I have blogged a number of times on imagination, but what do working scientists think about this subject? Dr Jennifer Siggers is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London, where she works on medical applications of fluid dynamics. Having met her at a Christians in Scienceconference a couple of years before, I wanted to find out how imagination is relevant to her own life in the lab.
Imagination is highly valued in Western culture but not always recognised as an essential part of science. So Jennifer initially protested that she wasn’t sure she had anything to say about imagination, but eventually was able to speak with me at some length about how important it is in her work. Mental pictures, analogies and thought experiments are all important for a scientist. For a Christian, learning to use imagination can also enhance their faith, helping them to make sense of their experience both in and out of the lab.
She said that “science is very creative and you need to have good ideas … The more you can think out of the box, the better”. She gave an example of some modelling she and some of her PhD students had been doing on heart beat regulation.
Any individual has variations in their pulse rate over the course of a day. These differences might be caused by activity levels, emotions, or simply the action of breathing. There is also a daily cycle of changes in heart rate, with heart attacks being more common just before a person wakes up. A couple of students had been comparing heart rate data from healthy individuals and people who have heart disease, to see if there were any differences in their daily cycles. They thought up some hypothetical scenarios, and then tested those ideas on computer models to see if they could replicate the differences in heart rate and begin to understand where they might come from.
Most of the previous research had assumed the heart cycles are regular, but the students needed to come up with something better if they were to make any more progress. They realised that they could use an analysis method called ‘empirical mode decomposition’, that lets the signal choose its own frequency. Their guess proved to be a good one, and they found a 24-hour repeated cycle that looks like a signal from the CLOCK gene.
Sometimes what’s needed are ideas that are “a bit wacky”, and staring at a blank piece of paper is not always conducive to that sort of thinking. When I asked Jennifer what stimulated her imagination she said, “When I was doing my PhD I used to get these sorts of ideas in places like the shower. Now I tend to get them when I’m going to bed or I’m quite relaxed … having thought about the problem deeply and then stopping thinking about it, going home and doing something different, or even on the way home: that can be the time when inspiration strikes.”
For scientists like Jennifer, this process of hypothesising and testing – both in and out of the lab – leads them to God. She explained, “science makes much more sense if there is, at some deep level, a truth that we’re pursuing”.
Jennifer believes that mathematics has its origin in God. Through her work she is “discovering what he’s already put there, and it’s absolutely beautiful.” When she uses her imagination to tackle a problem in bioengineering, she expects to discover something. “The fact that I believe in a God makes me confident that there’s an answer to any scientific question we’re asking. Whether we’ll find it, I don’t know, but there is an answer.”
Einstein wondered why is it that we can make sense of the universe. This is a question that today’s guest author, Jennifer Siggers, has also asked. Jennifer is a mathematician based at Imperial College London who applies her skills to biological problems. She is also a Christian, and her faith leads her to ask what mathematics can reveal about God. Whether you appreciate the power of numbers or not, it is fascinating to see where this line of thinking can lead. To find out more about Jennifer’s faith and work, see God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith.
Numbers have fascinated me since I can remember.
We all discover beauty in different things in life, according to our personalities. Many find beauty in music, art and scenery – and some find it in abstract mathematical phenomena and how they link to real life. I think the emotional response to these different types of beauty is similar. From an early age, I began to discover beauty in mathematics.
At primary school I was fascinated by exact powers of 2: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and so on. These numbers have several interesting properties. For example, you can prove that 2^(2n) – 1 is divisible by 3, whereas 2^(2n – 1) – 1 is not.
In sixth form, I developed an interest in complex numbers, which has remained with me. De Moivre’s theorem states that e^(iθ) = cos θ+ i sin θ relates the trigonometric cosine and sine functions to the exponential, which I found difficult to get my head around but curiously appealing.
Later at university, I learned that if you throw a spinning cuboid box and it is rotating around its longest or its shortest axis, it will rotate stably. If it is rotating around the intermediate axis the rotation is unstable. What I liked was that this fact could be both proved mathematically, and also demonstrated simply and convincingly in front of our very eyes using the nearest convenient cuboid (which happened to be a textbook)!
Nowadays, I love the way that even simplified mathematical models done on the back of an envelope can give us insights into the mechanisms underpinning heart disease, sight loss and the like.
