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Cultivating Success: New Faculty Mirror Horticulture’s Evolving Trends

blooming hibiscus tree in front of Kilgore Hall
Blooming hibiscus tree in front of Kilgore Hall, NC State's home to the Department of Horticultural Science.

Cultivating horticulture’s success takes a pack! Horticultural Science has responded to the evolving needs and interests of its students and the green industry with three recent faculty hires within the department. 

Jodi Songer Riedel, a senior lecturer, possesses the ability to energize and connect undergraduate students with meaningful horticulture subjects and experiences. The horticulture marketing and economic research of Melinda Knuth, an assistant professor, into consumer trends in the green industry will discern statistically significant data to provide a series of scientific applications and solutions. Connecting the NC State science community by providing cytogenetics services and polyploidy chromosomal manipulation, Hsuan Chen’s lab researches modern-day ornamental cultivar development utilizing classical breeding methods to genomics.

Learn more about these new faculty members and the strengths they bring.

Jodi Songer Riedel, Senior Lecturer

Jodi Songer Riedel
Jodi Songer Riede, a senior lecturer with NC State Department of Horticultural Science.

Why and when did you get into horticulture? 

I grew up on a small farm in Michigan and was forced to weed the landscapes as punishment for my various offenses with my family. Little did my family know that I enjoyed the task. I kept that little secret between the weeds and myself. I took a horticulture class in high school and knew that was my calling. Throughout my undergraduate studies, however, I wandered through nine different majors and finally ended back where I started and earned one degree just shy of 200 credits (I only needed 120 for graduation).

Tell us about your previous work before joining NC State.

The good news is that my potpourri of learning at Michigan State University helped me to become a high school horticulture teacher who could offer help to my students in anything from history to geology to Spanish. I taught at Wakefield High School in North Raleigh for nearly 20 years. This was my only professional job and I never shifted schools or classrooms, which is almost unheard of now. I helped urban and suburban students learn about plant science and get them involved in service learning through the Future Farmers of America (FFA). It was a wild ride and I loved so much of that first half of my career. I feel like I finally graduated high school and now I am continuing my journey as a Wolfpack instructor.

What will be the focus of your work?

I am 100% teaching and will be working with students from the Agricultural Institute and our four-year students. I am teaching landscape maintenance, construction, design-build, plant growth development and vegetable/fruit production. I am also going to be a co-advisor of the Horticulture Competition Team. The change from high school to college has been a pretty smooth transition and I love that I am learning and growing (personally and botanically) every day.

Melinda Knuth, Assistant Professor

Dr. Melinda Knuth, assistant professor of horticulture marketing and economics with NC State Department of Horticultural Science.

Why and when did you get into horticulture?

I come from an agricultural background in South Dakota. I knew in high school that I wanted to pursue a career in agriculture but wasn’t sure which pathway. I joined my high school’s FFA chapter and that is how I discovered I liked horticulture. I wanted to start my own business in horticulture so I went to University of Nebraska-Lincoln for horticulture entrepreneurship.

Tell us about the focus of your work. 

Formally, my research title is “Horticulture Marketing and Economics.” My work is the intersection of human decision-making, preferences, attitudes and the green industry. I investigate what plants and plant-related products consumers are seeking, which assists the supply chain as a whole in what products to provide or are sought after by consumers; what attributes about plants they desire, which can provide plant breeders information to assist with plant attribute selections; what messaging and verbiage assist the best with purchasing, which is crucial for garden centers and retailers; and categorizing and cataloging the different benefits that plants can provide which promotes the green industry to consumers.

What attracted you to your role with NC State? 

NC State has a prestigious reputation in the field of horticulture, which is what first caught my attention. I was drawn to the department and this role due to the commitment to collaboration and work cohesion among the faculty in both teaching and research. This position has flexibility in the futuristic viewpoint, which is great because my research and skillset are rather unique in academia. This role allows me the freedom to create courses related to marketing and business skills that our students need in their post-graduation positions.

Hsuan Chen, Assistant Professor

Dr. Hsuan Chen with a blooming hibiscus tree.
Dr. Hsuan Chen, associate professor of ornamental plant breeding and cytogenetics with NC State Department of Horticultural Science.

Why and when did you get into horticulture?

While growing up in the suburbs of Taiwan, I had such an innate interest in science and biology that I constructed my own tissue culture closet. 

During high school, I learned about orchid tissue culture and developed my passion for guppy fish breeding. At some point, I realized my intrigue was more specific to propagating and breeding for aesthetic or ornamental qualities.

Tell us about your graduate research experience. Did you study with any Horticultural Science alumni?

After earning my Master of Science in agronomy at National Taiwan University, I began my Ph.D. studies at Oregon State University. It was Dr. Ryan Contreras, an NC State Horticultural Science alumni and former graduate student of Dr. Tom Ranney, that advised my research into breeding hibiscus trees and reblooming lilacs by ploidy manipulation and molecular marker selection.

What is the focus of your research program?

As an ornamental plant breeder and cytogeneticist, there are several major points to my research program. I specialize in plant cytogenetics, polyploid manipulation, chromosomal labeling, Fluorescence in Situ Hybridization (FISH) assays, and Genomic in Situ Hybridization (GISH) label genes for polyploidy breeding of plants.

One of my goals is to carry on Dennis Werner’s award-winning research into the cercis redbud and ornamental peach varieties. We will continue making cercis more production and environmentally friendly for our growers, as well as, create opportunities to expand various color, leaf and flower combinations. The lab will also research ways to make wisteria and mimosa trees less aggressive and/or less invasive. Our lab will also identify native plants of the Southern region for ornamental breeding because our evolving audience is further seeking plants that require fewer resources. Another priority is providing the NC State science community with cytogenetic services. So far, we have existing cooperations with the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, as well as the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources.

What attracted you to your role with NC State?

NC State is well-known for its ornamental plant breeding programs with faculty members like Dennis Werner and Tom Ranney. It was a huge opportunity to carry on their legendary research programs for a fellow ornamental plant breeder. North Carolina also has substantial biodiversity with a wide range of temperatures and the ability to grow during all seasons. Also, who doesn’t like North Carolina barbecue? As a chicken wing aficionado, I know that there are five different wing restaurants within walking distance of Kilgore Hall.

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