Linda Benedict | 1/17/2013 10:12:23 PM
Three scientists from three different backgrounds have worked together at the LSU AgCenter on a project aimed at curbing coastal erosion along the U.S. Gulf coast.
They have contributed their expertise to improving native coastal plants – smooth cordgrass, sea oats and California bulrush – by breeding them for desirable traits such as increased seed production, saturation tolerance and salinity tolerance.
Prasanta Subudhi grew up in India and learned about rice farming at an early age.
“My mother would send me to supervise rice workers,” Subudhi said.
He recalls as a youngster he could distinguish different rice varieties. But he said he didn’t become a farmer because his father, a high school principal, encouraged him to get an education. He said his three brothers also got a college education.
After completing his master’s degree in plant breeding and genetics, he obtained a Ph.D. in plant genetics from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. He went to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines as the result of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, and that allowed him to learn genetic mapping and markers-assisted selection. The main focus of his research program in the coastal plants project is to apply these tools to understand the molecular basis of genetic diversity and important biological attributes such as salinity tolerance.
Subudhi has made sure his daughter, Ipsita, pursued a college education, also. She is attending the University of Pennsylvania where she is majoring in biochemistry with advanced studies in cancer research.
“Maybe because of my influence, she was always interested in science,” he said.
Carrie Knott grew up on a small tobacco farm in Kentucky. She was steered to a science career by college advisors, so she decided to pursue studies in an agriculture-related field.
“I really enjoy being outside, and I couldn’t fathom the thought of being indoors,” Knott said.
She earned her master’s degree in tobacco breeding and her doctorate in wheat breeding. After completion of her doctoral work, several companies came calling to develop varieties of various crops. But she said she was drawn to the coastal plants project at LSU, and she is the plant breeder for the coastal plants, working with California bulrush, sea oats and smooth cordgrass.
“I wanted to do something that would make a difference,” she said. “This was something no one else was doing or ever had done.”
She said her parents now call her for farming advice. “I’m still diagnosing their pathology and agricultural practices.”
She said her 3-year-old son is analytical like his father, an engineer, and is showing the potential to become another scientist.
Herry Utomo said as a boy growing up in Indonesia, he grew up in wonderment with the natural world.
“I was always curious about everything. I can remember looking at the stars and wondering what it was all about.”
Utomo said his father, a science and math teacher, placed a priority on education.
“He always emphasized the importance of going to school.
” He said a high school science teacher suggested Utomo consider a science-based career. He said he considered astronomy, but that would have required attending a more distant and more expensive college. So, he chose agronomy at a nearby college, Brawijaya University, Malang, Indonesia. He received his advanced degrees in plant breeding and genetics after moving to the United States – and M.S. from the University of Kentucky and a Ph.D. from LSU.
Utomo said plant breeding has always intrigued him. “It’s life itself, how information is passed on to the next generation. I like the project. I like nature and I like being in the different environments.”
Utomo’s work emphasizes breeding and genetic studies to develop seed varieties of smooth cordgrass and development of salt-tolerant California bulrush. For both species, he uses DNA analyses to select for genetically diverse parental lines.
He is working on aerial seeding to carry out large-scale planting of the smooth cordgrass seed developed from his breeding and genetic studies.
Utomo’s wife, Ida Wenefrida, is a rice researcher at the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station. They met while he was a student attending University of Kentucky. She also assists Utomo in the coastal plants work.
They have become naturalized U.S. citizens and their daughter, Melissa, is working on her master’s degree in business at Indiana University.
Bruce Schultz is an assistant communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.
(This article was published in the fall 2012 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)