The Roots of Promising Career in the Nascent Plant Root Biology Field

A native of tony Annapolis, Maryland, Lukas Hallman’s family often moved to points along the nation’s east coast. The two places he still calls home are Melbourne and Key West, Florida. He likes the state’s climate, the flora – and the plant root architecture he dug up from soils during spontaneous backyard explorations. Young Lukas was always examining trees, bark, leaves, fruits, and seeds he found in the yards of all of his family’s homes. When he was not looking at plants above the ground, he would excavate the backyard to examine soils, insects, earthworms and plant roots. Every plant revealed different kinds of roots and live organisms wriggling around their root systems, he noticed.

“In high school, I became interested in the biology aspect of plants, “said Hallman. “I have always been interested in plants, and I knew what I would study in college.”

At 16, Hallman took his next step with enrollment in Key West Community College. There, he completed an Associate of Arts degree and became a transfer student at the University of Maryland, in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences. His favorite course was vegetable and fruit production. Class field trips to local farms were enlightening, he said.

“I got to meet growers and see their operations,” he said. “You can read about agriculture in books but, being there in person to see the crops growing and to hear producers talk about planting, caring for crops and harvested them fulfills the educational experience.” He saw apple, pear and peach orchards, trellises of hops, berms bursting with strawberries, and bushes replete with his favorite fruit – blueberries. Some growers discussed the agronomics of corn and soybean production with undergraduate student visitors.

Following college graduation, Hallman worked as a project manager for a Maryland landscape and construction business. He learned how to deal with customers and employees. He also learned that business management could often become complex.

“Management is complicated – you have to deal with unexpected problems like a crew hitting a water line or heavy rain. You have to adjust a work schedule timeline with every rain event,” said Hallman.

Hallman also took a second job as an agricultural technician with the University of Maryland, tending to the blueberry research plot. There, he pruned the bushes and maintained the plot’s irrigation system. He examined cross-pollination between two different fruit varieties. And, he did some serious thinking about his next degree. After work, Hallman would research horticultural sciences Master’s degree programs online. He knew he held a strong interest in plant biology. His search unearthed plant root biology, a nascent field within the horticultural discipline. Then he found the University of Florida, its orange and blue colors, and its gator mascots. He discovered UF’s horticulture department had earned an excellent reputation in academics. And, he found Lorenzo Rossi’s plant root science laboratory at the UF/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce.

“I like what UF is doing with horticultural research,” said Hallman. “Dr. Rossi is an early plant root biology research scientist, and when I found his laboratory website, I knew I wanted to study here.”

Last week, Hallman’s Master’s degree began to take root at his new Florida home, in Fort Pierce. At 21, Hallman is Rossi’s first graduate student to have garnered an assistantship for his Master’s degree plan. Rossi said the Citrus Research and Development Foundation is Hallman’s graduate studies sponsor.

Hallman attends courses online and carries out research tasks in the plant root biology laboratory daily. He examines beige-colored citrus tree roots that look like mini-tree branches under a microscope, and images of live roots underground with a 2-dimensional camera called a mini-rhizotrone. His studies will continue for the next two years.

“Root biology interests me because it is an area of plant science in which there is not as much research – I like the potential plant root biology offers,” said Hallman.

Rossi said Hallman’s graduate work will involve three IRREC professors’ research programs. With Rhuanito Ferrarezi, Hallman will explore nutritional supplements for HLB affected citrus trees. Along with Alan Wright, Hallman will learn about soils and water management in citrus crop production. In the Rossi plant root biology laboratory, his work will be with trials to measure root growth and development under different nutrition levels.

“As a graduate student, Lukas will also have the liberty to follow a passion he has about some specific topic,” said Rossi. Hallman said he would consider small-scale greenhouse studies on root stress for citrus. He has a strong interest in the state’s signature crop, citrus.

“The citrus industry needs to find a cure for citrus greening,” Hallman said. “The development of better management techniques is a key at this time; for example, nutritional trials are important so that recommendations may be determined and provided to producers to alleviate plant disease and extend the life of trees.”

And– “It’s good to be a gator,” he said.

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