It’s me, Kevin Folta. I was born in Chicago in 1967, and always has had an interest in science. I was the first kindergarten student to ever take part in his school’s science fair, an activity reserved for 5-8th graders. They weren’t going to let me participate, but I gave a compelling argument I guess.
In high school I was lucky to have amazing teachers. I hated free periods and lunch, so I packed my schedule full of classes. If a class was really great I’d take it the next year again. I worked nights at Service Merchandise (a long defunct electronics, jewelry and home goods store) and during the summers I delivered papers, worked in school bus yards and did the Service Merchandise work at night. I had a great group of friends that kept things creative, and we played in bands, wrote fan-zines (the pre-internet alternative press), and laughed a lot.
I soon would be the first person in my family to go to college, and attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL. I met Dr. Neil Polans, a plant geneticist, that allowed me to work in his lab, washing dishes and eventually doing experiments. Over the last two years of my undergraduate career we’d publish a couple of small papers describing genetic linkage associations between various genes in pea. Back then this was done by looking at segregation of morphological, isozyme, and restriction fragment length polymorphisms.
At the same time I became active in forensics, intercollegiate competitive speech and debate, and learned from Judy Santacaterina and her cadre of outstanding graduate student coaches. I’d go on to be President of our forensics organization. I’d place well at national tournaments, the pinnacle being finishing 3rd in the nation at AFA finals in 1990. Our little team of seven competitors finished 7th in the nation, ranking lower than programs with more than fifty participants.
I eventually would stay on at NIU for a Masters Degree, but worked summers in industry at a major seed company. I was given a blank checkbook and a mission to build elaborate custom tools for research. I spent more time in the tool shop cutting lexan and assembling custom equipment that would allow huge throughput in their operation. I eventually was offered a high-paying permanent job there, but I hated the corporate timetable and inability to explore. I wanted to work in public science. I decided to stay in school and pursue a Ph.D.
My doctoral research was at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in the Laboratory for Molecular Biology with Dr. Lon Kaufman. The curriculum spanned bacteria, yeast, frogs, mice and humans, and even plants. My dissertation research studied how light affected specific aspects of gene expression, and I completed that degree in 1998. I’d stay on for 1.5 years as a postdoc to finish projects, and then moved to University of Wisconsin to work with Dr. Edgar Spalding. We used high-resolution image capture to examine how light affected plant growth in seedlings, and used some of the first-generation Affymetrix microarrays to study global gene expression patterns.
In 2002 I accepted a position at the University of Florida in the Horticultural Sciences Department. It was like making the all-star team. I was working with the people I knew from the papers, the best journals. It was so exciting because I saw that it was possible for my lab research to directly impact what was happening in the farmer’s field.
I’d soon start work in strawberry and in 2004 added significant sequence resources to the public domain. Along with great collaborators, we examined new questions in strawberry genetics and genomics. By 2007 we had begun a serious effort to sequence the strawberry genome, a feat that was completed and published in 2011, the 12th plant genome sequenced (today there are thousands). We’d continue to work in strawberry genomics, leveraging novel tools to answer important questions in the crop, mostly about consumer traits, like flavor and aroma.
In 2012 I became the Department Chairman, quite an esteemed position, and one that I didn’t feel I could handle, and certainly didn’t deserve. Over the next 5.5 years I would learn that I had a natural knack for managing diverse groups, shrinking budgets and limited space. Strangely I loved the job that everyone hates.
In 2015 I’d end up defending science as activist groups used the Freedom of Information Act to cease large swatches of personal emails. I never even knew that such things were possible, and frankly didn’t care. Time would show that while over twenty requests captured over fifteen thousand pages of email, there was no evidence of any wrong doing, no rules broken. Still, these emails would be used as part of a defamatory campaign that was a severe distraction from my research, and a sad testament of how far activists will go to silence an educator that is teaching science they do not want taught.
Instead of driving me to silence, these personal and harsh attacks only empowered me to push harder with outreach and public education. Not quitting in the face of harassment as broadened the visibility of my work and won respect from my peers. The calendar has never been so full of requests for communications training workshops, research lectures, and media opportunities to share science. What started out as an unpleasant chapter has only opened access to more hearts and minds interested in learning science.
So what next? My lab has some big new directions spawned from a simple idea I had while cutting the grass. We’re working with everything from plants like Arabidopsis thaliana to bacteria like Staphlococcus aureus, the causative pathogen of MRSA. Our hope is development of new plant growth regulators, maybe some environmentally friendly herbicides, and a next generation of antibiotics that kill bacteria with almost no animal toxicity.
I’m grateful for the influence of wonderful mentors, teachers, friends, family, students, colleagues and visiting scholars. The best times are yet to come.