Hannah Swegarden recently completed her Ph.D. under the direction of Phillip Griffiths, associate professor of horticulture at Cornell AgriTech. While working with Griffiths, Swegarden utilized an integrated approach to vegetable breeding geared toward marketplace trends. We recently spoke with Swegarden about her research on the Geneva campus.
What is the focus of your research at Cornell AgriTech?
My research in the Griffiths’ lab has focused on improving the quality of leafy Brassica vegetables, such as kale and collard. I’ve explored many consumer research and sensory analysis methods as a means of characterizing quality in our breeding program and made it a primary goal to integrate the feedback of consumers into the breeding and development of new varieties. Our research was primarily interested in understanding the existing sensory landscape of leafy Brassicas, exploring what sensory methods are adaptable to the environment of our vegetable breeding program, and integrating established breeding methods with measures of consumer perception.
What’s the most exciting discovery you’ve made in your research here?
It was exciting to learn that our breeding materials have significant variation for sensory attributes, such as texture, flavor and appearance. It was equally interesting to learn that our program consists of materials that are genetically distinct from many commercially available varieties. Taken together, these findings suggest that there is ample room for the breeding and development of unique varieties for new markets.
What do you hope the impact of your research will be on consumers, growers and markets?
Ultimately, I hope consumers, growers and stakeholders in vegetable markets realize that their voices are valuable to the improvement of our food systems. We are beginning to see dramatic changes in the way consumers interact with their food, whether it’s through more local food outlets, home-delivery and meal services, or home gardening. Improved supply chain logistics and digital media can help consumers be more connected and informed about the quality of their food systems.
What do you think would surprise people most about the subject of your research?
Vegetables are highly diverse and have largely been uncharacterized from a sensory and consumer standpoint. I’ll be the first to admit that vegetables do not often elicit an exuberant response from the general public, and polarizing crops like kale are often viewed as one-dimensional. But when we go to the grocery store, the varieties we see are such a small representation of the inherent diversity in many crop species. Even kale and collard, the subjects of my research projects, are innately variable in their appearance and sensory traits.
In what ways will your experience at Cornell AgriTech shape your career?
Working in a diversified vegetable breeding program has opened opportunities to explore fresh market vegetable development, production and markets. More generally, it has allowed me to think about how I can creatively contribute to ever changing food systems. The skills I have developed throughout my degree program are transferable across many different disciplines, including horticulture, plant breeding, food science and others. My experience at Cornell AgriTech has reinforced my desire to bridge interdisciplinary boundaries and enhance partnerships that build resilient food systems.
Header image: Hannah Swegarden works in a brassica crop research field at Cornell AgriTech. Photo by Allison Usavage
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