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Schulker Investigates Soilless Substrates

Brian Schulker

Brian Schulker’s research in soilless culture plant growing systems has yielded some noteworthy achievements through his master’s degree and now into his Ph.D. program with the Department of Horticultural Science. Soilless culture plant production is an area of extreme growth (globally) and its relevance in the future of food production will be instrumental in the near and distant future. Schulker’s work has specifically focused on developing and testing new techniques to measure water capture, use, and efficiency in soilless substrate systems. His work has yielded international acknowledgment and adoption of analytical techniques. He is currently investigating the utility of a state-of-the-art, load-cell plant, weight-based modeling system for quantifying water use and loss in container plant production. Additionally, Schulker’s maturity, professionalism, and work ethic have provided critical leadership to his and Dr. Brian Jackson’s entire research lab over the past 2.5 years.

Schulker recently attended the American Horticultural Science Association (ASHS) conference where he received the Outstanding Graduate Student Award. He was also awarded second place for his floriculture oral presentation. Schulker’s ultimate goal is to continue his research and development side of horticulture and work within the soilless media/substrates.

What are soilless substrates?

Soilless substrate components are commonly composed of a mixture of organic and inorganic materials including bark, coconut coir, mineral wool, peat moss, perlite, wood, vermiculite, etc. Other soilless culture systems could include hydroponic and aquaponic systems.

What has been your favorite experience at NC State and CALS?

Absolutely, hands down, being a TA and having the ability to learn how to be a good educator. Doing research and presenting at conferences is one aspect, but the art of teaching is a piece of confidence that I had always lacked. So having the ability to learn alongside professors and take bits and pieces of how they teach to craft my own style of teaching might have been the best thing I could have learned during my time here.

What has been your greatest achievement or accomplishment during your time at NC State and CALS?

I have been the president of Pi Alpha Xi, competed in national research competitions, and have been an active member of the horticulture department since starting here in 2018. My greatest achievement came this year as I was awarded the 2021 ASHS Outstanding Graduate Student Award.

What impact do you hope to have in your chosen field?

The field of horticulture to some is a niche in itself, and my major research focus of soilless media is even narrower and sometimes a lesser-known topic of research. I hope to use the knowledge base I have gained here to continue to push the envelope of sustainability in horticulture. Ultimately, our research here in universities is tailored to finding solutions to problems in industry, but there can sometimes be a disconnect. My goal is to continue to research innovative techniques and solutions to problems facing our industry globally, while reducing waste overall.

How have you overcome recent challenges, whether it’s transitioning to online classes or the absence of campus life?

The pandemic really impacted how we went about research here at NC State, and really for six months of that, we weren’t able to be on campus to do any research. The absence of campus life reduced the constant stimulation that accompanied being on-site and in the greenhouses. Minimal conversations and strictly focusing on work might have been better for my productivity, but it just didn’t feel right. These halls in Kilgore harbor more idea-sharing and comradery than any place I have been before, and I look forward to seeing things slowly progress back to normal.  

What are you most grateful for from the university and CALS?

NC State and CALS is a community of diverse people unlike any other that I have experienced. Looking back at all of the support that I had from professors and fellow students, it’s hard to imagine picking any other university. The open-door policy and the constant flow of intellectual curiosity that is harbored within our hallways is what I fell in love with during my time here at NC State.

Interested in pursuing a graduate degree in wood and soilless substrates? Learn more about Horticultural Science graduate programs.