Seed World

Ellen Evans Receives the UC Davis Plant Breeding Academy Outstanding Student Award

UC Davis continues to find and create plant breeders to give back to the industry.

When times are tough, there’s one important thing to do both in academia and in business: show appreciation and recognition for hard work. Take a moment, look around at your group, and highlight successes throughout the day.

That’s just what the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) Plant Breeding Academy hopes to do with its students each year through the Outstanding Student Award.

The Academy, founded in the early 2000s, had one original purpose: to get more plant breeders into the seed sector. It was an easier way to train plant breeders without needing to obtain a PhD to do so, during a time when there was high demand for plant breeders and low uptick in PhD plant breeders from academia. It also aims to be a continuous education for plant breeders in the industry, as technology continues to evolve at a dramatic pace.

“We have six sessions, and each session is six days,” says Jovan Djordjevic, director of education at the UC Davis Plant Breeding Academy. “It offers a professional education roadmap for ambitious working professionals, enabling them to become successful plant breeders or excel in their current breeding roles.”

One of the highlights is at the end of the two-year program prior to the students’ graduation, one student is recognized with the Outstanding Student Award. While the award doesn’t have any monetary value, Djordjevic says the award really showcases a collective industry-wide commitment to continuous education and fostering innovation in plant breeding.

“We like to reward a student that did quite a bit of effort through the academia,” he says, adding that quite often, it’s difficult to award just one student. “All students deserve the accolades.”

Ellen Evans.

This year’s Outstanding Student Award is presented to Ellen Evans, associate breeder of cucumber at HM.Clause Vegetable Seeds.

“Ellen had an exceptional desire to become a plant breeder. She spent quite a few years in the industry in different roles — pathology, molecular marker, biology…” Djordjevic says. “At some point of time, she must have said: ‘Okay, but what really inspires me is the creation of new varieties.’ I think this drive to become a plant breeder was truly remarkable.”

For Evans, the UC Davis Plant Breeding Academy offered her a new path toward plant breeding — one where she could take her relevant skills and on-the-job experience while learning the background of plant breeding without having to stop her career to get a PhD.

“By ensuring I have a solid understanding of the fundamentals as well as many of the latest techniques, I hope to maximize my chance of earning a full breeder title at HM.Clause,” she says. “I think even for PhD-educated breeders with years of experience, there is something to be said for reviewing the basics periodically, from good experimental design and statistical analysis to basic breeding concepts, program management and leadership.”

Throughout the last two years, Evans has been on the ground learning both virtually and in-person about the ins and outs of plant breeding while getting to put her education to work during her daily job as well.

Her favorite subjects? Those that she can continue to use in her current position.

“For example, genetics practices that lead to better inbreds and hybrids, such as analyzing general combining ability, techniques for designating heterotic groups, and data analysis that uses historic and current data from your program to predict good combinations for future hybrids and line development,” Evans says, noting this particular subject is something she can apply straight away as an associate breeder. “I also like the big picture things we discuss, like breeding process management and optimization, foundation seed and seed production, and the importance of innovation to one’s program.”

With the Academy almost ready to wrap up this term, and this new achievement under her belt, Evans says she’s fortunate to be doing what she loves already.

“Every day I go to work with great people who are passionate about the projects we work on.  Cucumber is a fascinating and fun crop and I enjoy traveling the world with my team to look at how our test varieties behave in the environments we breed for,” she says. “One never knows what the future may bring, but I trust that if I continue to put in the effort and apply the things I learned in the Plant Breeding Academy, I, the cucumber team and the company will benefit.”

And, if you’re teetering on the edge of deciding to join the UC Davis Plant Breeding Academy either in the U.S. or in Europe, Evans has some advice: while it’s a big commitment, it’s worth it.

“What convinced me was when a former attendee from my company, Jon Gienapp, told me he found the experience valuable not only for the classroom learning, but also for the connections made with classmates during the activities you do together outside of class,” she says. “I endorse that 100%. My classmates are a unique and engaging bunch who I look forward to seeing each session. I can add that the field trips organized by Jovan and Whitney have been impressive and the host companies and UC Davis campus labs that we visit have all been very welcoming and excited to share their work with us.”