WSU grad students receive national honor

Two Washington State University graduate students have been named Borlaug Scholars, a prestigious program run by the National Association of Plant Breeders (NAPB).

Nikayla Strauss, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, and Zara York, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Horticulture, are both aspiring plant breeders.

Only 16 graduate students were chosen as Borlaug Scholars this year. The prime attraction of the program is the mentorship component, as each winner is assigned a current professional in the field from public institutions or private industry. Normally, each scholar receives travel support to attend the NAPB’s annual conference. This year, the conference is virtual, so winners will receive a $500 honorarium.

International experience opened her eyes

Strauss stands in a wheat field wearing a WSU hat.
Nikayla Strauss

While in high school, Nikayla Strauss took part in an exchange program in Ecuador. She was assigned to help a single mother of six who owned one acre of land.

“Her family lived on that land for generations,” said Strauss, who grew up in the Denver suburbs. “But the land wasn’t producing like it used to. When I came home, I wanted to learn how to help people like her.”

After searching online, she learned about the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation at Colorado State University. Strauss applied to CSU to work in plant breeding.

“I didn’t grow up around agriculture, but I knew I wanted to help breed better plants after that experience in Ecuador,” she said.

At CSU, she fell in love with wheat and, on the advice of her mentor, applied to WSU for graduate school.

Now she’s working with Arron Carter, WSU’s winter wheat breeder, and Kimberly Garland-Campbell, a USDA wheat breeder and adjunct professor at WSU. She’s made wheat her passion.

“Wheat is so complex, genetically, that there is always something to learn,” Strauss said. “I love that challenge, and I love being able to work with and help farmers and their families. Plus, most of my favorite foods include wheat!”

Strauss is planning to go into private industry when she completes her doctorate, likely in 2021. Her mentor in the Borlaug Scholars program will be Jennifer Yates, the wheat breeding lead for Bayer Crop Science.

Childhood plant breeding experiments show lifelong curiosity

Formal portrait photo of York
Zara York

Zara York has always loved plants. Growing up, her family had a small subsistence farm in western Washington with a large garden.

“When I was little, my mom explained how you could have different combinations of genetic material from plants that you like, and can make ideal vegetables with cool colors or increased size,” York said. “I tried, though I wasn’t very successful. But it fueled my interest.”

She sees plant breeding as a great way to help people in a variety of ways.

“We can help growers reduce crop loss and management of pests and diseases, improve yield per growing area, reduce post-harvest food waste, or improve food quality for the consumers,” she said. “That ability to help and improve is what I love most about plant breeding.”

Now York, who has already earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from WSU, is working at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee. She’s working on a program with her advisor, WSU pome fruit breeder Kate Evans, and post-doctoral researcher Soon Li Teh, to develop a good pear rootstock variety.

“We’re looking for genomic regions that control tree size, or dwarfing,” she said. “Something that allows for more consistent, higher quality pears.”

As opposed to apples, which are now mostly grown commercially in high-density orchards on dwarfing rootstocks, pears are still grown as large trees. That’s a challenge for growers and ag workers.

York loves the variety of the work she’s doing as she moves along her academic career.

“There’s molecular work in the lab, work in the orchard, and some bioinformatics work,” she said.

That variety doesn’t just go with the day-to-day work.

“This field is always changing, there’s always new technology or a new finding that can help us,” she said.

York hopes to finish her doctorate and graduate in the fall of 2022, and currently plans to work in private industry after she’s done. For the Borlaug program, her mentor is Julie Dawson, a professor and breeder at the University of Wisconsin.

The Borlaug Scholars program is named after Norman Borlaug, considered the father of the green revolution and a giant in the field of plant breeding.