My love of mathematics has led me to wonder why these things work out in such a beautiful way. Why are relationships between numbers full of patterns like this? Why can we have a hope of finding them?
The Bible tells us that before God created, ‘the earth was formless and empty’ (Genesis 1:2). So Christians understand that everything (including the laws of nature and mathematics) was created by God in its entirety. Later in Chapter 1 of Genesis we read that everything in God’s original creation was good.
Since we are all created with different personalities, we have our own unique tastes. We are also created in the image of God, and God’s creation is good, so it’s not surprising that we find aspects of his creation beautiful. Indeed we are told in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that ‘[God] has made everything beautiful in its time.’
But what does this tell us about God, and what should we be doing about it? Let me highlight three things.
First of all, seeing this sort of beauty reminds Christians that God is creator. When we see something beautiful, we know that it is only like that because that is how God created it. It is a wonderful method by which God helps us to remember him in our daily lives – not by criticising us as we so often forget him, but by gently showing us something of himself in a way that gives us great enjoyment, as well as pointing to him.
Secondly, it gives us insight into God’s character. Just as listening to a great piece of music reminds us that God is the ultimate composer and musician, so understanding a piece of abstract mathematics shows us that God values order. He makes things work by setting up natural laws that only he can break (since he created them!), and we can learn more about him and get to know him better as we study these amazing phenomena.
Thirdly, the fact that God’s creation displays many examples of beauty points others to the existence of God. As Psalm 19:1 says, ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’, and in fact all of God’s creation declares God’s glory. ‘Declare’ is a strong word to use, implying as it does that God’s existence and purpose is being shouted from the rooftops for all to see. Romans 1:20 states this even more strongly: ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.’
For Christians, therefore, the beauty of the universe can be used to show something about God’s character. If a friend tells me that he or she loves something about the universe, I might say something like, ‘Yes, that is awesome, and for me it is a reminder of the way God works in the world, that he created an orderly universe and loves beautiful things’.
We have an awesome, fantastic God who is more wonderful than we can imagine and who creates amazing things that we enjoy. Let’s make the most of them and give him glory!
The American Scientific Affiliation voted in July to add three new women to the ASA Fellow ranks in 2015. They are Gladys Kober, Kathryn Applegate, and Robin Pals-Rylaarsdam. This raised the number of women Fellows to 22 (out of 172 total Fellows, putting females at 13%).
Gladys Kober is an astronomy data analyst with NASA and recently led an effort to develop a new high school textbook on astronomy for a Christian audience. Gladys is an adjunct professor of astronomy at Towson University. She was raised in a Christian home in Brazil and has a M. A. in Astrophysics from Brazil. She worked for 2 years in Rio's planetarium.
Kathryn Applegate is a biologist. She earned bachelor’s degrees in biophysics and mathematics at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, where she co-wrote an undergraduate biophysics textbook still used in Centenary’s biophysics program. Kathryn received her Ph.D. in computational cell biology from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla, California, in 2010. There she developed computer vision algorithms to measure the remodeling activity of the cell’s internal scaffold, the cytoskeleton. In addition, she developed mathematical models of cytoskeleton dynamics to investigate how its activity at the molecular level contributes to higher-order processes such as cell migration. Kathryn leads the Evolution and Christian Faith grants program for BioLogos.
Robin Pals-Rylaarsdam is a biology professor and Department Chair at Benedictine University, and formerly a book review editor for the ASA Journal PSCF. Robin was a Research Associate at Northwestern University/Children's Memorial Hospital (1999-2000).
Other CWIS news: As of November 21, 2015, Christian Women in Science, an affiliate of the ASA, has 275 members. Of those, 166 are Student Basic or Student members, and 90 are Regular members. Current members are encouraged to reach out to other Christian women in science who may not be familiar with the organizations and encourage them to join.
One of the main issues for conservation is communication. How can scientists share their knowledge with the people whose behaviour is affecting the land? This is one of the questions that drew zoologist Stephanie Bryant into science communication, and the ‘God and the Big Bang’ school events project. In this interview, Steph explains how she was drawn into science, how her faith informed her studies, and the impact the God and the Big Bang events are having on young people’s thinking.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What got you into zoology?
