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Veteran seeks gene for healthier wheat

Posted by | November 10, 2016
Jonathan Eagle is a U.S. Air Force veteran and doctoral student in the Department of Plant Pathology.
Jonathan Eagle is a U.S. Air Force veteran and doctoral student in the Department of Plant Pathology.

For Jonathan Eagle, doctoral student in the Washington State University Department of Plant Pathology, service has always been important.

A veteran of the Air Force, he served as a crew chief for multi-million-dollar fighter planes. Today, Eagle is now working to safeguard Washington wheat crops from a devastating disease, while representing fellow students as a senator to the WSU Graduate and Professional Student Association. Eagle is also an ARCS Foundation Scholar, serving a three-year research fellowship, sponsored by WSU President Kirk Schulz. His long-term career goal is to help develop more sustainable crops to feed the planet.

Why did you choose Plant Pathology?

“I grew up around plants. My grandfather started an ornamental nursery more than 50 years ago, that my uncle owns today. I remember filling pots with soil when I was young for a penny a pot, and selling Easter lilies on the corner for a dollar apiece. I had lots of valuable experiences working with my family, which showed me the importance of hard work at a young age.

After the Air Force, taking botany my first semester at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., I was amazed at the chemical plasticity of plants and knew that I wanted to do something in the field of botany.”

What do you hope to accomplish as a researcher?

“My goal is to find the genes involved in stripe rust resistance in wheat. This requires looking at resistance pressure in the field, genetic work in the lab, and the development of molecular maps in order to identify resistance genes. Once these genes are found, they can be used in cultivar development to increase stripe rust resistance in the Pacific Northwest and abroad.”

What did you learn from serving in the U.S. Air Force?

“I graduated from Camden Fairview High School in Camden, Ark., in 2005. I didn’t join the Air Force straight out of high school, but decided to after a short time attending college and working. I wasn’t ready for college life and had no idea what I wanted to do. I expected to gain some direction from the Air Force, and signed up as an F-15 crew chief.

Being a crew chief was fun and exciting, but it was also stressful. Most people look to the pilot as a hero, but a pilot’s hero is his crew chief. The crew chief is responsible for regular maintenance for all inspections regarding the readiness of the aircraft, and signs off on it for flight.”

How has serving your country helped inform your education?

“First, it gave me more discipline and focus in my studies. In tech school, I graduated “top maintainer” in my class.

Seeing the world and interacting with new cultures had a profound effect on me, as did the Air Force core values: “Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.”

I spent two years at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan, where I got my SCUBA certification and logged many open water dives around the island and nearby Ryukyu Islands.

Service to our country instills a sense of humility that is hard to describe. When I came back to school, I had a whole new perspective. I was there to learn, help others, and excel. There is no doubt in my mind that my experience in the Air Force equipped me for the road ahead.”