Outstanding Student Award: Ellen Evans 2023

Ellen Evans, HM.CLAUSE – PBA VIII Graduation Speech – September 15, 2023

Ellen Evans speech

"Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today.

On a Monday morning in July I had to report to the Sacramento County courthouse for jury duty.  My group of sixty was called for one of the first trials of the morning.  We filed upstairs to the courtroom and the judge and lawyers began to question us as part of the selection process.  

If selected to be on the jury, I would likely miss two weeks of work during our critical field evaluation season.  

Everyone was asked about their profession and any personal experiences or beliefs that could possibly cause bias when judging the case.  I listened as the judge questioned government employees, IT workers, accountants, and medical professionals.  

Finally, when it was my turn to be questioned the judge asked, “What is your job?”  I said, “I breed cucumbers for a seed company in Davis.”  I could hear the reactions around the room indicating surprise and interest at this.

 She asked, “How do you do that?” and I said, “Well, you’ve heard of dog breeding?  It’s like that but for cucumbers.”  She followed up asking more about the specifics of the job—what sort of activities do I do, are we breeding plants to adapt to climate change.   

When it was the lawyers’ turn to question me, one of them asked me, “How would you make a tastier pickling cucumber?”  I thought for a second and then replied, “How would you define tastier?” and we had a bit of a discussion about that.  Afterwards in the hall one of the other jurors came up to me and said, “Were you the person who breeds cucumbers?  I just wanted to say that is really cool!”

Ellen Evans speech 2

The point of this story is that Plant Breeding IS really cool.  What is it about plant breeding that made you put yourself through the last two years?  What made you spend significant time and money to attend Plant Breeding Academy?  What made you travel here, many of you internationally, on the heels of a global pandemic?  

We took on the commitment and challenge of this two-year program because we want to improve the crops that we work on so that they are more efficient, more resilient, and more appealing to growers and consumers. 

Think back on everything you conquered to be here today: basic statistics homework assignments, intimidating R Scripts, the genetics of host-pathogen interaction and male sterility.  And perhaps the biggest hurdle, the PBA Final Project.  

If you were like me, during any free time in 2023 that you weren’t actively working on your project, you felt guilty that you should have been working on your project.  

While we are doubtless looking forward to applying the many concepts we learned in PBA to our work, I am sure we are also anticipating the return of weekends of homework-free, project-free quality time with our families and personal interests.

Plant Breeding Academy was created in 2006 in response to the limited availability of trained plant breeders emerging from traditional university academic programs.  The course goal as stated on the PBA website is to develop “the skills and abilities of current industry personnel to enable them to become independent breeders or more valuable contributors to larger breeding programs.”

There aren’t enough plant breeders to satisfy the demand for them because young students have not heard of this as a career option, despite plant breeding existing as a profession for over 100 years.  After you leave here today, look for opportunities to be ambassadors for plant breeding and other plant-based careers.  Find a local school with a garden and volunteer to donate plants or help a science class with a botany project.  See if a youth organization like 4H or Future Farmers of America would like to take a tour of your company.  Recruit for internships at a high school or college career fair and talk to the students there about your experience and why you love your job.    

I once shared this Rex Bernardo quote with my mom to try to explain why I loved working in plant breeding.  It is from his book Essentials of Plant Breeding: 

“A plant breeder’s work is fulfilling.  There is much personal satisfaction in developing individual plants with unique gene combinations that have never existed before, and in sorting out which of the thousands of progeny can best meet human needs.  Because humans ultimately depend on plants for their existence, plant breeders contribute to the well-being of society as a whole…. A plant breeder is partly a scientist, engineer, artist, and manager who uses his or her expertise, experience, and skills to create a cultivar.”  

A few words about that last part, the manager part.  Plant breeding is never a solo effort.  Even if you aren’t formally a manager in your organization, I am sure it takes a team of hard-working individuals to grow, pollinate, propagate, sample, and harvest the fruits of your labors.  

As you practice and build on the scientific skills you have learned in this course, consider looking for ways to improve the traits you need in yourself to work effectively with people locally and globally to achieve your goals as a breeder.  A team who understands the big picture of why they do what they do is more motivated and more invested in the success of the project. 

On behalf of the class, I would like to thank the team that has been instructing us.

Kendra – Thank you for infusing your technical lectures with humor, which made intimidating subjects more inviting.

Jay – Thank you for real life industry examples that illustrated the business consequences of the topics we studied.  

Jovan – Of all the things you taught us over the past two years, what is going to stick with me the most is your emphasis on innovation.

Allen – Thank you for teaching us decades worth of molecular genetics in just a few hours.

Kent – Thank you for sharing your knowledge of the seed world with us, and for your continued support of the PBA program during your “retirement”.

Whitney – Thank you for making sure we stayed alert and well-fed and caffeinated.  We could not have survived this course without you.

 Fortunately, the lawyers did not select ME to participate in the trial.  Instead, I was able to spend the rest of the summer making selections in my OWN trials, happy knowing that my work was pushing the pipeline closer to yet another improved cucumber variety."


(Download Ellen's PowerPoint here)