I spent a lot of my childhood messing around with animals. My family is very outdoorsy so I’ve always been encouraged to be outside and getting covered in mud and not being worried about that sort of thing. My Dad trained as a scientist originally, and we had boxes of David Attenborough videos and things like that around. I really enjoyed, as a four year old, watching killer whales eating sea lions on video for some reason. It has carried on from there, really!
So that took you to Cambridge to study Zoology and you didn’t stop liking it?
Yes, no one was very surprised when I decided that I wanted to study natural sciences. They were even less surprised when I specialised in zoology, and ecology within that. There have been points where it has felt quite tough. Cambridge is a lot of work, and I think unless you’re doing the subject that you really love you’d find it impossible sometimes. So that has refined my passion for zoology.
Where did your interest in conservation come from?
Again, because I’ve spent a lot of time outside with my family hiking and just seeing an incredibly beautiful world I think I’ve had an appreciation for nature ingrained in me for a very long time. I lived in Oklahoma for a bit, and I remember a rainforest project I did at school there when I was about five. I had a book about all the animals in a rainforest and how they are affected when one tree gets chopped down. It was just really sad, but it also started growing my passion for looking after this planet and realising that humans aren’t the only species that needs it or uses it.
You are also a person of faith, so how did that affect your approach to science and conservation?
I became a Christian in my first year of university, so my conservation science passion has been around for quite a bit longer. I actually think it’s really interesting that becoming a Christian and seeing that this is God’s world and that he made it and that he loves it has really fuelled and continued to motivate my care for the environment. It’s reinforced views that I already had, and made me understand why I had a sense of wrongness about the way we’re exploiting and treating the planet with such a lack of love.
To turn it around the other way, does your science feed into your faith in any way?
I think the more science that I have done – the more that I’ve explored the world and learnt more about it from a scientific perspective, whether that’s specifically conservation science or the other areas of science I’ve studied along the way – I just find that it is all awe-inspiring. It is mind-blowing.
The deeper that you go into science the more incredible it becomes, and that really makes me want to worship God. If I’m in a good science lecture, it almost feels like I should stand up and sing a hymn at the end of it. It feels like a really good sermon. The most obvious quote coming to mind being that “the heavens declare the glory of God”, so when you’re studying science you’re seeing God’s glory.
It seems you’ve always been very secure in the relationship between the two?
Yes, I don’t think that my science was ever a stumbling block in coming to faith. It really all seemed to click into place very easily and they definitely enrich one another.
Can you tell us about God and the Big Bang and how you got involved?
I spent about nine months working in Canada for a Christian conservation organisation called A Rocha. I really loved putting into practice what I learnt from my degree and using that knowledge and that passion to do something other than pass exams. It also became clear to me that as scientists we’re not necessarily all that great at communicating our science to ordinary people or talking to, say, land owners about why we think they should manage their land in a different way or just change the way that they view the planet. So I was looking for something more directly in scientific communication to work on that, and then this job came along. It was being advertised in the Christians in Science newsletter, which I happen to read. It combined my love of science and my love for God and also I really enjoyed teaching and communicating with young people, so the project takes all of those things and does some really useful stuff with schools around the UK now.
So what does God in the Big Bang look like?
We are a project that aims to get young people thinking and talking for themselves about science and faith and how the two interact; whether they are compatible and the different ways you might form your opinions about the world and about your purpose and meaning in the world. What that looks like is that we go into schools all over the UK. We put together a team of scientists who are Christians to lead sessions, whether that is giving a talk or leading something a bit more hands-on and interactive, sharing and exploring ideas about science and faith.
What kind of effect does this seem to be having on pupils and teachers?
We hand out a survey at the start of the day and then a very similar survey at the end of the day to try and pin down some of the effects; whether what we are doing is useful in any way, whether it is changing their thinking and helping their understanding. We get a lot of really overwhelmingly positive comments, whether it’s from someone who is already a Christian saying “now I’ve realised I can go and do science at university, it’s made me realise that I can combine my passion for God and my passion for science” or whether it’s someone that’s just never thought about this kind of thing before or thought that if you were a scientist then you were definitely an atheist, saying how excited they were, how much more open-minded they are now about thinking and combining the two.
How do people find out more?
