Profiles of scientists

There is no one path to becoming a scientist. Here are the stories of how some of the scientists on this project got to where they are today.

Ed Buckler

Ed Buckler, Cornell University/USDA, Ithaca, NY

I have always loved biology, history, and computers. Surprisingly, working on maize genetics and diversity is a great way to combine these interests into a truly rewarding career.

I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, pretty far from corn plants. But my mother worked in microbiology, and the whole family spent lots of time out camping and hiking in the mountains along the Eastern US. This provided a real appreciation for the complexity of life. My father loved computers and ran computers system for the US Navy, so he would buy computers for us to use—to take them apart, rebuild them— but we didn’t have any computer games. I learned to program in order to create my own games. In high school, I had a great teacher who got me interested in archaeology. I spent several summers working in the field at various archaeological sites.

Also while in high school, I realized that genetics was very similar to computer programming; - programming with real life problems - and went off to college to learn more about genetics. I kept taking courses in archaeology, however, as the history of civilization was fascinating to me. In archaeology courses, I learned about the origins and sustainability of modern agriculture (something new for a suburban kid). I was not a big fan of going to class in college, but I spent lots of time in the lab.

Through my experiences, and research in college and graduate school, I learned that researching the genetics of maize diversity allows one to address real life problems using the history of diversity that has evolved over the last 3 million years. The best part is that what we learn helps makes agriculture more sustainable, and also helps some of the poorest people in the world.

John Doebley

John Doebley, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Although I grew up in the concrete jungle of Philadelphia, I was drawn to nature and spent much of youth biking to any fragment of the natural world within 20 miles of my urban home where I could turn over rocks looking for strange bugs, capture frogs and snakes, or anything else that moved. My parents were remarkably tolerant of the collection of critters that I brought home to add to my menagerie. My love of nature led me to major in biology in college with the hope of becoming a naturalist at a national park, but in college I was exposed to new influences and I developed a fascination with genetics and anthropology. I entered graduate school planning to combine my interests in genetics and anthropology by becoming a human population geneticist, but my career took a turn when I was offered a chance to travel to Mexico and comb through its hillsides in search of the ancestor maize, teosinte. After this I was hooked on maize and so began my career working on the genetics of maize domestication.

Jim Holland

Jim Holland, North Carolina State University

I wanted to be a scientific researcher since I was quite young. Inelementary school, I wanted to be a marine biologist, since I thoughtsharks were really cool. While I was in high school, preparing forcollege applications, a severe famine occurred in Ethiopia. This made mewant to work in an area of biology that might lead to improved foodsecurity. In college, I learned a lot of basic cell and molecularbiology, but had no exposure to applied genetics. I was lucky to find asummer job with a plant breeder at the US Department of Agriculture inBeltsville, MD. I spent a couple of summers planting soybeans, hoeingweeds, pollinating plants, and helping with experiments. It was hot anddirty, and I loved it. My boss was a great mentor and put me in contactwith several plant breeders at universities when I started looking intograduate school. I started grad school in plant breeding and geneticswithout ever having had a course in botany or agriculture of any sort! Idid my best to learn this new area and had a load of fun in grad school.I could not believe I was being paid to go to school and takeinteresting courses and do experiments. Now this is my full time job andI still can't believe that I get paid to make up experiments that I think might be interesting. But it's true.

Sherry Flint-Garcia

Sherry Flint-Garcia, USDA/U of Missouri

I grew up on a dairy farm in central Minnesota, surrounded by corn but neverpaying much attention to it. When I began college, I was a pre-med majorand wanted to be a doctor of some type. Little did I know I'd somedaybecome a doctor of corn! After three years of pre-med courses, I suddenlyrealized I didn't like working with live lab animals (dissecting out micethyroids, bleeding rabbits for antibodies, etc.) and that my future medicalpatients would be alive and probably suffering (sad, crying, bleeding). Iasked my advisor about "Plan B" and he suggested a small project involvingcorn genetics. Long story short, I loved it. I applied for graduateschools that had plant genetics programs, keeping my mind open to plantsother than corn. I chose to work on corn breeding and genetics at theUniversity of Missouri and fell in love with corn. Because I had never hada plant-specific course before, I started from the beginning: statistics,entomology, plant pathology, soil science, weed science, plant breeding,plant physiology, plant genetics, and more. I finished my Ph.D. and did twopost-doctoral projects in corn genetics. I contemplated switching toanother crop species when I was searching for a permanent job, but thethought of not working on corn seemed unsuitable to me. I obtained apermanent position with the USDA Agricultural Research Service working oncorn genetics and see myself happily working in maize for the rest of mylife!

