Suresh Pokhrel, a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri – Columbia, has been named the 2019 William H. Danforth Plant Science Fellow, the fifth student to receive the distinction. The fellowship was endowed in honor of Dr. William H. Danforth by Dr. P. Roy and Diana Vagelos and supports outstanding Ph.D. students whose research demonstrates great promise for advancing plant science.

Since the fall of 2015, Pokhrel has been a member of Dr. Blake Meyers Lab at the Danforth Center where the primary emphasis is the analysis of small RNAs in plants. For his thesis, Pokhrel is studying the mechanism of male fertility in eudicots, which include important crops like mustards, tomato, strawberry, flax, sunflower, etc. This mechanism is crucial for its potential impact on speeding hybridization. Currently, self-pollinating crops are challenging to hybridize. If the mechanism is discovered to suppress male fertility in these crops, the work of hybridizing for drought- and disease-resistance will be greatly accelerated, potentially generating improved crops more quickly to feed a growing world in a changing climate. 

“I want to help people everywhere to improve their crops,” says Pokhrel. “When I was little, there was very little commercial farming in Nepal, but I have seen how it can make people’s lives better.”

Born in Daldale, Nepal, Pokhrel, 32, grew up on the family farm. His parents were subsistence farmers, growing rice, maize, vegetables, and beans, to feed the family and occasionally there was enough to take to market. He knew from a young age that he was interested in plants: his earliest memory is riding a plow pulled by oxen down a rice field. A strong student, Pokhrel went on to enter the Institute of Agriculture and Animal Sciences in nearby Narayghat on a scholarship.

Rice is the main crop in Nepal, and it became the focus of his research. When it came time to select a location for graduate studies, Pokhrel attended the University of Arkansas, a center of rice research, and his M.S. focused on improving resistance to rice blast for which he received an outstanding graduate student award. After he developed an interest in blending bioinformatics and molecular biology, Pokhrel applied for a Ph.D. position in Blake Meyers’s lab. Pokhrel received a graduate research assistantship and a tuition waver from the University of Missouri.

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, Suresh Pokhrel and others will have the opportunity to conduct their research with the guidance of outstanding principal investigators at the Danforth Center.