It's hot. Very, very hot.
Popelka is monitoring the chlorophyll levels of corn plants. He hopes to find the genetic key to unlocking greater heat and drought tolerance for future hybrids. The heat wave, it turns out, is a blessing in disguise.
"My dad sold seed on the side, and my brothers came home to farm, so I knew that wouldn't be my future," Popelka says with a smile, his face glistening with perspiration. "But that's OK because I'm now doing what I was meant to do."
As a Purdue graduate student studying plant breeding, the Kansas native could leave a bigger mark on agriculture—and the world—by following his life's calling. Popelka is among 30 Purdue graduate students taking part in a program to prepare the next generation of crop improvement scientists.
Put 'Er There, Partners
The program is made possible by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and corporate partners Ag Alumni Seed, AgReliant Genetics, Beck's Hybrids, ConAgraFoods, Dow AgroSciences, Indiana Crop Improvement Association and Pioneer Hi-Bred International. Purdue provides tuition support.
For the agricultural industry, the program comes not a moment too soon. Over the past two decades Purdue and other universities have witnessed a drop in students majoring in plant breeding and genetics. At the same time, many seed companies have expanded their crop improvement activities to meet the growing demand for higher-yielding crops. The two trends have resulted in a shortage of qualified breeders.
Statistics tell the tale. The National Academy of Sciences reported that in 2007 U.S. universities awarded 4,010 baccalaureate degrees in agricultural business and management, compared with 177 in crop production, including applied sciences such as plant breeding. Also, a 2008 USDA study indicated bachelor's degrees conferred in agronomy and crop sciences declined by about one-third between 1984 and 2003. The study went on to reveal that some universities eliminated or consolidated programs in agricultural sciences because of low enrollment.