Michael McMullen

Michael McMullen, USDA/U of Missouri

I grew up on a small, mixed crop farm in southern Ohio. However, when I went away to college if anyone would have said I would have done anything with agriculture again I would have bet the farm against that. I was a botany major in college, botany instead of zoology because I didn't want to take comparative anatomy with the Pre-meds. I was much more at home taking Spring Flora. I fell in love with genetics as an undergraduate student and went to graduate school in genetics working on mice. My first postdoctoral stint was also in a mouse lab working on immunoglobulin genes. About two years into that postdoctoral a realized I still loved genetics, but knew nothing about (nor was particularly interested in) immunology per se. So I took a second postdoctoral position working on maize: the prodigal son returns to plants. That was in 1984 and I have worked on maize ever since. I have been fortunate to work for the USDA-Agricultural Research Service ever since 1986. I have been able to pursue my lifetime interest in genetics, at the same time, in small ways, contributing to the greater good through research enabling crop improvement.

María Cinta Romay

María Cinta Romay, Postdoctoral researcher at Buckler’s lab, Cornell University

My mother always told me that my first complete sentence was “Mamá, ¿esto qué es?” – “Mom, what is this?” It made her crazy because I repeated it constantly, pointing everywhere. That phrase is still a defining part of my life; and, is possibly responsible for my working in maize genetics.
I was born in Pontevedra, a small city in Northwest of Spain. When I was a child I wanted to be a doctor, like my dad, my granddad, my grand granddad…. When I started at University, my father began to talk to me about his job. I realized that, even with important happy moments, his job also had a lot of patients crying, suffering, and complaining. In that same period, my wonderful biology teacher, started to talk to the class about genetics. It was amazing to me. How could it be possible that those four letters could control all the organisms in the world? That is how I decided to study plants. They do not cry; they do not complain. But, they are still alive and made up of tons of DNA.

During my third year at University, I had the opportunity to do real research. Through an exchange, I worked in Italy during fall semester and at a maize breeding station in my hometown during summer. These were some of the best experiences of my life. I met new people and was introduced to new cultures; I enjoyed the fieldwork and the outside air; I found answers to some of my questions. I felt that, not only was I helping to create a better world, but I was enjoying it at the same time. I decided I wanted my life to always be like that. Now, because of my job as a maize geneticist, I live in a different country, where every day is new and exciting making discoveries about what things are. I have achieved my goals.

Qi Sun

Qi Sun, Computational Biology Service Unit, Cornell University

In high school, I was a hardcore member of the computer club, and spent many of my afterschool hours programming in BASIC. The head teacher of the biology club, Mrs Xu, made it her mission to attract students into her club with lots of field trips and fun activities, and tried hard to convince us to apply to Fudan Univerity, which has one of the best genetics programs in China by then. Without much clue about what I wanted to do, but deeply touched by the science fiction like picture of the future of biology painted by Mrs Xu, I became a biology major at Fudan, and studied all the way through and got a Ph.D. in Biology in year 2000. At that time, the first draft of human genome sequence was about to be finished, and there were many job openings in a new field called ‘bioinformatics’, trying to decode the information revealed by the genome sequence. A friend of mine, who worked for a startup company that built computer databases for biologists, offered me a job as a biology specialist. The idea of working on computers was attractive to me, and I knew from my high school experience I would be very good at it. I took the job, and studied genomics as well as new programming languages while working at the company, and gradually switched my role from a biology specialist to a bioinformatician. That was a good part of working for a small startup company: you get more opportunities for career development. Then I joined Cornell University, which has some of the leading maize scientists in the world, and I started to do research collaborations with them. In 2009, eight years after the release of the human genome sequences, the maize genome sequence was finally finished. From what we have learned so far, it is more complicated than the human genome. It marks a new era for the maize researchers, and a new page in my career.