We have a website, www.gatbb.co.uk, that has our contact details on and more information about the project. If you want to ring up or send an email saying you’re interested, or asking whatever question you might have, then we’ll be more than happy to get in touch and talk that through.
77,000 year python carved into the side of a mountain in Botswana
The Age of the Earth and the Evidence of Human Occupation
Alice C. Linsley
Students often ask questions that pertain to things they have heard about the Bible or read in the Bible. Over the years I have collected commonly asked questions and provided answers from the perspective of Biblical Anthropology.
In this article, I focus on three questions: the age of the Earth, the time that humans have been on Earth, and how we are to understand the biblical figure of Adam.
One of the conclusions the head of the Scarlet Macaw project on Isla Coiba reached by the end of his time there was that no one knows anything about the Scarlet Macaws on the island. They only know that they are indeed present, because they can sometimes be seen at certain locations. This is both a bad thing and a good thing. It is a bad thing because it makes research very difficult; there is nothing to start with or to go on in making decisions about how to allocate time, effort, and money (all of which are very limited). It is a good thing because anything learned is publishable. It is all new.
In studying the logistics of the island, it isn’t hard to understand why no one has studied the macaws present until now. Coiba is not perforated with roads. Even if it were, there are no vehicles on the island. Access therefore occurs by boating to various beaches and rivers and proceeding inland from there, whether up waterways or by hiking on the few existing trails. There are no docks on the island either. This means that Feliciano the boat captain steers his panga as close as he can reasonably get to the destination on shore, and everyone hops out of the boat into the surf, carrying any gear, lunches, snake boots, etc. that they may need. My time on Coiba gave me firsthand knowledge of what the term “inaccessible” really means.
Isla Coiba contains minimal accommodations for its human visitors, but we remain very grateful for those that do exist. Now a Panamanian national park, park headquarters on the northern end of the island include a few simple dormitory-style rooms with tile floors and, thankfully, attached bathrooms. To my happy surprise, they also have air conditioners which come on every evening when the electricity for the whole place is turned on. This made for far better accommodations overall than we were expecting. This cheery discovery was dampened somewhat by the fact that dozens of black vultures (Coragypsatratus) of all ages are permanent residents of the far end of the residential complex. They lurk about in the trees near the kitchen area, quarreling over leftover scraps and roosting en masse at night, with young birds acting helpless and begging their parents for food (vulture regurgitant, yum yum) in the universal manner of juvenile birds. But we bird lovers mustn’t be biased, or at least not too much. Vultures fill a valid niche also. The student of vulture lore would be elated.
Each morning we departed from our lodging at park headquarters courtesy of Feliciano and his panga. Our first sighting of Ara macao occurred at what turned out to be the best and most reliable place to see them throughout our time on the island. This was the Rio San Juan, a wide and winding river with its mouth on the southeast side of the island. Tides on the Pacific side of Panama are significant and were always taken into account on our boat excursions. Rio San Juan was only safely accessible as the tide was entering the river, raising water levels throughout, so the timing of our excursions upriver varied considerably. But almost every time we visited there we discovered some screeching macaws. Finding them amid the dense vegetation was difficult, especially toward the evening when they would find a roosting branch and settle down there. But they remained noisy enough most of the time so that we would eventually be rewarded with a glimpse of color and an alert eye, well aware of our presence.
We saw both mated pairs and at least one adult with a juvenile. Juveniles are identified by their short tails. Although they grow quickly and their bodies are soon the same size as the adults, they just haven’t lived long enough for their distinct central rectrices to reach the length of an adult’s. In the same way, breeding females can be identified by their ragged and broken tail feathers. Sitting in that nest cavity wears down their tails.
As a result of our efforts on Coiba, there is now some fundamental data on the resident macaws. But far more remains to be discovered. Where are their nest sites? How successful is their reproduction here? Why don’t they appear to feed in the same trees they gorge on in Belize? It seems to me that it would be a lot easier to study vultures. Well, yes; I’ll grant them that victory. The vultures win the Accessible-and-Ugly-But-Still-Interesting award. For the Raucous Splendor award, Ara macao wins hands down.
To date, all the publications of the ASA about Noah have portrayed him as a Mesopotamian. There is much evidence to suggest that Noah was a Proto-Saharan who lived in the region of Lake Chad during the African Humid Period. This conversation presents both views, and the readers of our CWIS blog may find it interesting.
