Zachary N. Harris, third-year PhD student at Saint Louis University, has been named the 2020 William H. Danforth Plant Science Fellow, the sixth student to receive the distinction. The fellowship was endowed in honor of Dr. Danforth by Dr. P. Roy and Diana Vagelos and supports outstanding PhD students whose research demonstrates great promise for advancing plant science.

Since fall 2017, Harris has been a member of the Allison Miller Lab, where the focus is on how long-lived plants respond to dynamic environments, with the goal of developing perennial crops that support ecologically sustainable agricultural systems. For his dissertation, Harris is addressing key features of how long-lived crop species function and adapt, using grapevine as a model system. His research also examines the genetics of grafting, which has long been used to confer the benefits of wild crop relatives to crops to increase their ability to respond to environmental stresses.

His work will expand our understanding of agricultural systems that have the potential to create regenerative effects for the planet while feeding more people.

Growing up in rural Cassville, MO (pop. 3,300) in southwest Missouri, Zach Harris didn’t live on a farm, but he gathered eggs in of his Aunt’s chicken houses in nearby Butterfield. He showed an aptitude for math and science and went on to Missouri State University where he studied chemistry and biology. “Chemistry interested me because there’s this entire unseen world of things going on. Biology showed me that some of those things are alive.”

By graduate school, he was focusing in on his project: marrying math and science. “I’m a computational biologist at heart. Right now, ag is a specific monocrop resource-intensive system. I want to bring the power of Big Data to bear on this problem and develop the tools that can be used by molecular biologists and ecologists to advance the work toward sustainable agriculture.”

Medical and other kinds of research receive significantly more federal and foundation funding than plant science, making the William H. Danforth Graduate Fellowship especially critical in its field. Thanks to Roy and Diana Vagelos, Zachary N. Harris and others will have the opportunity to conduct their research with the guidance of outstanding principal investigators at the Danforth Center. Learn more at www.danforthcenter.org.