Research Geneticist, USDA-ARS
Adjunct Professor, Cornell University
159 Biotechnology Building
Ithaca, NY 14853
Edward S. Buckler, Ph.D. is a Research Geneticist at the USDA-ARS and an Adjunct Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University. Dr. Buckler began his career with USDA-ARS at North Carolina State where he developed statistical genetics approaches for associating natural genetic variation with trait variation. Currently, his research focuses on developing genomic, statistical, bioinformatic, and germplasm resources to scan plant genomes for functional polymorphisms using a wide range of mapping approaches. His group has examined the genetics of heterosis, maize kernel nutrition, flowering, leaf and tassel development, height, yield, sugar production of sweet corn, starch production, cold tolerance, nitrogen use efficiency, and drought tolerance. His group also develops software tools that are widely used through the genetic mapping community, and has collaborated with researchers working in numerous other crops including sorghum, cassava, grapes, switchgrass, reed canary grass, wheat, rice, and Tripsacum (gamagrass).
Today, our lab focuses on how to integrate genetics, genomics, evolution, and biochemistry into models to understanding natural variation. Our prior work had seen that our current tools for genetic mapping are great for more common alleles, but the giant frontier is how to work with ubiquitous rare alleles. We see this integration process as key to understanding rare alleles.
Why I Became a Scientist:
I have always loved biology, history, and computers. Surprisingly, working on maize genetics and diversity is a great way to combine these interests into a truly rewarding career.
I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, pretty far from corn plants. My mother worked in microbiology, and the whole family spent lots of time out camping and hiking in the mountains along the Eastern US, which gave me a real appreciation for the complexity of life. My father loved computers and ran computer systems for the US Navy, so he would buy computers for us to use—to take them apart and rebuild them. My parents didn’t like to buy us computer games, so I learned to program in order to create my own games. In high school, I had a great teacher who got me interested in archaeology. I spent several summers working in the field at various archaeological sites.
Also while in high school, I realized that genetics was very similar to computer programming—programming with real life problems—and went off to college to learn more about genetics. I kept taking courses in archaeology, however, as the history of civilization was fascinating to me. In archaeology courses, I learned about the origins and sustainability of modern agriculture (something new for a suburban kid). I was not a big fan of going to science classes in college, but I spent lots of time in the lab.
Through my experiences, and research in college and graduate school, I learned that researching the genetics of maize allows one to address real life problems using the history of diversity that has evolved in maize and its progenitors over the last 3 million years. The best part is that what we learn helps to make agriculture more sustainable, and also helps provide food for some of the poorest people in the world.
I was exposed to a great public education system in Arlington, Virginia. But like all students, there were some real challenges for me. I am dyslexic, so learning how to read was quite difficult. I really couldn't read until second grade, and then because of the efforts of a great 2nd grade teacher. To this day, reading and writing are still the hardest thing that I have to do. But I also learned that many dyslexics see the world and process information differently – those differences have also been key to my successes in school and science. I took as much science, math, and history that I could in school, and I always enjoyed those. I also got to take a programming course in middle school that in hindsight was invaluable. What I remember the most in middle and high school are a great Latin teachers, chemistry, and history, and then being very involved in model judiciary.I did my undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where I enrolled in a great program that had zero requirements other than take lots of courses and learn. I dived into as much science and archaeology as I could take. On the science side, I have never been a big fan of lectures. Experiential learning was much more to my liking – so I loved independent research. Steve Plog was my mentor on the archaeology side, and Mike Timko mentored me in molecular biology and genetics. They were my roles models for how to do research – being rigorous, having fun, and seeing that if you work hard you can figure out really cool things. Working in a research lab also prepared me for the real world of science – the vast majority of experiments do not work, especially on first try. We fail, we learn, and we do it better the next time.My mentors suggested all sorts of schools for graduate school, but it was only the University of Missouri that had the great plant genetics, population genetics, and archaeology that I was interested in. So off to the Midwest! Tim Holtsford, my PhD advisor and population geneticist, did a wonderful job in encouraging me to pursue my own interests and find that blend of evolution and archaeology that worked for me. I spent my PhD working on ancient DNA, evolution of maize, the evolution of tandem repetitive elements in genome, palaeoclimatic impact of crop domestication, and working on meiotic drive in maize. I had a tremendous group of mentors at Missouri – Deborah Pearsall (archaeology), Jim Birchler (genetics), and Karen Cone (molecular genetics). The best thing though was meeting my wife!I completed my education with a short postdoc at North Carolina State University with Bruce Weir and Michael Purugganan. Graduate school had provided me tremendous tools and insights into how genetics and domestication works, but I knew I wanted to move into a more applied area using those insights. Bruce Weir led a great group in statistical genetics that was at the forefront of developing genetic mapping approaches for both human, animals, and crops. Most valuably I learned to think hard about how to do genetic mapping and what really matters in the area. Bruce also showed my how to lead a large group of scientists. My education was informally rounded out by my colleagues John Doebley and Major Goodman that taught about diversity in the fields from teosinte to the breeding of elite varieties of corn in the US.