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Rows of tomato plants

Novel, interdisciplinary training program launched for doctoral degree students

Faculty from five departments in College of Ag Sciences and the Department of Biology in the Eberly College of Science to take part in mentoring cohort
17 January 2024

A team comprised of faculty from five departments in the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Biology in the Eberly College of Science, funded by a $262,500 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has created a novel program to train doctoral degree students to conduct interdisciplinary research on the relationship between soils, plants and consumers.

The initiative is intended to address a lack of integrated knowledge about how soils, plants, and human genetics and lifestyle interact to affect human health, according to Joshua Lambert, professor of food science, who is leading the project, titled “Soils, Plants, and Consumers: A systems-based approach to the relationship between plants and human health.”

“The relationship between plants and human health is governed by many factors, including plant genetics, environment and production/processing steps, as well as consumer genetics, diet and agricultural practices,” he said. “There is a dearth of interdisciplinary studies on the interactions of these factors.”

Similarly, Lambert added, there is an under-developed pipeline of researchers approaching the topic of plants and human health in a comprehensive manner. “Our program applies a novel systems-based approach to study the relationship between plants and consumers and develops a model for training new scientists to lead this area of research,” he said.

Initially, the team will recruit a diverse cohort of three doctoral students, who will be co-advised by mentors with complementary disciplinary expertise. Faculty team members will provide research training and professional development opportunities focused on improving communication, grant-writing, entrepreneurship and mentorship skills.

The project’s faculty collaborators will help ensure student success with their combined expertise in food science, sensory science, plant science, soil science, ethnobotany, metabolomics and toxicology, Lambert noted. All project collaborators are currently involved in interdisciplinary research on food and medicinal plants, he added.

“Our goal is that the fellows supported by this proposal will be leaders in academic, government and industry research centers,” he said. “Their interdisciplinary awareness of issues across the soils, plants and consumers continuum will allow them to direct diverse teams of researchers focused on complex research questions and will allow them to effectively communicate with a broad range of stakeholders and policymakers.”

Faculty involved in the initiative include Eric Burkhart, associate teaching professor, ecosystem science and management; Surinder Chopra, professor of maize genetics; Erin Connolly, professor and department head of plant science; Francesco Di Gioia, assistant professor of vegetable crop science; Patrick Drohan, professor of pedology; Ryan Elias, professor and associate head of food science; Mark Guiltinan, J. Franklin Styer Professor of Horticultural Botany and Professor of Plant Molecular Biology; Helene Hopfer, associate professor of food science; Joshua  Kellogg, assistant professor in veterinary and biomedical sciences; Misha Kwasniewski, assistant research professor in food science; Jesse Lasky, associate professor of biology; Siela Maximova, research professor of plant biotechnology; and Maria Spencer, assistant clinical professor and the John and Patty Warehime Entrepreneur in Residence.

This initiative grew out of a grant proposal that was funded by the College of Agricultural Sciences Strategic Networks and Initiatives Program in 2020. That program, better known as SNIP, is designed to capitalize on the collective expertise within the college and to invest in faculty-driven initiatives that will strengthen existing programs and promote new interdisciplinary research efforts.