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PSI Profile: Ross Sozzani, Platform Director for Plant Improvement

Ross Sozzani headshot
Ross Sozzani is the new director of the plant improvement platform for the N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative. Photo by Marc Hall

Ross Sozzani, associate professor in NC State University’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, has been named director of the plant improvement platform for the North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative (N.C. PSI).

She is known for her work in plant development and stem cell regulation, and her research interest is at the interface of computational and biological sciences. Sozzani is a co-investigator on two projects with the Game-Changing Research Incentive Program for Plant Sciences Initiative (GRIP4PSI).  

She is the lead of a National Science Foundation AccelNet project aimed at accelerating integration of engineering, life science and agricultural research to prepare the next generation of U.S. researchers for multiteam international collaborations. 

Sozzani was hired at NC State in 2013 as a member of the Synthetic and Systems Biology cluster, a team of molecular biologists, chemists and engineers who work to understand and modify living organisms to help eradicate disease and meet increasing worldwide demands for sustainable food and energy. She received a National Science Foundation career award. 

As director of the plant improvement platform, Sozzani will lead work to connect a bounty of crop research data with predictive analytics, finding new technologies to improve plants for years to come.

We talked with Sozzani to find out her goals for the new position and learn more about her, including her favorite plant and Howling Cow Ice Cream flavor.

How do you see the position of director of plant improvement?

The long-term vision that pushes me is that we want to help nourish the growing population without further harming the environment. That has really made a difference in how I do science and how I see science.

The goal of the plant improvement platform is to enhance characteristics of plant species; for example, to give rise to new varieties. What we always need to have as our end goal is increased productivity, increased pest and pathogen resistance. For example, we could think about domestication of new crops that have valuable traits, such as perennial plants, and then developing production systems that incorporate plant microbiomes that are tailored for sustainability and improved production. 

We focus on a defined list of strategic goals and objectives, as well as initiatives to meet specific near-term and long-term needs. Specific but flexible research on crop protection from biotic and abiotic stresses and agri-symbiotics, or the fundamental role of microorganisms in sustaining soil and plants, will allow us to collaboratively align the plant improvement platform with the PSI mission in a high-quality, meaningful way.

What are your goals for the position? 

What I would like to bring to the platform is the technology that’s out there for crop innovation. Technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 for genome editing or 3D bioprinting to engineer plants with improved agricultural traits will create more opportunities and will enable improving plants even faster. 

Currently we acquire a lot of data — that could be from the lab, from the greenhouse, from the field — in terms of plant physiology in crops and gene expression in the plant. What I would like to do is to start to use predictive modeling to move from description to prediction.

That approach goes hand in hand with the data-driven plant sciences platform under the direction of Cranos Williams. It involves using data analytics to make predictions and to help in translating lab findings into strategies. You can use model plants grown in the lab, but you really have to have enabling technology and a computational approach to translate our findings. 

Plant improvement will have all of these aspects, but it’s also important to have an easy interdependence with the other platforms: data-driven plant sciences, resilient agricultural systems and educational outreach.

What are you looking forward to the most about your new position? 

I’m an extremely communicative person. I really push for open communication, open sources. What I would like is to make sure that the plant improvement platform will engage and involve other projects at NC State and outside the university by pushing for convergence strategies in our research. 

By doing plant improvement, we also equip students for the workforce. These students will understand the societal and economic impact of the research that we’re doing in the PSI.

What is your favorite plant?

I think my favorite plant now is the soybean. Mainly that’s because we have a grant from the national Foundation of Food and Agriculture for research on increasing soybeans’ resilience to climate change. That allows me to use techniques that I developed on the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana.

I work on STEM cell regulation in my research. You start from a model plant so that you can really develop computational approaches and predictive modeling, then you can translate it to other plants. I migrated from that model plant and am now well versed with the soybean. 

Research that we’re doing now focuses on abiotic stress, say temperature stress, and at the same time, how that correlates not only with yield but also the nutritional content of soybeans.

What is your favorite Howling Cow ice cream flavor? 

As an Italian, everybody knows about gelato, right? I’ve been asked if Howling Cow is good ice cream, and it is actually very good and does not make me miss gelato now that I have not been able to go back to Italy.

We live very close to the dairy farm at Lake Wheeler, and so every single week that it’s been open, even during the pandemic, we would take my daughter to the dairy and spend a lot of time playing Frisbee outside there. She would always have a cone with vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, and then I would end up eating half of it as well. 

So I go and get a pint of chocolate, a pint of vanilla and a pint of strawberry because my daughter likes that. I like the three flavors combined. And every time we have a celebration with my lab members when we are on campus, we always go to the Talley center and I buy ice cream — one scoop, two scoops, three scoops, of whatever they want.