Pennycress, Pollinators and Paris

April 21, 2017

CBS graduate student Jason Thomas receives Fulbright Scholarship to study plant sciences in France.

Jason Thomas

From the fields of St. Paul campus, Jason Thomas’ next plant venture will take him across the Atlantic to further explore the plant sciences. Currently a graduate student in Sue Gibson’s lab, co-advised by Clay Carter and David Marks, Thomas recently received a Fulbright Fellowship to continue his studies of field pennycress, a plant used both for biodiesel and as a cash cover crop. His research focuses on how the plant produces nectar for pollinators and how to increase its yield. He will continue his research efforts in France, learning how to improve scent and increase flower size to attract more pollinators to pennycress.

We recently caught up with Thomas to hear about his current research, why he wanted to study in France and what the next stage in life has in store for him.

What interested you about the plant sciences?
Plants are fascinating and if you look around you can see how they affect nearly all aspects of our lives, including food, medicine, fiber and the air we breathe. Also, the problems of colony collapse disorder, water quality, and climate changes can all be addressed through plant sciences.

What are you hoping to attain from your time in France?
I am hoping to learn new skills, particularly in microscopy and the biochemistry of plant volatiles. I want the work that I do to lead to discoveries in the genetics of pollinator attraction and to pennycress plants that are better for pollinators. And finally, I’m hoping my experiences in France will expand my career opportunities and connections for further pennycress research.

Why France? What’s intriguing to you about this opportunity in particular?
I applied to research in France because the country is a major agricultural producer, especially in oilseeds. They have similar cropping systems as we have in the Midwest and could also benefit from growing field pennycress. It is an excellent chance for me to hone my French speaking skills, which will allow me to communicate with millions of people all over the world in French-speaking countries once colonized by France.

What are your career aspirations?
Broadly speaking, my career aspirations are to improve crops that simultaneously meet the needs of people and the environment. Maybe that means I will continue working with pennycress, or I may find another innovative plant to work with. I’m not certain if the best career path for me is in academia, industry, or another field at this point, but I’m confident that I’m moving in the right direction.