Many of Blake Russell’s undergraduate classmates in biology at Indiana Wesleyan University opted for medical or dental training after graduation. The Monticello, Indiana native chose a different path, inspired by an introductory genetics course. “I found I was more interested in life sciences than going to med school,” he says. “Once I became interested in plant breeding and started looking at graduate programs, it was hard not to choose the school in my backyard that’s so well known not just in this country but globally.” Purdue is close to home, and Russell’s parents and grandparents are alumni. But what sealed the deal was his early interaction with Mohsen Mohammadi, assistant professor of wheat breeding and quantitative genetics. Russell became Mohammadi’s first graduate student. “Once I met my advisor, I thought this would be the place I could best grow and develop,” Russell says. He began his doctoral work in summer 2016.
His research focuses on identifying traits related to yield potential and nitrogen-use efficiency in winter wheat. Most of his work is field-based. Researchers in the small-grains breeding program have a common goal, Russell says: to use new and advancing technology to decipher and reduce genetic limitations. “That’s always an interesting driver,” he adds.
Given his small-town Indiana roots, Russell has been particularly impacted by Agronomy’s strong international presence. In the lab he has worked with undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs from Canada, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, and China. This has sharpened both his communication and science skills. “People with different backgrounds challenge me on how I do things,” he explains. “And it’s communication that moves our research forward.”
Russell says he has benefited most from the mentorship of his advisor and committee members, travel to conferences, and input from fellow researchers. “Everyone from fellow grad students to faculty members is so helpful,” he says. “The most established faculty make time to answer your questions.” As he looks ahead to completing his degree, likely in spring 2020, Russell is keeping his professional options open but leaning toward industry. “I’d like to be able to work in a company with the resources and allocations to have global impact,” he says. He was a four-year member of his undergraduate golf team and in his leisure time, still enjoys playing the game as well as traveling and trying new foods.