Meet Ellie Taagen, Plant Genetics Ph.D. Candidate
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Focused, curious, and determined, Ellie seeks to apply her genetics, bioinformatics, and molecular biology skillset to crop improvement for domestic and international growers.
Ella “Ellie” Taagen is a Plant Genetics Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University in Dr. Mark Sorrells’ Small Grains Breeding and Genetics Lab. As a geneticist, she loves exploring the relationships between genomic data and phenotypic variation, and she is driven by their potential to enhance plant adaptability and productivity.
Her doctoral dissertation research embodies these interests and motivations, focused on the characterization of grain morphology genes in wheat and exploring the biological constraints of meiotic recombination in a plant breeding context. She is leveraging traditional population development strategies, along with cutting-edge tools in genomics and transcriptomics, bioinformatics and simulation methods to better understand the landscape of causal variation and prediction-based breeding decisions.
While she finds studying and characterizing individual genes fascinating, Ellie understands that prediction-based breeding decisions are necessary to deliver efficient crop improvements to stakeholders. She learned this firsthand from fine-mapping and characterizing the temporal expression profile of a wheat grain morphology gene [see video]. When breeding a new wheat variety, grain morphology is a valuable trait to consider because of the correlation with grain yield and milling quality. “Grain yield is a quantitative trait and many thousands of genes that are expressed throughout the plant’s growth cycle can impact the final grain yield.”
Considering this relationship, identifying one grain morphology gene over many generations may not make a significant difference in a farmer’s field. Ellie explains that if we can improve our prediction accuracy and selection efficiency for quantitative traits, we can deliver improved wheat yield without characterizing the function of individual genes. Inspired by the limits of fine-mapping genes, Ellie has developed a deep interest in the fundamental regulation of meiotic recombination and methods of increasing the resolution of genetic diversity. Using simulation and bioinformatics tools, she is currently investigating how manipulating the rate and positions of crossovers can increase the genetic variation accessible to breeders and fine tune control over the inheritance of preferred haplotypes. Her ultimate goal is to deliver a prediction based strategy for controlled recombination - you can read more about Ellie’s opinions on controlled recombination here.
Ellie is originally from Seattle, Washington where she completed her B.S. in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of Washington. She loved the MCD Biology major because the courses relied on scientific publications to teach concepts rather than a textbook, which introduced her to the world of research. Ellie worked as a research assistant in three labs during her undergrad which exposed her to a variety of research topics, methods, and most importantly plants.
Ellie explains that she has always been very interested in global health, and was drawn to exploring plant genetic improvement after learning about its close relationship with food security. During her search for novel research opportunities, she read an article about a Washington State University small grains breeder who focused his research on genetic diversity and baking quality. It took one email to introduce herself and she started working with Dr. Stephen Jones lab right after she graduated from college. At first it may feel intimidating Ellie says, “but just send an email and introduce yourself! Researchers are happy to hear from people who find their work exciting.”.
At the Bread Lab, Ellie assisted then Ph.D. student Bethany Econopouly with lab and field support for breeding projects, as well as surveyed and engaged with supply chain stakeholders when setting breeding objectives. Bethany’s passion for agricultural science and energizing approach to applied research influenced Ellie and gave her the push needed to start the Ph.D. journey.
“Whenever I feel discouraged by my research or uncertain about career goals, I recall that Bethany described a Ph.D. as basically a degree in problem-solving. You learn so many transferable skills, and perhaps most importantly you know how to ask the right questions and how to answer them systematically, which people value tremendously.”.
There is no guidebook
Ellie is drawn to career paths that value expertise because of the creative control it affords. She was conscious that a Ph.D. is a path to becoming an expert, and she decided to jump in without pursuing a master's degree first. Ellie knew that her advisor’s initial funding source was going to be under a grant that was more “prescribed” because of its clear objectives, yearly goals, collaboration meetings, and educational workshops. “For someone that didn’t hold a master's, or independent research and networking experience, I wanted to be part of a grant opportunity that began with a clear project goal and also part of a lab group that would encourage me to ask novel questions and develop my own voice”. It was daunting to make a decision based on a brief visit to Ithaca, NY but the Sorrells lab has been a fantastic fit for her professional goals and personality.
Advocacy and inclusion are part of Ellie’s agenda
Ellie is an active member of the Cornell campus not only via her research but also as an advocate for graduate students. She serves as a Graduate Student Council representative, facilitates communication between plant breeding and genetics graduate students and faculty, and has co-authored surveys to assess the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) grad student’s satisfaction and concerns in the school. Ellie played a major role in the revival of Cornell’s Graduate Womxn in Science as the executive of online communications where she devised and improved advocacy, educational and social events based on membership interests. While community development and diversity, equity and inclusion work may not be valued as much as publications and grant writing by academia’s standards, Ellie believes they are crucial to shaping the future of the profession.
Why is it important to highlight women in the agricultural sciences?
“I grew up in the middle of a city and when I started my Ph.D. I didn’t know as much about agriculture compared to many of the students in my cohort. I questioned if my fascination with genome to phenome relationships alone was enough to succeed in a plant genetics graduate program. Highlighting diverse voices in the agricultural sciences can break down the misconception that everyone grew up on a farm!”
Taking care of herself is part of her everyday agenda
Ellie loves spending time with her friends, watching tv (The Sopranos!), listening to podcasts, exercising, and traveling. She enjoys going for runs and being near the lakes of Ithaca, New York. Ellie listens to herself, making sure she is happy with her work/life balance and constantly works for self-empowerment. “Having a work/life balance in graduate school is challenging, and don’t be hard on yourself if it takes some time to find the right routine. It wasn’t until I finished my coursework and I was more in control of my time that it became easier to work smarter, not harder.”
The importance of having diverse mentors
Throughout Ellie’s journey in STEM she had just a few women mentors. Ellie agrees that having more intersectional representation in science, such as across gender, race and ability, can inspire more students to strive for these careers.
When mentoring undergraduates, she tries to listen and support their interests and introduce them to new opportunities. At first, she struggled with mentoring and delegating research, and the way she overcame her insecurities was being more certain of her needs, and more importantly, being a teammate and not a superior. Mentoring is a learning curve and Ellie aspires to be a good mentor by listening and achieving together with the mentees. “When I started my Ph.D. my advisor treated me like a scientist on the first day, my opinion mattered. It helped build my confidence, and that is something I try to remember when working with undergraduates - yes they’re students but they are young scientists as well.”
Being in the agricultural sciences, what do you have to say about the importance of improving the sector?
“Global food security is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and the colleagues I’ve met across agricultural sciences understand this deeply. It attracts a group of scientists, advocates, and other professionals who care about the big picture, which makes for great collaborators. Crop genetic improvement relies on an interdisciplinary network of creative problem solvers. I think that one of the greatest threats to improving the sector is government policies that don’t reflect science or support the global exchange of scientific knowledge. ”
Thanks, Ellie for the interview!
This interview was conducted and written by WAGS co-founder, Andrea Lugo-Torres.