Dufuna Canoe was discovered in 1987 by a Fulani cattle herdsman a few kilometers from the village of Dufuna, not far from the Komadugu Gana River in Yobe State, Nigeria.Radiocarbon dating of a sample of charcoal found near the site dates the canoe at 8500 to 8000 years [African Humid Period] linking the site to Lake Mega Chad. It is the oldest boat to be discovered in Africa, and the second oldest known worldwide. By comparison, Egypt's oldest boat is only about 5000 years old.
It is a black mahogany dugout found in the region of Lake Chad, in the Land of Noah. The Dufuna dugoutwas buried at a depth of 16 feet under clays and sands whose alternating sequence showed evidence of deposition in standing and flowing water. The dugout dates to 8000 years before the present.
Karen E. McReynolds and her husband spent some time in tropical Belize. Part one of this "Ms. Frizzle in the Tropics" series is here. In this account, Ms. Frizzle speaks of a visit to Panama.
On Isla Coiba, and in Belize: Ara macao
Although Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) are present in Panama in only a fraction of their original range, they are prominently present on mugs, t-shirts and other items sold in Panama. Their portraits are often accompanied by some mention of the tropics. They do indeed provide a flashy representation of what comes to mind when most of us think of the tropics: bright, beautiful birds, full of color and raucous noise.
Prior to my visit to Panama’s Isla Coiba earlier this summer, I had seen macaws in the wild only once before. When we lived in Belize – a fabulous place for any bird lover – my husband decided one year that he would like to chase down some Scarlet Macaws for his birthday. They are present in Belize in limited numbers and in remote locations, so our various birding adventures had not yet yielded any of these signature birds. He asked around within the birding community and learned that in early June, they could be found in the central Maya Mountains of eastern Belize, a remote region indeed. So we set off for Las Cuevas, a biological field station operated at that time by the British natural history museum that is located in prime early summer macaw territory. We enjoyed a few days at the station mingling with staff and scientists and spotting impressive birds, but saw no macaws; we just never were in the right place at the right moment. Disappointed, but out of time, we prepared for our lengthy drive out away from the station, following a staff member in his vehicle who was departing at the same time.
After about an hour of driving, still immersed in the dense lush greenery of the rainforest, Miguel in front of us stopped suddenly in a clearing, and raced back to gesture to us to get out of our vehicle. We did, and there they were: four pairs of birds at the top of a tall green tree, dancing in the wind. Within seconds of our arrival three of the pairs flew off, but one remained, shrieking noisily, flapping brilliant wings and clinging loosely to the leafy branches of the top of the tree where they had been feeding. After a minute or so these two remaining birds also departed, but they had left their impression: blue sky and green tree interrupted by avian stoplight red plus yellow, blue, green. Add exuberant motion to the mental picture, with breezy branches blowing and large birds hopping, clinging, fluttering… then throw in the raucous clamor of said birds, matching any jungle soundtrack around. Color, movement and noise combined to leave a deep impression on me, one I turn to when I need a reminder that there are indeed places and creatures in this world that are wild. The prospect of more encounters with Ara macao drew me to Isla Coiba.
My work backpack has a mix of 3D printed parts, baby toys, post-it notes and sketches. It does a good job of summing up my life, which is a gratifying mix of engineering and motherhood. Since becoming a mom, I’ve been faced with a mountain of decisions, all centered on keeping life balanced.My dad was a surfer. When I was younger, he would take me out on a board in the ocean to that perfect place where the waves rolled in but hadn’t broken yet. He taught me that, although timing a wave was important, having the patience to choose the right wave was the most important choice. It had to be the perfect combination of elements to be right.
That’s what I found through a part-time engineering role at Disher Design. I could tell you about the long journey I took to get here, but would rather focus on the why. The culture allows me to realize my passion of helping others through engineering, and the part-time work hours allows me to focus on motherhood. My manager understands my mission. While I work, my two daughters are taken care of just down the road by my mother-in-law. It is my formula for a perfect wave.
Now, that sounds all dreamy and picture perfect, so let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
First, finding that perfect wave doesn’t mean you’re a great surfer. It takes work to keep yourself balanced, and I’ve had my share of face plants. See the tips section below; many of these lessons were learned the hard way because I did the opposite.
