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‘Dr. Saba’ named Outstanding Graduate Educator by national horticultural society

As a University of Florida professor, Bala Rathinasabapathi spends many hours in the lab and the classroom – not to mention at his office. He puts just as much emphasis on student success as he does on his scientific pursuits.

Often student success and research are inextricably linked. His colleagues and those he’s mentored notice his dedication.

That’s one reason the horticultural sciences professor at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences was named the Graduate Educator of the Year by the American Society for Horticultural Science this month.

Rathinasabapathi, known to most as “Dr. Saba,” studies plant genetics and breeding, biofuel algae and arsenic in ferns, among other plant biology topics. He also carves out face time with his students in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS). In his 24 years at UF/IFAS, Rathinasabapathi has taught undergraduate and graduate courses and has served on more than 60 master’s and Ph.D. advisory committees.

Rathinasabapathi is delighted for the recognition, particularly because it comes from the nation’s top professional association for horticultural science.

“I am grateful for the great support from my professional colleagues, unit administrators and the dean of the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, who prioritize the success and wellbeing of our students above all else,” Rathinasabapathi said. “I derive great satisfaction in seeing students succeed in their life. As a mentor, I am glad that I could play a small part in that, but doubly happy to see it recognized. At the University of Florida, we have a solid institutional culture, where training the next generation of professionals is given top priority. In that context, it is a win for our institutional culture.”

One of his current colleagues, Vance Whitaker, wrote that Rathinasabapathi contributes significantly to the department’s curriculum.

“Dr. ‘Saba,’ as we call him, teaches HOS5242 and HOS4932, Genetics and Breeding of Vegetable Crops, an elective for students interested in plant breeding,” said Whitaker, an associate professor of horticultural sciences and a strawberry breeder at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. “Since taking over this course, he has assembled an improved syllabus and updated course content with innovative hands-on projects.”

Whitaker urged the ASHS to read letters of support from Rathinasabapathi’s graduate students. Rathinasabapathi has chaired 11 master’s and doctoral students’ committees in his time at UF/IFAS. His students went to bat for him, hoping their mentor would get this award.

Newton Kilasi, a UF/IFAS CALS alumnus who earned a Ph.D. in horticultural sciences, appreciated the mentorship of Rathinasabapathi.

“Dr. Saba is among the wonderful professors I know at the University of Florida. He was both a mentor and a parent during my time as a foreign student pursuing a Ph.D. degree at UF,” said Kilasi, who’s now coordinator of undergraduate studies at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania. “Being new to UF and the U.S.A., I considered Dr. Saba more than a supervisor. It is very hard to find any professor of his caliber and kindness.”

“I have worked with him many times in the greenhouse and at the lab bench, when he has patiently helped me troubleshoot difficult research problems,” Kilasi continued. “Every morning, Dr. Saba would come to my desk and discuss with me any challenge that I could be facing in last experiment I needed to accomplish.”

Rathinasabapathi uses a variety of hands-on methods to engage students.

“I believe that students who are provided opportunities and encouragement to connect various aspects of knowledge to create novel solutions to problems will be most stimulated in the subject matter,” he said. “Such training will also make them problem-solvers, ready to take on societal challenges in their own special domains.”

Even with all his years of teaching and research, Rathinasabapathi still learns from his students.

“I enjoy seeing the energy and creativity that the students bring to the discipline,” he said. “As much as I teach the students, the students teach me too by way of them communicating with me via questions, discussions, challenging projects and problem-solving.”

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.

ifas.ufl.edu  @UF_IFAS