Swapping red and black for orange and blue: How three Georgia Bulldogs became UF/IFAS leaders

While the University of Florida and the University of Georgia may be rivals on the football field, both land-grant universities share a commitment to growing future leaders in agriculture and natural resources.

There is a lot of “cross-pollination” between the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) and the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES). At least 30 UF/IFAS faculty are UGA graduates, and connections include top leadership: J. Scott Angle, UF senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources and leader of UF/IFAS, led UGA CAES for 10 years, and Nick Place, once the dean of UF/IFAS Extension and director of Florida Cooperative Extension Service, is now the current CAES dean.

Bulldogs at UF/IFAS

Here we highlight three UF/IFAS leaders who got their start at UGA: Dean Kopsell, chair and professor of the environmental horticulture department; Jeanna Mastrodicasa, senior associate vice president agriculture and natural resources; and Matt Whiles, chair and professor of the department of soil, water and ecosystem sciences.

Kopsell, Mastrodicasa and Whiles reflect on how their time at UGA shaped them and set them on a path to UF.

When did you attend UGA, what did you study and when did you graduate?
Dean Kopsell. UF/IFAS photo

Kopsell: I attended UGA from August 1993 to December 1999 as a graduate student in the department of horticulture. I received my master’s degree in horticulture in December 1995 and a Ph.D. in horticulture in December 1999.

Jeanna Mastrodicasa
Jeanna Mastrodicasa. UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones

Mastrodicasa: I attended UGA from 1988 to 1992, earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations with a minor in political science in 1992. I also attended the UGA School of Law and earned a J.D. in 1995.

Matt Whiles
Matt Whiles. UF/IFAS photo

Whiles: I was there from 1987 to 1995 for my master’s degree in entomology and Ph.D. in ecology. I focused on the ecosystem ecology of human disturbed streams in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Why did you attend UGA for your degree(s)?
Dean Kopsell holds up a piece of a future greenhouse.
Dean Kopsell helped build a greenhouse while attending UGA for graduate school. The greenhouse is still standing! Photo courtesy of Dean Kopsell

Kopsell: I applied to graduate school at UGA on a recommendation from Dr. Peggy Balbach, my horticulture professor at Illinois State University. She was close friends with Dr. Mike Dirr, a famous ornamental plant identification professor at UGA. She told me, “with a guy like Mike Dirr on the faculty, UGA must be a great school.” I had grown up in the ornamental horticulture industry in Illinois. My dad worked at, and eventually purchased a nursery specializing in trees and shrubs, so I knew all too well the great reputation Dr. Dirr had in horticulture. As it turned out, I accepted a graduate assistantship in vegetable crop physiology, not ornamental horticulture. I had the goal of one day becoming a professor. I had plenty of ornamental experience, so I thought branching out to vegetable crops would give me a solid horticulture background. I began my graduate studies in the onion flavor physiology lab led by Dr. Bill Randle. My graduate work focused on plant nutrition and plant breeding of allium (onions) and brassica (cabbage) crops.

Mastrodicasa: I grew up in western Massachusetts, and my parents still live there. My grandparents moved to Georgia when I was about 10, so I spent several summers in the Atlanta suburbs and on Lake Hartwell as a teenager. They were about an hour away from Athens, so I spent many breaks at their house for Thanksgiving, weekends, et cetera. My grandparents actually moved me into my first dormitory of Creswell Hall, which did not have air conditioning. I chose Georgia for its excellent Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication because I wanted to be a magazine journalism major and they had that option. Also, my grandparents provided a local resource for family.

Whiles: It was one of the best ecology programs in the country at the time, and as a senior at Kansas State University I was working for a postdoctoral associate who had a doctorate in ecology from UGA and he introduced me to the program. I was lucky to get in!

What’s something you’ll always remember about your time at UGA?
Page from a black and white college yearbook
Jeanna Mastrodicasa in the UGA yearbook. Photo courtesy of Jeanna Mastrodicasa

Kopsell: As I get older, I have come to appreciate that it is the people, not the places, in life that you remember most. I remember my fellow graduate students and how we supported each other

in our research. I remember the tremendous support from the professors and the departmental staff. But the thing I remember most about my time at UGA was meeting my future wife (1997 horticulture graduate Jennifer Turner Kopsell). We got married three months before I graduated with my doctorate.

