Ten years of teamwork: Graduate students plan plant breeding symposium

By Amber Friedrichsen

Graduate students in plant breeding and genetics have been hosting the R. F. Baker Symposium at Iowa State University for the past 10 years. The event offers students and alumni opportunities to network with researchers and one another. Image by Cintia Sciarresi. 

The 10th annual Raymond F. Baker Plant Breeding Symposium was held on March 24, with approximately 100 people participating at the Iowa State University Alumni Center and more than 180 people joining online. The event is a part of Corteva’s Symposia Series and is hosted by the Plant Breeding and Genetics Graduate Student Club at Iowa State.

Presentations from speakers around the world focused on this year’s theme, “Crop Resiliency: Breeding for a Sustainable Future.”

The symposium included a research poster competition and an awards ceremony for Tabare Abadie, a distinguished research laureate at Corteva, who was honored for extraordinary service to the plant breeding community. Abadie is the founder of the company’s symposia series, which now includes more than 70 universities worldwide.

Since Iowa State joined the series in 2014, the plant breeding and genetics graduate students have elected co-chairs and committee chairs to schedule the program and promote the event to students, faculty and alumni from Iowa State, external universities and institutions, and professionals throughout the plant breeding industry.

Current committee members select theme and speakers

Liza Van der Laan and Ashlyn Rairdin, both working on their doctorate in plant breeding, co-chaired the symposium this year. Their tasks included establishing event’s theme and facilitating speaker nominations.

This year’s speakers included Iowa State scientists Thomas Lübberstedt, K. J. Frey Chair in agronomy, and Alejo Ruiz, graduate student in agronomy, and six other researchers from outside of the university. Prior to the symposium, students on the speaker committee were paired with a guest speaker to serve as their point of contact and coordinate their trip to Ames.

“This way, students can make connections with someone in an area of the industry or in academia that they are interested in and build a relationship with them,” Rairdin said.

Van der Laan and Rairdin also oversaw preparation for the poster competition. Participants presented their research to judges who announced the top three places for undergraduate student entries and graduate student entries. There was also one People’s Choice Award winner, and each award recipient earned a cash prize.

In addition to plant breeding, the poster competition was open to research that featured other aspects of crop science. This not only encouraged more participation, but it demonstrated how plant breeding is an interdisciplinary field.

“Plant breeders don’t function alone. We need plant pathologists, we need soil scientists, and we need systems modeling. We want other people to come and present their work because these are the people we will be working with in the future,” Rairdin said.

Sarah Jones, graduate student in plant breeding, and she has entered the poster competition every year since she started her graduate program at Iowa State in 2015. Since then, Jones has also served as a committee member or committee chair for the symposium almost every year. This year, she was the media chair.

“Being a part of the symposium planning committee is one of the best experiences that I have had because you get to network with people from Corteva, as well as the people from the agronomy department,” Jones said. “It also gives us a chance to develop soft skills that are important in your career, like how to be a leader.”

Looking back at leadership

At one point during the day, past and present members of the symposium planning committee gathered for a photo on the steps of the ISU Alumni Center. At least one member from each planning committee was in attendance, including Jordon Pace, who was the food and venue chair for the inaugural Raymond F. Baker Symposium in 2014.

Pace earned a doctorate in genetics in 2015 and now works as a plant breeder at Corteva. He continues to attend the symposium every year and often serves as a judge for the poster competition to keep his eye on plant breeding research coming down the pipeline.

“It’s good to understand the different kind of research that is being done and see what students are being exposed to,” Pace said. “I like to see the posters because it gives me a chance to connect with students on a more technical level, and it’s a nice way to stay connected to Iowa State.”

Matthew Dzievit, who is a soybean discovery breeder at Corteva, also played a role in planning the first symposium after starting his doctoral program in plant breeding at Iowa State that year. Like Van der Laan and Rairdin, Dzievit was eventually elected to a co-chair position and helped lay the foundation for future symposia. 

“There was a lot of work that went into the event,” Dzievit recalled. “We had to balance the workload and prioritize what to get done. That kind of reflects what you will do after you graduate, too.”