K-State Research and Extension News
September 14, 2012
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Kansas State Students Chosen for Prestigious Wheat Plant Breeding Fellowship

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Doctoral candidates Jared Crain and Sarah Battenfield will work to improve wheat for farmers in developing countries

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Jared Crain and Sarah Battenfield, doctoral candidates in genetics at Kansas State University, are two of this year’s 14 fellows in the prestigious Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program (MBBISP) for 2013.

They are two of three new fellows in the program who call the United States home.

Through the program, Crain will work to improve productivity in wheat through advanced breeding tools.  MBBISP will give him the opportunity to work with the global wheat breeding team at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico. Crain’s career objective is to develop sustainable methods to increase wheat production in order to meet global demand.

“It’s going to take all crops to feed the world, but wheat will have a huge opportunity to make an impact because it is very hardy and can grow in what are often marginal conditions,” Crain said. “My role in meeting global demand is developing new, heartier and higher-yielding crops for growers and developing new methods for scientists to use in working toward food production.”

“With increasing global populations, we are at a critical time to increase crop production,” said Jesse Poland, K-State research geneticist who is helping guide Crain’s work. “We are continually losing productive farmland and facing hotter and dryer climates than ever before. Increasing crop yields is a real challenge and there is a big need for Ph.D. level plant breeders to do so. It is very encouraging to see Monsanto take initiative to support training of these students and exciting to see promising young scientists like Jared getting into plant breeding.”

Through the program, Battenfield will research ways to improve yield and end-use quality of wheat crops, with the goal to make improved wheat varieties available to farmers in developing countries. MBBISP will give her the opportunity to work with the global wheat breeding team at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and apply genomic selection to wheat germplasm from the International Bread Wheat Screening Nursery (IBWSN).

“As a MBBISP scholar I get the opportunity to not only be an assistant at KSU, but also at CIMMYT working with what I consider to be the best wheat program in the world,” Battenfield said. “Having this scholarship has changed my education into a world class opportunity and has opened potential to work around the world.”

She will be working under the guidance of Allan Fritz, K-State wheat breeder.

“World population is expected to increase by more than 25 percent over the next 40 years, placing tremendous demands on our agricultural systems. We need to attract the best and brightest to the agricultural sciences in order to meet the challenges that lay ahead,” Fritz said. “The MBBISP program attracts outstanding students, like Sarah, to the field of plant breeding and provides them with a rich graduate experience that prepares them to be future leaders in international agriculture.”

Crain, a native of Woodward County, Okla., grew up working on his family’s cattle and winter wheat farm. He graduated from Oklahoma State University with a master’s degree in plant and soil sciences. Growing up in agriculture instilled in Crain a desire to make an impact on food production through plant breeding.

“Growing up in farming, you learn the value of what it takes to plant, care for, and harvest a crop, and I enjoy that every day is different. What worked great one day may not work great the next,” he said. “Agriculture research is exciting because, like farming, it requires working through a whole set of unanswered questions, and using all kinds of methods, from math to chemistry to biology to answer those questions.”

Battenfield, a native of Hennessey, Okla., grew up working on her family’s cattle and wheat farm in Hennessey and Laverne, Okla. every summer. She graduated from Oklahoma State University with a master’s degree in plant and soil sciences. Her experience in agriculture, coupled with inspiration by Dr. Norman Borlaug, instilled in her a desire to make an impact on food production through plant breeding.

“Hearing stories of Dr. Borlaug helped me develop a passion for breeding,” Battenfield said. “I would like to be a breeder that pushes the boundaries of maximum, on-farm attainable yield, doing my part to improve the world food supply.”

Established in 2009, the fellowship program began in honor of two of the world’s most pre-eminent rice and wheat breeders: Drs. Henry Beachell and Norman Borlaug. Their lifelong work laid the foundation for the tremendous increases in rice and wheat production that continue to help feed the world today. MBBISP has provided 52 scholars from 21 different countries the opportunity to pursue their doctorate at leading universities and to collaborate with research institutions around the world.

Sandra Dunckel from Switzerland, another K-State doctoral candidate, received the distinction last year. Her research in wheat breeding to combine elite wheat varieties with favorable characteristics will contribute to her career goal of improving wheat grown in developing countries. She also works with Poland and CIMMYT.

“The MBBISP gives me the opportunity to work with distinguished wheat scientists at KSU and in an international setting through the collaboration with CIMMYT while addressing the research questions I am interested in,” Dunckel said. “This sets the foundation for a career enabling me to contribute my share to the immense challenge of feeding a growing world population.”

“Having three MBBISP scholars on campus is a real honor as it is also an indication of the respect others have for the graduate education programs in plant breeding at K-State,” Fritz said.

In 2009, Bhanu Kalia, who studied with K-State’s Bikram Gill was awarded the MPPISP Scholarship in the inaugural year of the program.

As part of the company’s commitment to sustainable agriculture, Monsanto pledged $10 million through the MBBISP to provide fellowship opportunities to individuals seeking their Ph.D. in rice or wheat plant breeding. Through the fellowship, Crain, Battenfield, and Dunckel will gain leadership skills, education and tools to positively impact wheat farmers around the world and improve the future of agriculture. In addition, the scholars will experience unique learning experiences including:     

  • Scholar-developed applied research programs that include experiential learning in both developed and developing countries
  • Participation in the World Food Prize and Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa
  • Opportunities to interact with leaders in government, research, academia, and industry

MBBISP scholars receive a student stipend, tuition, applicable fees, health insurance, research fees and travel, as well as funds for the collaborating institution and advising professor.

For more information about the program, visit Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program (MBBISP).



About Monsanto Company

Monsanto Company is a global provider of technology-based solutions and agricultural products that improve farm productivity and food quality. To learn more visit Monsanto Company.

K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by: Elaine Edwards
K-State Research & Extension News

Elaine Edwards, Kansas State University 785-532-5851 or elainee@ksu.edu; Kathleen Manning, Monsanto Public Affairs 314-694-4554