Mastrodicasa: Hanging around the Office of Judicial Programs daily as an undergraduate student leader. Being heavily involved in many student organizations and honorary groups like Defender/Advocate Society, Campus Girl Scouts, Palladia, and more. The restaurant and bar scene in downtown Athens. Fraternity parties. Getting rides from Your Cab home. Working as a Guthrie’s girl at the counter and drive-through selling chicken tender boxes. Working at the UGA Law Library the last two years. Reading the weekly Flagpole magazine. Riding the campus bus system. Attending seven years of home football games (minus one—only terrible people get married on a home football weekend!).

Whiles: The incredible live music scene and nightlife. The amazing camaraderie among the students, staff and faculty members in the ecology program — it was like being part of a big family with common interests and goals.

How did your time at UGA prepare you for what you do now? What drew you to your current position at UF?

Kopsell: My time at UGA was great preparation for my academic positions. Lab, greenhouse and field projects prepared me for a future as an academic researcher. I also took advantage of opportunities to guest lecture in classes for professors in the department. Those early experiences in the classroom gave me a passion for teaching. Graduate school also teaches valuable networking skills. You cannot do everything on your own, so you must find experts to help you with your projects. In a way, those early experiences at UGA helped to shape me into a researcher, teacher and administrator by providing me with experiences I could build on as my career has progressed. When I was attending UGA, I learned of the size and breath of horticulture in the state of Florida. Many of my classmates took jobs within IFAS after graduation. The one thing that attracted me to my current role at UF was the opportunity to work at a world-class institute of agriculture and in a state with one of the biggest horticultural industries.

Person seated in a science lab working with a microscrope
Matt Whiles working in a lab at UGA. Photo courtesy of Matt Whiles.

Mastrodicasa: While I didn’t realize I would end up as a college administrator — I thought I would end up as a lobbyist! — the combination of classes in public relations, political science and law prepared me for managing crises, solving problems and understanding bureaucratic processes. I also did an internship as a senior with the Georgia General Assembly, the state legislature in Atlanta, in 1992; it really confirmed my passion for government and the political process. I helped work on a campaign for a state senator who successfully ran for Congress in 1992 (and got crushed in his reelection in 1994).

Whiles: My time at UGA convinced me I wanted to be an academic and prepared me appropriately.

Who do you root for during football season?

Kopsell: Since my days as a Georgia Bulldog, I have worked at the University of New Hampshire (the Wildcats), the University of Tennessee (the Volunteers), and the University of Florida (the Gators). My football Saturdays are now spent watching three teams in the SEC. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at each of my previous universities. But come football season, I still bleed red and black. Go Dawgs!

Mastrodicasa: Georgia, of course! I went to four Georgia games last year — the season opener against Clemson in Charlotte, North Carolina; a home game in Athens; the Orange Bowl game in Miami; and the national championship in Indianapolis! I always catch up with my old college friends at games, who are connected to a fraternity in Athens. Go Dawgs!

Whiles: Nebraska — where my family is from — and UF.

Gators at UGA

Three Gators who earned degrees at UF and then followed their careers northward to become influential faculty members at CAES include Peggy Ozias-Akins, UGA Distinguished Research Professor and D.W. Brooks Distinguished Professor in the Department of Horticulture; John Ruter, Allan M. Armitage Professor in the Department of Horticulture and director of the Trial Gardens at UGA; and George Vellidis, University Professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and director of academic programs at the UGA Tifton campus.

Ozias-Akins, Ruter and Vellidis reflected on how their experiences at UF shaped them and set them on a path to UGA.

When did you attend UF, what did you study and when did you graduate?
Peggy Ozias-Akins
Peggy Ozias-Akins. Photo courtesy of University of Georgia

Ozias-Akins: I attended from 1975 to 1981, earning a Ph.D. in 1981.

