Student Spotlight: Weed Science’s Competitive Ability

Matt Bertucci

Ph.D. student Matt Bertucci is a multi-discipline researcher with determination to impact the weed science of row crops. His goal is to progress grower practices and mold future generations of weed scientists.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in marine biology, it was Wolfpack alumni, Christopher Ladner, and NC State’s reputation that inspired Bertucci to earn a master’s degree from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ plant pathology program. In an effort to expand his expertise in row crops, fellow colleagues helped affirm Matt’s path towards meaningful weed science research. Recently winning first place at the Southern Weed Science Society meeting for his presentation titled, ‘Palmer amaranth interference and seed production in grafted and non-grafted watermelon’.

Not coming from an agricultural background, it is Bertucci’s endless curiosity and persistence that drives him to achieve a doctorate in weed science, researching potential benefits of grafting triploid watermelons to cucurbit rootstocks.

Why did you choose CALS?

I must give credit where credit is due. I chose NC State University because my good friend and fellow NC State alumnus Christopher Ladner recruited me. He spoke very highly of the university and of Raleigh. With his endorsement, I took NC State into consideration. Ultimately, I ended up in CALS based on the reputation established by the Department of Plant Pathology, particularly their strong reputation regarding extension.

What is your career goal?

I aspire to be a professor of weed science at a land grant university in the southeastern United States. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marine biology, but I have always had an interest in crop production. Unfortunately, I grew up with no farming background, so this interest was a result of my curiosity being piqued by my ignorance. Shortly after graduation, I read The Triumph of the Fungi by Nicholas Money. The book describes several catastrophic plant diseases and their societal impacts. Of course, the diseases (e.g., late blight of potato) had devastating effects, and the plant pathologists that worked to mitigate losses to each plant disease were portrayed as the protagonists. Copying my newfound heroes, I enrolled at NC State and earned a master’s degree in plant pathology under the direction of Dr. Christina Cowger. However, I realized that my expertise was restricted to only a small portion of the full array of plant pests. To widen my skill set and become a more well-rounded researcher, I shifted to weed science as a new discipline. I am currently working as a PhD student under the direction of Dr. Katie Jennings in the Department of Horticultural Science. With a master’s degree and a PhD in separate but related disciplines, I hope to use my expertise to conduct meaningful research, to inform and affect grower practices, and to train the next generation of weed scientists.

What are you working on now?

My dissertation is focused on the potential benefits of grafting triploid watermelons to cucurbit rootstocks, with specific regard to weed-competitive ability. The dissertation research includes field, greenhouse and lab experiments. Experiments were designed to address the following research objectives:

  1. Determine the effect of grafting on the critical period for weed control in triploid watermelons;
  2. Evaluate crop tolerance and yield potential of watermelon treated with bicyclopyrone applied pre- and post-emergence;
  3. Determine the effect of Palmer amaranth on yield and fruit quality of grafted and non-grafted watermelon;
  4. Verify seed production estimates of Palmer amaranth and report accuracy of automated seed counting using a computerized particle analyzer;
  5. Determine the effect of rootstock selection on early season growth, time to maturity, and fruit quality, in standard and mini watermelons;
  6. Compare rootstock root system morphology of commercially-available cucurbit rootstocks grown in containers.

Upon graduation, I will reunite with my fiance Margaret Worthington, another NC State alumna, at the University of Arkansas. There I will work as a research associate in weed science of row crops, with an eye for a professor appointment in the near future.

What have you learned that you will take with you when you graduate?

Over the course of my graduate studies, I have learned many research techniques, protocols, assays, experimental designs, etc. But the most important take-away lesson is that persistence pays off. We are met with many daily challenges and the gauntlet of dissertation writing can be disheartening, but your efforts will eventually be rewarded!

Tell me about an experience outside the classroom.

As a graduate student, the majority of my education occurred outside of the classroom. As I mentioned before, I had no familiarity with crop production, but my first summer of research made me responsible for 5 acres of watermelon experiments. As someone who takes pride in my organization and preparedness, I had done all the planning, calculations, and seedling propagation. But when we got to the field and I was told, “this is your rodeo”, I realized I had never done anything like this. Looking over the beds of plastic and the station crew awaiting instructions, I nervously stammered through an explanation of how to properly transplant my grafted watermelons. I may have omitted some key instructions or details, but with the help of the more experienced graduate students, all my acreage was successfully planted. I quickly learned to rely on my colleagues where I lacked experience. My fellow graduate students Sam McGowen, Shawn Beam, Nicholas Basinger, Cole Smith, and Sushila Chaudhari were invaluable in my training, as was our technician Matt Waldschmidt. In subsequent summers, I gained plenty of experience laying out trials and was able to pay it forward and train newer graduate students coming from similar situations of inexperience.

Best thing about CALS in 5 words

Applied research that improves lives