Jonathan Mahoney

Jonathan Mahoney.

Jonathan Mahoney is a PhD student studying plant breeding in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. While completing an undergraduate internship at the USDA in Ames, Iowa, he became part of a collaboration that connected him to UConn. Here is what he said in an interview.

Where did you study as an undergraduate?

I studied at Iowa State University in the Department of Horticulture and graduated in 2014.

What was your major?

My major was horticulture with an emphasis in fruit and vegetable production.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

It was partly due to the people that I worked with at Iowa State, especially the faculty, and the research that I did as an undergraduate at the USDA-ARS, National Plant Germplasm System.

It was also probably my own curiosity. Learning what something is, that’s interesting, but I want to know why and how. I think graduate school allows me to do that with experiments and scientific discoveries.

Who is your advisor?

Dr. Mark Brand. While working at the USDA, we collaborated with Mark and that’s how I got to know him and UConn and really became interested in plant breeding.

What is your field of research?

It’s diverse but it’s primarily focused on plant breeding. I’m working on breeding improved Aronia for the fruit industry. Aronia is a new and upcoming super fruit that contains high levels of antioxidants and is adaptable to various geographic regions with very few disease and pest issues. However, Aronia has an astringent taste that typically requires some form of processing before human consumption. So, my goal, and the goal of our lab, is to improve its fruit quality traits so that it can be consumed fresh and create more of a market demand. We are breeding improved Aronia by incorporating wild plant material into our breeding program and attempting to cross Aronia with pear and other closely related taxa. We have also started developing gene transformation techniques for future transgenic and genome editing work.

There are other applications for Aronia. It’s native to the Northeast, it provides pollinator habitat and it can be used as an ornamental crop. There are many uses for it besides as a commercial fruit.

A lot of our work is focused on breeding. It’s a nice mix of basic research and applied research, which makes it fun. I can ask very basic questions and apply that knowledge to make better-informed breeding decisions that affect the consumer and grower in the long run.

Name one aspect of your work that you like.

I enjoy doing both lab and field work. With lab work, I’m surrounded by many colleagues in the Department of Plant Science and in the ag biotech building where we have the opportunity to collaborate with one another. It’s the same with field work; I get to work with growers. I try to stay in contact with growers, see what issues they have, and also interact with the general public. I like working with others. I’m a people person, so I need to be around people. It’s great to be able to collaborate and involve other people, institutions and growers.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment so far?

In October 2015, I was invited to give a talk in Nanjing Agricultural University in China on Aronia breeding at UConn.

Also, more recently, I was named a part-time visiting fellow at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University through the Deland Award Fellowship. I’m using their collection for some of my breeding work but I’m also doing some other research studying the mating systems and compatibility of hybrids we’re trying to create.

What do you hope to do once you get your degree?

I’d like to do a postdoc, but it’s really up in the air for me. I’m split between the public sector and the private sector. What it’s going to come down to for me is what’s most interesting and what I feel is the best research. I’m really up for going anywhere.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

I enjoy running, mountain biking and playing Irish music.

I finished up my undergraduate degree on St. John, US Virgin Islands, where I assisted teaching plant biology and implementing a school gardening program at Gifft High School. I actually visited again recently because it’s such a fun place!

By Jason M. Sheldon