Passion for strawberries sparks grad student’s education and career goals
Plant, Breeding, Genetics and Biotechnology Ph.D. student Ashley Wright has a research focus on strawberries and a teaching focus on improving scientific literacy in non-STEM majors.
Ashley Wright is a doctoral student in the Michigan State University (MSU) Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology (PBGB) program. She is researching resistance breeding in strawberries while also pursuing a certification in college teaching.
“My interest in plant breeding was sparked by an influential high school science teacher,” she explained. “After several discussions with her about my interest in biotechnology, GMOs and hydroponics, she found the Plant Breeding, Genetics and Biotechnology (PBGB) Ph.D. program at Michigan State University! Ever since that, my goal throughout my undergraduate years was to be accepted into the PBGB program. My dream finally came true, and I started my advanced degree in January 2021!”
Established in 1981, the Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology (PBGB) graduate program is a collaboration between the MSU departments of Forestry, Horticulture, Plant Biology and Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. Students research agronomic, forest and horticultural species and research is possible in topics such as applied breeding and genetics, molecular biology, disease, insect and herbicide resistances, abiotic stress factors, molecular mapping, quantitative genetics, and gene isolation and genomics.
Wright’s passion for agricultural sustainability is only overshadowed by her absolute love of strawberries.
“My overall audacious goal is breeding the strawberry out of the U.S. 'dirty dozen.' I primarily work on screening for resistance to various diseases — common leaf spot and grey mold — in our MSU strawberry germplasm while maintaining exceptional fruit quality, flavor and high productivity,” Wright said.
Her long-term goal is to release varieties of strawberries with resistance built into the plant to reduce the environmental impact of the berry. She also has goals of continuing to help with the successful launch of an international online certificate course titled “Plant breeding to Fight Hunger.”
She plans to take this experience, merged with her plant breeding knowledge and her experience in college teaching, to develop accessible course content for breeders worldwide. Ultimately, she would like to continue working for MSU in a research and teaching capacity.
Wright is one of the 2022 CANR Alumni Association Scholarship recipients.
Name: Ashley Wright
Hometown: Jenison, Mich.
Degree working on (master’s degree, Ph.D. and any sub-programs): Ph.D. in Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology; certification in college teaching.
Expected graduation date: Dec. 2025
Research focus: My overall audacious goal is breeding the strawberry out of the U.S. “dirty dozen.” I primarily work on screening for resistance to various diseases (common leaf spot and grey mold) in our MSU strawberry germplasm while maintaining exceptional fruit quality, flavor and high productivity. I also planned and planted a preliminary yield trial in the summer of 2022 with strawberry selections I made based on 2020 and 2021 field data. The yield trial includes 81 selections, MSU lines and cultivars. This trial will focus on our exceptional flavor, fruit size and resistance to common leaf spots while figuring out the productivity of the plants.
Teaching Focus: Improving scientific literacy in non-STEM majors. Most non-STEM majors’ last experience with science is a general education requirement. Often, these courses do not prepare students to face real-world problems like COVID-19 and understand the difference between fact and fiction in the media. My teaching project focuses on using short, 10-15 minute activities at the beginning of each class period focusing solely on improving scientific literacy. The idea is that if we can give several small practice sessions determining the credibility of sources, reading science in the news, communicating science in the news to peers and arguing from the evidence it will allow our students to be better citizens and make more informed choices in their futures. To me, science education is not about memorization or even science itself. Science education is the art of teaching students how to think and make evidence-based decisions.
What inspired your interest in your advanced degree area?
My interest in plant breeding was sparked by an influential high school science teacher. After several discussions with her about my interest in biotechnology, GMOs and hydroponics, she found the Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology Ph.D. program at MSU! Ever since that, my goal throughout my undergraduate years was to be accepted into the PBGB program. My dream finally came true, and I started my advanced degree in January 2021.
Why did you choose to study at MSU?
I chose to study at MSU because of its great agricultural programs and opportunities.
What has been one of your best experiences within graduate school so far?
I was nominated for the 2021 Harlo Mork Excellence in Teaching Award. The best moment was standing in front of the ceremony with Susie Jackson (lab coordinator of the lab I am a teaching assistant (TA) for) with our awards together.
What do you want others to know about this program?
The PBGB program is an inclusive group that offers several opportunities to interact with faculty and other students.
What are some of the best things about being an MSU student?
The opportunity! MSU offers so many options for clubs, community engagement, volunteering and so much more.
Any thoughts or advice for current or new students?
Take time for yourself. Life can get busy, crazy and stressful but, it’s okay to say no and take time to enjoy your life. Life happens now, not after school so don’t forget to enjoy the time you have!
What are your future plans?
I would like to continue working for MSU in a research and teaching capacity. However, I still have three years left so I will explore any and all opportunities that come my way!