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U of M plant breeder earns international accolades

The University of Manitoba’s Rob Duncan is a rising star in the world of plant breeding and just earned a prestigious U.S. award

A Manitoban is the first Canadian to earn a major international plant-breeding award.

Rob Duncan, a brassica breeder with the University of Manitoba, has been named winner of the National Association of Plant Breeders (NAPB) Early Career Scientist Award.

Duncan, who grew up in rural Manitoba, was given the award in early August during the NAPB annual meeting at the University of California-Davis, the same school Duncan graduated from with his doctorate in 2009.

“It was a very nice honour, a nice surprise, to be recognized by the National Association of Plant Breeders and peers,” Duncan said. “I have many people to thank over the years — different mentors and breeders whom I’ve worked with at the University of California-Davis and Texas A&M and the University of Manitoba and excellent staff to thank for it.”

The award was given to a researcher who “exhibits the ability to establish strong research foundations, to interact with multidisciplinary teams, and to participate in relevant professional societies,” and who received his or her doctorate in the last decade.

Jim McFerson, award committee chair, called Duncan a “simply outstanding early career scientist,” and a “humble, gracious and dedicated scientist who inspires and leads by example.”

“Even as an early career scientist he has been quite successful in obtaining external funding and shown extraordinary leadership in team research. He has served the University of Manitoba on a whole range of committees,” McFerson said.

Coming home

Duncan had made a name for himself internationally before the award, having completed a university stint in Sweden, received his doctorate from the University of California and joining Texas A&M University as the wheat and oilseed specialist. He grew up on a certified seed farm near Miami, Man., and now he’s come full circle back to Manitoba.

He attended the University of Manitoba, now his employer, after high school, graduating with a bachelor of science in agronomy in 2001 and a master’s degree in plant pathology two years later.

Duncan spent the next years taking his skills abroad, completing a university stint in Sweden before relocating to the United States for his doctorate and eventually taking a job as an assistant professor and wheat and oilseed specialist with Texas A&M University.

By 2012, however, he had returned home to Manitoba, setting up shop with the University of Manitoba and beginning work developing canola and rapeseed genetics.

That work, particularly his efforts to develop high-erucic acid rapeseed, helped push his name to the top of the candidate list, McFerson said.

“We have an excellent team here of seven technicians and many students have been on the project over that time,” Duncan said. “That research and that team mainly focus on developing improved hybrid cultivars that are high in erucic acid — which is mainly used for industrial purposes, lubricants, cosmetics, a lot of household products — in comparison to canola that would be for edible uses.”

The university has paired with industry partners on the project, he added.

In 2013, Duncan’s team received what was, at the time, the third-largest Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) Collaborative Research and Development grant and one of the largest grants for high-erucic acid rapeseed (HEAR).

At the time, Duncan guessed that the five-year, $3.885-million grant would help increase yield over open-pollinated cultivars by “at least” 10 to 15 per cent.

Three new hybrids have already hit the market in Western Canada out of Duncan’s program.

“Those hybrid cultivars have improvements in terms of agronomic performance and yield and disease resistance and seed quality,” he said, adding that much of the research also applies to canola, rapeseed’s close genetic cousin and one of Manitoba’s most popular crops.

Blackleg, one of the most prolific canola diseases in Manitoba, is among those transferable topics. In 2016, Manitoba’s canola disease survey found that blackleg was present in over 80 per cent of fields, making it the second most common pathogen in the province after sclerotinia.

Class is in session

McFerson also pointed to Duncan’s experience as an educator.

His classroom skills have earned him awards including the faculty of agriculture and food sciences teacher of the year and teaching merit awards from both the University of Manitoba and the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture.

Since heading the brassica breeding program at the University of Manitoba, Duncan has mentored 14 graduate students and his students have gone on to win 19 awards both in and outside Canada.

“Those graduate students who are in the research program, they do a lot of the basic scientific research on different traits that are applicable to canola or high-erucic acid rapeseed and when they have any breakthroughs or findings, we can bring those over into our variety development program,” Duncan said.

“Probably one of the biggest advantages to our breeding program here is that the students in our brassica breeding program can train within an academic breeding program that’s releasing commercial cultivars, which in today’s academic breeding settings is quite rare either in Canada or the U.S.,” he added.

The program has since added canola protein to its list of interests. Duncan says his team will be working with industry and the Canola Council of Canada on both the quantity and quality of protein.

“Our canola industry, its main product is the oil but we’re really focusing on improving protein products coming out of that and potentially turning the meal and the protein into a co-product rather than a byproduct of the oil extraction process and improving the value of the protein coming out of there, maybe one day even utilizing it for human consumption,” he said.

Duncan has been asked to speak at next year’s NAPB annual meeting in light of his win. The meeting will be held in Guelph, Ont., the first time Canada has hosted the gathering.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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