Sara Larsson

Sara Larsson, Graduate Student in the Buckler lab, Cornell University

I grew up in the countryside in southwestern Sweden, close to nature and agriculture. My interest in plants and my fascination of plants started in an early age. I was impressed that the small seed that was put into the ground could develop into a plant and end up as food on your plate. I was not very old when I, for the first time, had my own part of the family garden to take care of and grew my own vegetables and flowers. By high school, it was clear to me that I wanted to go to college and study plants. During college I was really amazed by how complex plants are on a cellular level and how large an impact this has on the final crop – the effect environment has on a crop and how this effect varies depending the genetics of that specific plant. I took a number of classes in plant physiology, genetics, and biotechnology and my thesis was on a project involving gene transformation in carnations. After college I completed a M.Sc. in plant genetics. During this time, I received a scholarship and had the opportunity to travel across the Atlantic to study at Cornell University for a year. It was at Cornell that I got in contact with Dr. Edward Buckler and his lab. I spent a summer with the Buckler lab in their maize field and was impressed by of all the diversity I could observe in the field. After completing my M.Sc., I was admitted to the Ph.D. program in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University. I have been a member of the Buckler lab since then. My dissertation thesis is on heterosis and yield in maize, utilizing natural diversity, high throughput sequencing, and statistical tools. After graduating at Cornell I would like to become a plant breeder and develop new improved materials for farmers across the world.

Jeff Glaubitz

Jeff Glaubitz, Project Manager, Cornell University

My position as Project Manager of the National Science Foundation project Genetic Architecture of Maize and Teosinte, definitely falls into the category of “Alternative Careers in Science.” I have meandered my way through Science and have ended up here, a very good place for me. Being from Canada, I was initially interested in Forest Science. After just barely passing my first undergraduate Genetics course (very tough, time pressure exams), my interest was piqued and I bounced back to get a Ph.D. in Forest Genetics from UBC in Vancouver. From there I did a postdoc in Forest Population Genetics in Australia. Around that time, I began to realize that becoming a Principle Investigator (PI) or Tenure-Track Professor did not feel like a good fit for me. Those are pressure-packed positions where one of the key traits required for success is salesmanship: the ability to tell everyone who will listen that your research is the coolest and most important thing going. I seem to be lacking the salesmanship gene. While in Australia, I discovered my true passion for computer programming (after teaching myself C++), and realized that, rather than a visionary leader, I was very much a detail man, happier in front of a computer than in front of a classroom or boardroom. I then did a postdoc at Purdue University that mainly involved computer simulations which was great as it honed my skills and played to my strengths. After that came the moment of truth: it was time to either get a permanent professor or PI position or an “Alternative Career in Science”. Just in time, my current Project Manager position was advertised and I seized the opportunity. Five years later, I am still in this position (initially in Madison, Wisconsin, now at Cornell). Beside my project management duties (mostly accomplished through email), I work in Bioinformatics which could not be a more fun way for me to make a living, especially given that I do not have a formal degree in Bioinformatics or Computer Science. I lucked out into an amazing (pun intended!) project, where the PIs are all visionaries and work together extremely well as a team. Part of my job is to help implement their visions in computer code (even throwing in a few ideas of my own!). One drawback is that my salary comes from “soft money,” meaning that my position depends on the grant being renewed (yet again!), three years from now. But on the bright side, I get to do work that I love, interact with a large group of very clever, diverse, and fun people, and have even seen the world via Science (a recent example, traveling to Italy for a conference!).

Theresa Fulton

Theresa Fulton, Director of Education & Training, Institute for Genomic Diversity, Cornell University

I grew up in a number of small towns in south-central New York, near the Pennsylvania border. When I went to Syracuse University as an undergraduate, I originally enrolled in the pre-med program. However, one of my first classes was microbiology. I enjoyed the class, but realized that as a doctor I would be dealing with sick people all the time! So I switched my major to Microbiology and Genetics. During my last year in college, I was a Research Assistant in a laboratory at the VA Hospital (which paid so little I had to subsidize it by also waitressing) where I studied nicotinamide uptake pathways in Mycobacterium tuberculosis, towards more effective treatments of tuberculosis. Already burdened with student loans, I decided to look for a job rather than going on to graduate school. One day I received a phone call from a professor in Plant Breeding at Cornell University who had a laboratory technician position open. I had not actually applied for this particular job because I had no interest in plants and had only taken one plant-related course ever, but he had seen my resume on someone’s desk and convinced me that the job sounded interesting – completely changing the course of my career.

In fact, I found the job, which involved the genetics of rice and tomato, so interesting that one year later I decided to go to graduate school after all. Fortunately, Cornell University has a wonderful Employee Degree Program which allowed me to work full-time to support my family while also completing a Masters in Plant Breeding & Genetics. By this time I had been promoted to Research Coordinator in the lab, where I had the opportunity to work with and train visitors from all over the world. I realized that while I enjoyed research, I liked teaching it even more, so I decided to go back to school for a Ph.D. in Education. My current job allows me to keep one foot in the research world while fulfilling my love of teaching, and better still I often get to travel to countries in Africa to teach – gratifying and exciting!