Ruter: I attended from 1986 to 1989. I was in the Department of Environmental Horticulture. My research focused on heat stress physiology and biochemistry of plants. I graduated on Dec. 22, 1989, moved to Tifton on Dec. 27 and started work on Jan. 2, 1990.

Vellidis: I attended UF from 1985 to 1989, graduating with my Ph.D. in agricultural and biological engineering in 1989. I had a minor area of study in environmental engineering.

Why did you attend UF for your degree(s)?

Ozias-Akins: UF was known for its excellent botany department and the location was good for personal reasons.

Ruter: I attended UF for my Ph.D. Dewayne Ingram had a nationally recognized program on heat stress in plants, which I found quite interesting, and Florida had a large ornamental horticulture industry.

Vellidis: What I tell people is that I wanted to go somewhere warm after spending six cold winters in Blacksburg pursuing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Virginia Tech. But the real reason was that my advisor at UF, Allen Smajstrala, was one of the top people in the country working on drip irrigation systems, which is what I wanted to study.

John Ruter
John Ruter. Photo courtesy of University of Georgia
What’s something you’ll always remember about your time at UF?

Ozias-Akins: I will always remember the multicultural environment of the lab where I did my research. Potluck gatherings always were an interesting culinary experience.

Ruter: I’ll remember becoming a Christian, meeting a wonderful family who accepted me like a son, having good times with fellow graduate students, and playing church-league softball against Emmitt Smith. If he slapped a single to you in the outfield, you had to come up firing the ball to second base or he would turn it into a double!

Vellidis: I won’t forget finding medium-sized gators under my car many spring mornings. It’s quite a surprise when you back out of your parking spot! Explanation: During mating season, the large males chase off the younger ones who find refuge where they can (or so I was told…).

How did your time at UF prepare you for what you do now?

Ozias-Akins: The field of plant biotechnology was just emerging, and my research lab was at the forefront. My current position at UGA allowed me to apply what I learned in graduate school and beyond to agricultural problems.

George Vellidis
George Vellidis. Photo courtesy of University of Georgia

Ruter: My major professor had a primary appointment in nursery crop extension, so I got to go on numerous extension visits and give presentations to growers. This gave me a good overview of problems and research opportunities. I also developed and taught a plant propagation lab course and wrote my first book, a laboratory manual for teaching plant propagation. My lab mate was Dr. Chris Martin who started the Urban Horticulture program at Arizona State University. We learned a great deal from each other.

Vellidis: For my first 20 years at UGA, my research had little to do with irrigation. But my Ph.D. at UF prepared me to apply my engineering skills to solve all types of research problems. My research has ranged from water quality to precision agriculture and now it’s come full circle back to irrigation.

What drew you to your current position at UGA?

Ozias-Akins: My current position at UGA allowed me to apply what I learned in graduate school and beyond to agricultural problems.

Ruter: What initially drew me to UGA was a brand-new position in Tifton and getting to build a nursery crop research program that had not existed before. In 2011, I accepted my current position as the Allan Armitage Endowed Professor of Horticulture. It was a good opportunity to work with the floriculture industry, be the director of the Trial Gardens at UGA, get involved with teaching and graduate students, and start an herbaceous plant breeding program. Maybe I should have taken Dr. Lyrene’s plant breeding course at UF?

Who do you root for during football season?

Ozias-Akins: That is a good question. Since I am not a die-hard football fan and have other football “conflicts” (FSU – did my undergraduate; Clemson – my son’s alma mater), I usually just claim the winning team!

Ruter: I married a Georgia peach – go Dawgs!

Vellidis: Usually I root for the team that has the most to gain from winning the game between UGA and UF, but I root for both teams throughout the season. I must admit that the Spurrier years, which took place shortly after I graduated from UF, were a fun time to be a UF fan working for UGA.


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Posted: October 26, 2022

Category: Agriculture, Natural Resources, UF/IFAS Research, UF/IFAS Teaching
Tags: CALS, College Of Agricultural And Life Sciences, Dean Kopsell, Environmental Horticulture, Jeanna Mastrodicasa, Matt Whiles, News, Soil Water And Ecosystem Sciences

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