Vance Whitaker ‘03, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, graduated from NC State with degrees in horticultural science and agricultural business management. He now has what might be the sweetest job on earth: he breeds strawberries.
“We develop new varieties through traditional cross pollination and field selection,” Whitaker said. “But we also use molecular tools to inform our selection process, understanding the genes involved in traits so that we can better direct our efforts.”
According to Whitaker, the Florida strawberry industry supplies strawberries during the winter and early spring months throughout the U.S. and Canada. It is second in size to only California’s.
“The industry here has historically depended on the breeding program to develop varieties that are adapted to the ever changing diseases and cultural challenges the growers face (reducing pesticides and other inputs), as well as improving fruit quality (shelf life, flavor, texture, etc.) to expand the dietary choices that are so necessary for good health,” Whitaker said.
The varieties that are developed at the University of Florida are grown in more than 40 countries around the world, Whitaker said.
“I work closely with growers to understand their needs and develop varieties with the mix of traits that work for them as well as well as the whole supply chain up to the consumer,” Whitaker said.
(For a closer look at Whitaker’s work, check out this great series of stories by the Tampa, Fla. FOX News affiliate.)
Whitaker said that he was fortunate enough that he knew what he wanted to do from a very young age.
“I grew up in a rural community, close to agriculture and the outdoors,” Whitaker said. “My family had a large ornamental landscape, a pretty big vegetable garden, a few fruit trees and some pasture and timber. Horticulture was a natural profession for me, especially considering my academic interest in biology.”
Whitaker said that his father, who appraised farm land and made loans to farmers, inspired him to pursue a second major in agricultural business management. Whitaker said that his dad always gave him “financial common sense.”
“I think I recognized how important it was to have ‘business sense’ in all areas of life, and that led me to want to broaden my knowledge,” Whitaker said.
But it wasn’t until Whitaker arrived at NC State that he discovered a specific interest in plant breeding.
“At NC State I started to work with Dr. Dennis Werner, a distinguished faculty member in horticultural science, who is an accomplished plant breeder,” Whitaker said. “He really helped me to fall in love with the breeding process and the genetic principles behind it.”
Whitaker worked for Werner for a summer and two academic years. He said that he did everything “from tasting peaches in the sandhills to observing chromosome configurations under a microscope.”
“By the time I was a junior I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school and focus in plant breeding,” Whitaker said. “I completed my M.S. and Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. I worked on genetic resistance to disease in landscape roses under the direction of Dr. Stan Hokanson.”
Whitaker said that strawberries and roses are in the same botanical family, so it was an easy transition from the rose garden to the strawberry field.
After obtaining his Ph.D., Whitaker spent a few months at the University of Minnesota before securing his current job at the University of Florida, where he said they needed someone with a broad agricultural and plant science background.
“I fit that profile, and I am very fortunate to be here,” Whitaker said. “I have the opportunity to direct a large lab full of great scientists and just great people.”
Whitaker said that being a Park Scholar really helped him become who he is today.
“The Park program drove me to pursue excellence in everything I did,” Whitaker said. “It also gave me an appreciation of what academic life at a university is supposed to be, seeing my Park faculty members – including Dr. Will Hooker – and others, invest in me and push me to travel, to read more broadly, to serve and be involved. It was a great preparation for being a faculty member, actually.”
Whitaker thinks that any students who want to be successful in his field should work with faculty members and try to get involved in undergraduate research activities.
“I also strongly encourage them to be involved in professional and service activities that lead to greater perspective and larger personal networks,” Whitaker said. “And never underestimate the importance of being a good public speaker.”
Story by Jason Katz