Chris Gunter is already the university-equivalent of a utility player: a researcher, a teacher and an extension specialist, all rolled into one. In July, he’ll add yet another position – that of graduate programs director for NC State University’s Department of Horticultural Science.
Julia Kornegay plans to retire from that role this year, and Gunter will step in beginning in July. His goal will be to make sure that students’ “questions about the degree requirements, program requirements, and the mechanics of how the university works are sufficiently answered so that these things aren’t a barrier to their success,” he said.
“Have they taken all of the core courses they need? Do they have enough credit hours based on their proposed plans of work? You’re always interacting with them to try to help connect them with the information that they need,” Gunter added.
“This department has a really, really strong history of training excellent grad students that go on to serve the industry. I’m grateful that I can be even a small part of that.”
What’s your background?
I’m from Elkhart, Indiana, and got my undergraduate degree in horticulture at Purdue and then did my master’s and Ph.D. in Wisconsin. After that, I worked for Purdue as a regional specialist in vegetable cropping systems, specializing in mineral nutrition for melon and tomato crops.
When, and why, did you decide to work at NC State?
When this position came open 10 years ago, my goal was to get a tenure-track position, and the idea of working in North Carolina appealed to me: The scale of vegetable production here is much bigger than it is in a lot of states, and the crop diversity is very high.
Working at a place like this, you have the opportunity to see, experience and learn so much more about production of a diverse amount of vegetable crops. Not only that, you have lots of eco-regions in the state – the mountains, the piedmont and the coastal plains — where production can be vastly different.
What is your current role at NC State?
I have a three-way split: I conduct research and work as an extension specialist. I also teach an undergraduate class in vegetable production, and I’ll start teaching a new class for me, which is Pre-Harvest Food Safety.
How did you end up in horticultural science?
That’s a good question. My interest was science, and at the time I was graduating from high school, my mom was a nurse. At that time, there was a shortage of people with knowledge of pharmacy. My interest was research, so I was like, “O.K. I’ll go to Purdue and get a pharmacy degree and get a research position related to pharmacy.
“That very first day Intro to Pharmacy was just like every intro class at every university: They said, ‘Hey, if you’re just here for the money, you are not going to be happy.’ I was sitting there thinking, “Are they reading my mind?”
After that, I went to do some career testing. Teaching and horticulture came up really high for me, but I had no idea what horticulture was. I was not from a farming background. I didn’t have 4-H at my school. I didn’t know anything about that.
I went to the horticulture department, and they had me sit down with Bob Joly, a super-excited, super-enthusiastic researcher. We talked about what horticulture means and what I could do as a horticulturist. From that time on, I was completely hooked.
What about your interest in doing extension work: How did that come about?
I’ve always been committed to extension. When I did my graduate work, my major professor did research that was very applied, at least in the area that I worked in. He had a strong commitment that if you did the work, you speak about the work. Whenever it was appropriate for me to get in front of a grower audience to present my data, that’s what I did. And it was a valuable experience.
Talking to growers is always the best way to learn. I’ve been on hundreds of farms, and I still learn something new every time I talk to a grower. They’ll say, “This is something that I’ve always wondered. What is it?” And I would say, “I don’t know what that is, but maybe we could find out.”
Can you describe your approach to research?
I’ve always had that commitment instilled in me that if you’re going to do research, it should ultimately have some kind of practical benefit to growers. Coming here to NC State was a natural fit. While we do have basic projects, too, the idea here is always that eventually these projects will have some sort of application. I want to find that application. I’m not interested in just doing it because of the love of science. I really want to help people with what I do.
What are some of the questions you’re looking at?
I wear two hats. One is in the area of production and then the other is food safety. On the production side, we’ve put a lot of effort in using grafted plants as a way to solve soil-borne disease issues in the tomato production system. These diseases linger in the soil for a long time. They’re very difficult to rotate away from and once you get them, they can be problematic for a long time.
Grafting is a way to overcome that: You can take the roots of a plant that is resistant to the disease and then graft the tomato plant that you desire on top of it. The roots don’t get the disease, but they still supply water and nutrients to the top and then you can harvest.
If there were no disease, we wouldn’t graft because it’s more expensive, it’s more time consuming and you lose plants. So one question we have is how do we make the use of grafted plants more economical, or are there other benefits that those roots convey besides disease resistance? For example, if the root system is physically larger, is it able to more efficiently mine fertilizer from the soil or uptake water more efficiently? If that’s the case, could we turn the water down and allow the plant to survive on less water but not impact yield?
That’s what our work is finding — we can cut the rate of water by half and still maintain production. That means the per-acre cost goes down and the efficiency of production goes up.
On the food safety side, we have a lot of projects. One of the things that we don’t know about human pathogens in the environment is where do the pathogens harbor? How do they move from a non-production area into our production system? And can we develop extension-based mitigation strategies that work for growers?
What do you want prospective grad students to know about the experience they’ll get in horticultural science here at NC State?
I don’t think you’ll find any other university that has a better graduate faculty dedicated to horticultural science than this one. Here, we have dozens of faculty members working in various areas of horticultural science. That means there are lots of opportunities for graduate students.
Let’s say, for example, that they’re interested in becoming a plant breeder. They’re going to get not just vegetable plant breeding or a single commodity breeding. They’re really going to get exposed to a whole cadre of plant breeders, which means they’re going to get exposure to lots of viewpoints and lots of connections that could be helpful when they graduate and are looking for jobs.
Also, the university resources dedicated to horticulture and plant science in general are world class.
The Plant Sciences Initiative shows the college’s dedication in this area. As a grad student, you want to be right there. You can learn to grow vegetables anywhere, but to do cutting-edge research and learn the most advanced techniques, you have to be in a place that has a commitment to that.