Secondly, define your own wave. One of my sisters is a full-fledged mother of 5 (not sure if she sleeps, ever), and my other sister started a successful Etsy business (here’s my shameless marketing for her – GREEN DOT DESIGNS) with two little guys at home. My mom worked full-time until her third child was born (she was overcome by my baby cuteness), then switched to part-time. The point is, we all do it differently, but because we all chose a balance that made sense for us, and fits our goals in life, we are happy. Happy wife, happy life. And as my mom says, “If mom’s unhappy, the whole family is unhappy.” Get the picture?
Questions to define your wave formula:
Why do I want to work?
What is my mission in life?
How do I want to spend my time?
What are my financial goals?
How do I want my children to view me?
What outlook do I want my children to have?
How do I want my children taken care of while I’m at work?
Is my manager on board with my goals in life?
What kind of community do I want to be a part of?
20 tips to stay balanced:
1. Set a consistent schedule, and communicate it well, or chaos ensues. Belieeeeve me.
2. Create inspiring goals.“Pay for my children’s education” sounds a lot better than “cover some of our bills.”
3. Be extraordinarily organized. I use One Note obsessively.
4. Prioritize your commitments.
5. Meet your deadlines. This may mean being flexible and working at night when needed.
6. Be exceptional at what you do.
7. Be passionate about what you do, and don’t be a whiner. Even if it isn’t, make it look easy.
8. Keep your manager and husband in the loop. Your workload decisions will affect them both.
9. Mentally scale back from full-time. You can’t fit 40 hours into a 20 hour work week.
10. Wait a day before committing to something new. ‘Yes Man’ is not an inspirational movie for you.
11. Be intentional with your time for work and family. The best show of love is attention.
12. Savor your time with your children and husband. What do you do when you savor food? You focus on the food and eat slowly. Luke 2:19: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
13. Be decisive. This goes for the nursery paint color as well as setting the customer meeting time. “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.” – The Nesting Place.\
14. Schedule downtime for yourself each day. For me, this is reading books like Game of Thrones (dragons are real).
15. Be efficient with your time. Amazon Prime = amazing. Take work calls on the drive to/from work.
16. Avoid the “supermom” mentality. You cannot be the CEO, the full-time incredibly involved mom, the witty house wife that loves to clean, and the super in-shape health queen. Follow your priorities, and let things fall into place.
17. Don’t feel guilty to ask for help at work or at home. My husband does a lot of the grocery runs.
18. Don’t feel guilty about working. Remind yourself of your goals and why you are working.
19. Don’t worry about what others think of you, but instead what your children think of you.
20. Sing Frozen’s “Let it Go” as many times as needed per day to let the little things go.
Although it sometimes feels like I’m on the ragged edge of sanity, I can’t pass up a perfect wave. A big part of my drive to work is to be a role model for my children. Many pivotal decisions I’ve made were greatly influenced by the way I view my mom. I want my kids to grow up thinking they can do anything they want, pave their own paths, and be brave.
Flowing through these questions and tips is an active, constant part of who I am now. It’s a lot of work to stay balanced, but it’s worth it. And I think the company benefits from this, too. I am motivated to work hard for a company that has worked hard to make a part-time position a reality for me.
Ann Marie Thro, Ph. D. in Plant Breeding, 1982, from Iowa State University
A career choice for studying nature and making a positive difference in today’s world
Plant breeding allows us to study nature, and to make a positive difference in the world — both things that we believe God wants us to do and, indeed, enjoys doing with us. As just two examples among many: the work of Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk (pictured), is one of the foundations of scientific plant breeding; and, plant breeding enabled Norman Borlaug and co-workers to save lives and create incentives for peace through the Green Revolution.
Today, plant breeding is one of one of our few approaches for coping with challenges such as population growth and affordable food; variable and extreme weather and climate; and needs for protecting the environmental and for improving nutrition for health. Simply defined, plant breeding is the human-aided development of new plant cultivars with needed characteristics. Basic steps involve assembling, testing, and selecting among genetically-different plants.
