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Agronomy professor Bill Tracy and Adrienne Shelton MS’12, a former graduate student in the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program, sample their organic sweet corn in the field at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station. Photo: Wolfgang Hoffmann

The Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics (PBPG) program is marking an impressive milestone this year. In June, faculty, staff, students, and alumni will gather for a two-day mini-sympo¬sium in honor of the graduate training program’s 50th anniversary.

There are a lot of reasons to celebrate. PBPG has trained more graduate students than any similar program in the nation — awarding more than 330 doctorates and 120 terminal master’s degrees.

“Our graduates are in leadership positions in every aspect of private companies, public institutions, and academia,” says program director Michael Havey MS’83 PhD’84, professor in the Department of Horticulture and research geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. “We have outstanding representation of Wisconsin at all levels of plant breeding around the world.”

PBPG was founded in 1968 to combine the long-standing graduate education offerings of a large handful of departments. Today, participating departments in CALS and across the UW campus include agronomy, biochemistry, biostatistics and medical informatics, botany, entomology, genetics, horticulture, plant pathology, and statistics. From the start, it’s been considered a premier program, underpinned by the university’s strong plant sciences research enterprise and cultivar development efforts, which make for a rich learning environment for graduate students.

That has certainly been the case for Chris D’Angelo PhD ’18. He joined the program in 2013 and took a research assistantship position in the lab of Irwin Goldman PhD ‘91, professor and chair of the horticulture department. D’Angelo’s research project involved developing a way to fit the entire life cycle of an onion, traditionally a biennial crop, into a single year, with the goal of helping plant breeders speed the pace of their onion improvement efforts.

According to D’Angelo, the experience has prepared him to be successful in a highly multidisciplinary field, one that requires knowledge in computer coding, statistical analysis, molecular biology, plant physiology, horticulture, and greenhouse design and management. “I started graduate school with some of these skills, but the PBPG program has made me confident in all of them,” he says.

The program’s graduate student cohort, with more than 50 members at any given time, is large and vibrant — and it’s an important part of the overall experience. D’Angelo has maintained a strong connection with this community through scientific conferences and research talks as well as professional development, leadership, and community outreach opportunities.

“There’s such a diversity of what our grad students are doing — the crops they are working on, their research problems,” Goldman says. “There’s a real mixing of ideas that happens. It’s like a cross-pollination, if you will. The students really get to know each other as they go through this intensive training together, and they will be connected for their whole careers.”

D’Angelo graduates this summer, and he has a job lined up as a sweet corn breeder with Illinois Foundation Seeds in Plover, Wisconsin. He’s excited to be staying in the state, where he’ll be able to work with UW–Madison extension specialists and stay connected to the PBPG program.

Havey says it’s always exciting to see what PBPG graduates go on to do and the roles they play in tackling some of society’s most important issues.

“Growers around the world are facing economic and environmental challenges due to climate change, increased disease and pest pressures, and consumer preferences,” Havey says. “There’s also the need to increase production to feed 9 billion people by 2050. All of these require the development of new cultivars — and that’s what our students do. Our students are an integral part of addressing these challenges.”

You can support the PBPG Program

Make a gift to the Wisconsin Fund for Research Assistantships in Plant Breeding.