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By Brennan Hyden
  • Cornell AgriTech
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Horticulture Section
  • Agriculture
  • Horticulture
  • Energy
  • Genomics

Brennan Hyden is a Ph.D. candidate working in the lab of Larry Smart, professor of horticulture at Cornell AgriTech, where his work focuses on using willow as a sustainable bioenergy crop. For his excellence in bioenergy research, Hyden was recently awarded a grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) to advance his work at Oakridge National Laboratory.

We recently asked Hyden about his research experiences as a graduate student at Cornell AgriTech and his exciting journey ahead.

What makes willow such a good bioenergy crop?

Willow is ideal because it can grow on marginal land that is too wet for other crops, it is fast growing, and it requires few inputs (fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides, etc.). It is cut back every 2-4 years, and then the wood is chipped and burned to generate heat, which can be used to create electricity. There is some flexibility in the harvest year, so if one year does not have a good market, the grower can harvest the next year. 

Shrub willow can actually be a carbon negative energy source, since carbon is fixed into the roots, which are not harvested. Breeding targets for shrub willow for bioenergy include high yield (biomass), low ash content, and pest and disease resistance. Biomass is important because that is how yield is measured, and more biomass equals more energy. 

Key traits from secondary metabolites can affect pest attraction (undesirable) and pollinator attraction (desirable, since willows are insect pollinated). The latter is important not only because it can support more effective and successful pollination, but it also can support a diverse range of insects, including many species of flies and bees. The ideal shrub willow is fast growing, high yielding, has low ash content, and is resistant to pests and diseases such as willow leaf rust.  

Within the Smart Lab, what is your overarching research focus? What are your personal research goals?

The Smart Lab  conducts research related to the genetics and breeding of shrub willow. Willow is one of only a small number of plants that are dioecious (having separate male and female plants), and important traits related are associated with the particular sex of a willow. However, we do not currently have a full understanding of the underlying genetics behind sex determination in willow, nor how sex controls these traits.

My research specifically focuses on understanding the genetics of sex determination in shrub willow and characterizing the gene pathways responsible for differences we observe in biomass and secondary metabolites. Understanding sex determination will enable more effective genetic studies and breeding efforts to improve shrub willow as a bioenergy crop.  


What will you be working on at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory?

I have identified several candidate genes predicted to be involved in sex determination. At Oak Ridge, I will be working on multiple functional genomics methods to confirm the role these genes have in sex determination, as well as to characterize the pathways and other genes that they interact with. 

Through this functional characterization, we should have enough evidence to either support or refute the role of each candidate gene in sex determination, as well as gain some in depth knowledge as to how they might control traits associated with sex.  

What are some of the most meaningful experiences you’ve had at Cornell AgriTech as a graduate student?

The past several semesters I have been funded on an Extension and Outreach Assistantship. Extension involves disseminating university research to the public — including growers, consumers and families — and that importance of that work is at the core of every Land-Grant university’s mission. The opportunity to do extension work as a graduate student, however, is not very common at most universities, and is definitely a unique experience that Cornell AgriTech offers.

As part of my project, I am working with high school agriculture programs in the Finger Lakes region to provide plant science related workshops and lessons. This includes hosting field trips at AgriTech, developing videos and media featuring different labs and research groups, going into classrooms, and helping with local Future Farmers of America programs.

Despite agriculture being a significant industry in the Finger Lakes region, agricultural education programs in high schools are still quite limited. My extension and outreach work helps to bridge this gap by connecting local high schools to the vast knowledge and resources at AgriTech, which can in turn lead to more students seeing agriculture as a viable career option.

How has your research experience at Cornell AgriTech shaped your future career path?

What sets graduate research at Cornell AgriTech apart from other universities, and indeed, the main campus in Ithaca, is the overarching focus on food and agricultural, and the extensive resources devoted to that end. As a student at AgriTech I am able to make use of ample field and lab space, computing resources, student funding opportunities and the vast expertise among faculty and staff.

I have gained experience in a wide range of methods and skills, including field work, wet-lab work, bioinformatics, collection of wild species and extension experience. I feel that my experiences at Cornell AgriTech have prepared me well to pursue my desired career path as an industry researcher, where employees work together in a dynamic environment towards a common objective and research area. 

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