’ in this case are either working for a private company (Pioneer HiBred, Monsanto, Syngenta, etc.) or working for a public entity (professor at a university or USDA researcher). If I work for a private company my duties would likely focus exclusively on research activities. If I were to go to a university I would expect to conduct research as well as instruct undergraduate and/or graduate level courses.”

Ries already knows he will continue to be a part of the family farm operation in Emmet County. “My ideal situation would be to work as a research scientist for a seed company at a research station located in NW Iowa. Regardless of where I end up in the short-or long-term, I aim to address soybean (or corn) research questions that are driven by farmers’ needs and market demands.”