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Elevating Horticulture with New Specialized Faculty

Tomato plants in field

Discover the passion and expertise of three respected assistant professors at North Carolina State University, who are leading the way in horticulture and plant sciences research. Emmanuel Torres Quezada’s role is critical in providing extension support to the vegetable industry in North Carolina and leading a vegetable production class. Acer VanWallendael is the geneticist for the Weed Science Program, focused on understanding the rapid evolution of weed genomes, and the consequences in cultivated and natural ecosystems. Jing Zhang’s research focuses on translational phenomics for crop management and breeding. These three experts share their experiences, previous roles, and future goals in their respective fields. Take the time to learn from these brilliant minds and discover the possibilities that await in horticulture and agricultural research.

Emmanuel Torres-Quezada

Emmanuel Torres Quezada, Assistant Professor

NC State Extension Specialist for Vegetables and Sustainable Horticulture

Why and when did you get into horticulture?

It wasn’t clear to me initially that I would pursue horticultural research as my career path. My past self wouldn’t have anticipated this journey. Honestly, I don’t think anyone is entirely certain about their lifelong trajectory. In my case, the opportunity arose when I met a former professor of horticultural sciences from the University of Florida while working as a research assistant at the Dominican Institute of Agriculture and Forestry Research (IDIAF) in 2009. Marcelo Santos, Ph.D., offered me an internship, which eventually led to my pursuit of a Master of Science and later a doctorate in horticultural sciences. Gradually I developed a passion for exploring questions and seeking answers every day. As a teenager, I envisioned a life filled with diverse and engaging pursuits, chasing new ideas and seeing them through. Looking back, I can confidently say that the decision to pursue this path has been immensely rewarding.

Tell us about your previous role before joining NC State.

Before joining NC State, I served as an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, stationed at the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Painter, VA. My role was divided equally between research and extension, focusing on water and nutrient management, as well as cultural practices for vegetables. Primarily, my work centered around tomatoes and potatoes, although I also conducted trials on emerging crops like green tea and high tunnels. My research endeavors included studying mulch selection for tomatoes, exploring planting dates and nitrogen application in potatoes, assessing plant densities for tomatoes and peppers in high tunnels, and determining irrigation requirements for open-field tomatoes. During my tenure at Virginia Tech, I supervised and graduated two master’s students and secured over $1 million in external funding over two years.

What will be the focus of your role with NC State?

My new lab at NC State will primarily focus on extension support to the vegetable industry in North Carolina. My team and I will be dedicated to updating and creating extension publications, organizing field days for farmers, conducting in-service training for agents, and actively participating in regional, national, and international scientific and industry conferences and meetings. Additionally, the research component will be driven by the specific needs of the vegetable industry in North Carolina and will be carried out by graduate students pursuing their master’s or doctorate under my guidance. Furthermore, I will be leading the Vegetable Production class, which will be offered every fall at the Department of Horticultural Science, focusing on general production practices for vegetables along the East Coast of the USA.

What are some of your goals or objectives?

My vision is for the laboratory to serve as a model of seamlessly integrating research and extension in horticultural sciences. Prioritizing quality over quantity, I aim for the lab to be acknowledged within the next 5 to 10 years as a benchmark for effectively executed research and extension, making a measurable impact on the vegetable industry of North Carolina.

Acer VanWallendael

Acer VanWallendael, Assistant Professor

Molecular Genetics of Weeds and Invasive Species Researcher

Why and when did you get into horticulture?

I was named after a maple tree, so perhaps it was meant to be. However, my first horticulture job was working in a small organic vineyard in New Jersey as a teenager. While my work was more related to mowing and weeding than viticulture, I learned the basics of how to grow and care for plants and acquired a love for working outdoors.

Tell us about your previous role before joining NC State.

I was a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University, studying the genetic basis of plant-fungus relationships in the biofuel crop switchgrass.

What will be the focus of your role with NC State?

I have an appointment as the geneticist for the Weed Science Program. My lab uses evolutionary genetics to understand weeds and uses weeds as models for understanding rapid evolutionary change. My research will focus on weeds that are closely related to crops, and seek to understand how rapidly weed populations are changing genetically over time.

What are some of your goals or objectives?

I hope to establish a thriving lab with diverse interests, working together to advance our understanding of how weeds evolve, and how we can use genetic tools to better predict and control weed spread. I want more people to appreciate how much we can learn about biology from weeds, even as we learn how best to kill them efficiently!

Jing Zhang

Jing Zhang, Assistant Professor

Translational Phenomics for Crop Management and Breeding Researcher

Why and when did you get into horticulture?

I always liked working with plants since I was a little kid. My background is in horticulture, particularly in turfgrass physiology and management. I enjoy going to the field, participating in the planting with a team and studying the plants at different levels.

Tell us about your previous role before joining NC State.

I was a Senior Research Associate in the turfgrass breeding program at the University of Georgia. I developed UAS-based high-throughput phenotyping tools in turfgrass breeding and extended the application to other row crops such as peanuts and sorghum. Besides breeding, I also conducted projects relating to the precision management of weeds and water in the turfgrass system.  

What will be the focus of your role at NC State?

I hope to work closely with plant breeders in the department, developing and implementing high-throughput phenotyping tools using novel technologies and algorithms to help them make selections. I am interested in integrating phenomic data into genomic data and improving the accuracy of genomic selection. I am in the Plant Science Building which provides me with opportunities to work with engineers and bring cutting-edge technology into horticultural breeding and production. Additionally, I would like to work with extension faculties, plant pathologists, entomologists, and nematologists to improve the horticultural production system in precisely managing inputs such as water and pesticides. In addition, I am looking forward to developing courses relating to plant phenotyping and the applications of AI in agricultural and horticultural production.

What are some of your goals or objectives?

My long-term goals are: 1) to equip the plant breeders with powerful phenotyping tools; 2) to reduce the environmental footprint with precision management solutions; and 3) to train the next-generation professionals who are collaborative, forever learners and AI literate. 

Are you interested in studying horticulture?

The Department of Horticultural Science provides a hands-on academic path with real-world benefits and applications. Explore our undergraduate and graduate programs to learn from expert faculty and have career-focused experiences.

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