Vero Beach native Jonathan Capen is in pursuit of a research science career to help protect crops that have for so long brought economic prosperity to the area he calls home.
At 21, Capen has chosen a career in laboratory horticultural research. In his senior year at the University of North Florida, Capen is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. His favorite class is what many students identify as the most difficult course in both biological science and medical disciplines: organic chemistry, focusing on the element carbon, which is central to all living organisms and thousands of non-living things like drugs and plastics.
Laboratory techniques are Capen’s current passion and his plan for his burgeoning career. This summer, he is participating in two internships, one at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) at the Indian River Research and Education Center (IRREC), and a second at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS), adjacent to the UF/IFAS IRREC.
“This summer I have had the opportunity to learn a lot of laboratory techniques, how to dispose of biological waste, and how a research laboratory operates,” said Capen. “The techniques I have learned will transfer directly to any lab in which I will work. I am grateful for the opportunities, and I plan to work in a research laboratory when I graduate with my bachelor’s degree.”
At IRREC, Capen is working under the auspices of Lorenzo Rossi, an innovative plant root biologist known for successful research experiments with cultivated species in Florida, North Carolina and Texas.
Rossi evaluates genetic and environmental stresses on roots, including topics such as drought, salinity, heavy metals, emerging pollutants and climate change.
Concurrently, Capen studies under the direction of three USDA/ARS research scientists, Anne Plotto, Christopher Ference and John Manthey. Plotto is a research plant pathologist who specializes in olfactory chemistry using sensory evaluation and flavor chemistry, for quality control. A Biological Science Technician, Ference conducts fruit quality experiments to ensure the freshness of citrus and other subtropical product research. Manthey is a research chemist who looks at the value of harvested citrus crops, including the peels and its byproducts.
“I like working with scientists who do experiments that can stop the death of an entire industry,” said Capen. The state’s legendary citrus industry has been reduced by more than 70% of what it once was due to a plant disease called huanglongbing, or HLB, or citrus greening.
“If the scientists don’t find a 100% cure for citrus greening, I am certain they will find easier ways to grow trees and protect them from the disease and the psyllid insect that carries the pathogen to the trees,” Capen said.
Capen said he is interested in any research that involves plants and agriculture because it is an important industry in the state, where yearlong warm weather permits production every month. Rossi showed Capen and a second intern how to prune citrus trees. The three removed unhealthy and poorly positioned branches to optimize fruit production with healthy trees. He also learned to not over prune a tree canopy to sustain a tree’s health. The two interns also learned how to design an experiment, make observations, and will apply new knowledge to calculate and represent research results in the next week.
“I learned the most from designing this experiment,” said Capen. “It was a valuable experience I will not forget.”
Capen and another summer student intern, John-Paul Fox, conducted an experiment to measure the impact of cerium oxide nanoparticles and cadmium on corn seedling physiology and root anatomy. Both cerium oxide and cadmium are emerging contaminants—pollutants found in air, water and soils. Cerium oxide is a waste product from diesel fuel. Cadmium is a heavy metal found in the Earth’s crust when extracted for metal production. This metal finds its way into some foods, fossil fuels and cigarette smoke.
“Starting the experiment was interesting because I am excited to see the results,” said Capen “We have only two more weeks to go, and then we will see our data and interpret our results using statistical analysis.”
Capen said he is interested to see if the trace minerals impact the corn seedlings and if so, to what extent. He also feels that there will be a solution to reduce pollution and disease in crops.
“It seems to me that humans have been able to find a cure or treatment for everything plant or human disease that will make it more manageable – even if a cure is not found,” said Capen. “I want to become a research scientist in this area and help protect crops so people can eat safe food.”