Launch Director’s Report: January 2020

Dean Linton at the Plant Sciences Building Groundbreaking in September.

Dean Linton at the Plant Sciences Building Groundbreaking in September.

A lot has happened with the North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative since the Plant Sciences Building groundbreaking in September. NC State plant scientists were awarded major grants, Geoff Bock and I have held several events and the search for an Executive Director is well underway.

Firstly, the Plant Sciences Building is on budget and on schedule to open in late 2021. The dry fall, which was bad for our growers, was quite good for construction. All of the underground utilities, such as electrical, plumbing and ventilation have been laid. The walls and floors of the concrete foundation have been poured and the DPR Construction team started installing steel beams earlier this month. You can watch the progress through our live webcam.

Of course, the initiative is more than just a building, and we have been fostering interdisciplinary teams to tackle the grand challenges of our time.

Photo of Amy Grunden in NC State's Phytotron.For example, in November we held a lightning-round collaboration-sparking session with faculty members from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Wilson College of Textiles. After that session I heard from more than a dozen faculty members who said they met someone they didn’t know and were going to follow up about joint research ideas. I will consider it a success if one or two of those teams get a grant to do research they hadn’t even considered before the session. Our next lightning round session will be with the Department of Chemistry in a month or two.

Speaking of interdisciplinary grants, an international team led by Amy Grunden, a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Plant and Microbial Biology, received $30 million in June to study how microbes in the soil, roots and leaves of wheat plants impact plant health and productivity. The project, funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation, aims to make crops in North Carolina and across the globe more resilient against environmental stresses such as drought, heat waves and cold snaps. I admire the work Amy did to pull together the team of top-notch scientists from NC State and three Danish universities.

In September, a national team co-led by Chris Reberg-Horton, a professor in Crop and Soil Science, received $10 million to improve the sustainability and profitability of agriculture through the use of cover crops. The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will use cutting-edge technology, such as autonomous data collection, cloud-based data platforms and machine learning, to see how cover crops impact insects, weeds, drought tolerance and soil nutrients. Chris met one of the machine learning experts, Edgar Lobaton, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, through the GRIP4PSI process.

Chris Reberg-Horton and Steven Mirsky, co-leaders of a $10M sustainability grant examine an autonomous ag data collection robot.GRIP4PSI, or the Game‐Changing Research Incentive Program for Plant Sciences Initiative, is an effort to kickstart groundbreaking interdisciplinary research around the three central research platforms of PSI. These platforms are plant improvement, data-driven plant science and resilient agricultural systems. GRIP4PSI is financially supported by six colleges, the Provost’s Office, Kenan Institute for Engineering, Science and Technology, and the Office of Research and Innovation. The funded teams will be announced soon.

Our search for a world-renown plant science leader to chart the course of the Initiative is also moving along. The search committee reviewed about a dozen highly qualified candidates, and conducted video interviews with the top five candidates in December. Of the five candidates, all have a strong global reputation as scientists, most have experience in academia and industry and two candidates are from overseas. We hope to have the executive director onboard sometime this summer, and I will work with them for the remainder of 2020 to get them up to speed.

We have raised over 90 percent of the funds required for the building including pioneering support from 45 commodity associations, NC voters through the Connect NC Bond and the Golden LEAF Foundation. We are seeking additional support in order to close that gap, as well as supporting some of the research and innovation that will take place within the building.

A rendering of the Plant Sciences BuildingIn fact, there are numerous opportunities to feature your family or company name in the building — from large, prominent spaces or one of the rooftop greenhouses to smaller conference rooms where teams of five to ten researchers can discuss challenges and innovations. Naming opportunities for the prominent spaces are going fast, and both of the elevators have already been named!

To discuss adding your name to the Plant Sciences Building, contact Dinah Schuster, Senior Director of Development, daschust@ncsu.edu or 919.513.8294.

Thank you for your continued support!

— Steve Briggs

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