Q&A with Jacquelyn Jackson of Tuskegee University

This month we spoke with Jacquelyn Jackson (Ph.D., Genetics, 2008), a research assistant professor of molecular biology and genetics in the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Tuskegee University in Alabama. She is part of a biotechnology research group that focuses primarily on sweet potato and peanut. Exploring disease resistance genes, especially those that could help the sweet potato stave off viral attacks, is an important part of her work. She also teaches plant pathology courses.

Q: In honor of Black History Month in February, who inspires you from the history of agriculture?
A: Of course I’m going to say George Washington Carver, but maybe not for the reasons many choose. I’m a religious person and I admire how Carver didn’t let science squash his faith. He would pray before he went into a lab. He didn’t stray from his personal views and was able to accomplish greatness in science. It helps me understand that I can be both religious and a successful scientist. Carver also was so humble and dedicated in the work he did for his people. For him to leave Iowa State and the opportunities he had there, and instead come South when racial tensions and threats were part of everyday life — he let his service to the poor and the struggling farmers of Alabama drive him. He left a tremendous legacy.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your research on sweet potato?
A: Sweet potato is an important staple crop worldwide. If we can better understand how plants defend themselves against attack at the molecular level, we can possibly develop new plants with improved disease resistance and durability. Tuskegee has been creating transgenic sweet potatoes since the 1990s, so if we discover a gene that may be useful, we have the ability to transform the plant and potentially increase its disease resistance. Our group also has developed sweet potatoes with high protein content and others that express anti-cancer and anti-HIV peptides.

Q. What’s the most satisfying aspect of your work?
A: One is interacting with and impacting our students. I like to draw them out, coach them and make them wake up and take their education seriously. It’s exciting to see several of our students heading off to graduate school, including enrolling at Iowa State. A second thing that’s exciting is traveling internationally and seeing a direct application of what you’re doing in the lab to food security. I’ve been to Bangladesh and Ghana to train students and lab workers on research techniques they’ll use to develop crops less burdened by diseases and that yield more.

Q: From your perspective, what’s the biggest challenge facing agriculture?
A: There are several, but from my perspective, new and emerging pathogens and pests and preparing for these emerging and unknown threats are one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture worldwide. People sometimes forget what it takes to get food from the field to the plate. I have my plant pathology students review what’s in the news, and they’re surprised by how much they find on disease threats. When they see coffee and oranges being threatened, they readily see the impact.

Q: How would you help make the public better understand the science that informs food and agriculture?
A: I believe that educating the public can be accomplished through organizing meetings, workshops and forums. They serve as perfect settings for allowing the public to voice their concerns, as well as a great opportunity for us as scientists to aid their understanding about the science. Allowing them to tour a lab or farm to see what really goes on can have great impact. Even better would be to provide a few hands-on activities for them participate in. One example of how we have helped K-12 students and teachers learn about plant genomics and biotechnology is through our week-long summer workshop. They learn about DNA, gene expression and molecular biology techniques through several hands-on activities and presentations. They get to see the science in action and how it relates to agriculture. More of these types of activities will be needed to continue impacting the public’s understanding of the science that informs them about food and agriculture.

Q: How has your experience at Iowa State influenced your career?
A: I love my Iowa State and I try to get to Iowa every chance I can; it’s like a second home. I had an excellent research experience in my lab at Iowa State. I loved my advisor, Dr. Allen Miller [professor of plant pathology and microbiology]. Our lab had the perfect dynamics and the perfect people who came together. I’m still friends with those lab mates and we still talk. The camaraderie, the atmosphere, the freedom to learn — you just felt stimulated to think. Allen held you to a high standard. He was brutally honest. I appreciated the integrity, the standard and the quality he brought to our research. I’ve attempted to conduct my lab the way Allen did his. I know now it’s more easily said than done, but I’ll keep trying to follow his example.