Today is an exciting time in plant breeding, with many new developments converging. One of these, molecular genomics, is a valuable new tool that has stimulated interdisciplinary collaboration and development and use of additional new insights, methods, and tools, from remote sensing of field performance to data management, and much more.
Plant characteristics needed from breeding include resistance or tolerance to pests and diseases; better growth and production even in extremes of heat, cold, drought, or flooding; and traits that protect soil and water quality. Additional breeding objectives include plants that can grow and thrive in complex situations or new production systems, such as in mixtures, or in “precision agriculture”, to help maximize farm production across different soils, water, and other conditions, and reduce pressure wilderness areas.
Plant breeding for food and societal needs began in pre-history, with early Middle Eastern development of wheat for different uses; and the development of corn by the First Americans. Contemporary examples include breeding fruits to combine flavor with yield and disease resistance; grains, fruits, and vegetables bred for optimal nutritional values; nutritious animal forages, and plant bred for benefits to pollinators. Plant breeding can improve wood quality, floral characteristics, bio-energy content, and other needed qualities.
Most plant breeders work in private companies, both large and small. Others work in public universities or agencies, on needs and opportunities that don’t lend themselves to a commercial model. Examples are small–acreage crops, or objectives requiring “long arcs of research” (phrase coined by T. Carter, ARS). Public-sector positions involve publication in addition to breeding new experimental lines and ready-to-grow varieties.
Land-grant universities typically integrate plant breeding research with educating the next generation of plant breeders. A few other universities also educate plant breeders--including a few Christian universities-- especially at the undergraduate level. Advantages of a university with an active plant breeding program include early coursework in plant breeding and other agricultural sciences; and, student jobs in working in ag research programs. However, any college with a good general biology program can prepare students for starting graduate studies in plant breeding and other agricultural sciences. At the graduate level, attending an agricultural university is more important. A plant breeding student will have classmates from all over the world, both developed and developing.
Financial aid is often available to plant breeding graduate students. Research assistantships are usually specific to a particular program, and funded by State, Federal (USDA/NIFA), and farmer and commodity groups. Scholarships and fellowships are often specific to a student’s proposal; sources include Federal (USDA/NIFA; National Science Foundation; Dept. of Education); and private companies partnering with universities.
Federal plant breeders typically work in USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and a few other agencies. USDA breeders work across the U.S. on a wide range of plants for food, feed, fiber, timber, energy, conservation, and environmental restoration. Plant breeding is also conducted by other countries, and by the internationalresearch centers that achieved the Green Revolution and continue to address poverty, hunger and malnutrition, and environmental degradation. Across sectors, project leaders typically have a Ph.D., while technician positions require an M.S. degree or in some cases a B.S.. Technical-level work in plant breeding offers room for ingenuity, and carries considerable responsibility.
There is a need to educate future plant breeders. A recent study by USDA NIFA and Purdue Univ., with Department of Labor data, estimated almost 58,000 skilled job openings in the overall ag sector in 2015, but only enough qualified graduates to fill about 60%. About a quarter of those openings (+ 6000) are expected in agricultural sciences, including plant breeding. A recent study asked over two hundred globally-selected public and private-sector experts, “What do today’s plant breeders need to know?”http://sbc.ucdavis.edu/Outreach_and_Public_Service/Plant_Breeding_Education_Delphi_Study/)
Cited as most-needed knowledge areas were: Basic/classical plant breeding and genetics; selection theory // Crossing methods // Experimental and field plot design and data analysis, statistics // Software and computer competence; database management // Quantitative genetics and population genetics // Plant pathology // Knowledge relevant to breed for abiotic stress resistance or tolerance // Molecular selection techniques, molecular genetics // Biometrics // and // Professional ethics // Communication skills // Teamwork skills.
In summary, a career in plant breeding can have an impact through practical solutions to real needs. At the same time, it allows us to share God’s enjoyment and marvel at the world’s plants and the wonders of variation, genetics, and inheritance.
Plant Breeding as a Career
Some sources and resources as of 2015 This list is not exhaustive; there are many other sources.
Education in public plant breeding:
State land grant university web sites of most states
Look for the college of agriculture—which may go by different names in different states
Other public universities with agriculture programs
E.g. Huntington Univ., IN (member, Council for Christian Colleges & Univs.(CCCU)
Information about careers in plant breeding, and specific job postings: