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DAA: Craig S. Pikaard

Craig Pikaard

Craig S. Pikaard

Bloomington, IN | Distinguished Ag Alumni: 2010

A new passion is always around the corner for Craig Pikaard, and his enthusiastic pursuit of new passions throughout his career has made him a leading researcher in plant epigenetics, an emerging area of plant molecular genetic research. Pikaard returned to Indiana this year to accept an endowed professorship at Indiana University and joint appointments in the Department of Biology and new Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. Pikaard’s lab studies the ways in which genes are activated and repressed, using techniques of genetics, genomics, biochemistry, cell biology, and molecular biology. This multidisciplinary approach reflects “the beauty of biology these days,” he says. Born in New Jersey and raised mostly in Pennsylvania, Pikaard chose horticulture as his undergraduate major at Penn State, although he also loved English and biochemistry. At Purdue, courses in the relatively new field of molecular biology captivated him. He became especially interested in research investigating the molecular biology of gene expression. After NIH-supported work with Dr. Ronald H. Reeder at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Pikaard went to Washington University. There he spent the next 19 years investigating the molecular and biochemical nature of the molecular machines that regulate gene expression in plants. This led him into the mainstream of research on gene silencing by short interfering RNAs—one of the hottest topics in plant and animal research. Pikaard thrives both on working with students and being the student himself. What most appeals to him is the creative, hands-on nature of research. “You have two parallel ideas, and you don’t see the connection right away,” he explains. “You can design your own experiment with your own hands to get to the edge of what we know and we don’t know. Then you can discuss these questions with other smart people.” With more than 95 manuscripts currently published and nearly $3 million in extramurally funded research, his return to Indiana opens a new chapter in an already-noteworthy research career. When not in the lab, Pikaard gravitates to the outdoors. He sails on Lake Monroe and still enjoys the hiking, cycling, and gardening that sparked his early interest in horticulture. “It was an exciting time at Purdue. As one of the first students in the interdepartmental plant physiology program, we crossed department boundaries to bring together people with a common scientific interest. Young, smart faculty hung out with the graduate students, and it was a hotbed of ideas.”