Katy Rainey

The frozen test plot under researcher Katy Martin Rainey’s feet will come alive this spring when ground is broken for the construction of Purdue’s plant phenotyping facility.
(Photo by Tom Campbell)

It's a 'bean obsession'

By Jennifer Stewart | Published Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Katy Martin Rainey has been told, on more than one occasion, that she just might be obsessed with soybeans. And while she admits it’s a somewhat quirky obsession, she certainly doesn’t disagree.

Rainey, an assistant professor of plant breeding and genetics in Purdue University’s Department of Agronomy since 2012, grew up in the suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee, where she didn’t have much interaction with agriculture. But the women in her life – her mother, grandmother and aunts – had a love for horticulture that sparked Rainey’s interest in plants very early in life.

“I’ve always been a researcher,” she said. “I was drawn to science from a young age.”

Rainey’s love of plants and insatiable thirst for research and plant improvement are what attracted her to a botany major at the University of Georgia, a doctorate in genetics and plant breeding from Cornell University, and a career in plant breeding.

“Soybean is sort of an interesting thing to dedicate your life to, but it’s the number one most grown crop globally in terms of acres,” she said. “Protein and oil make the crop extremely valuable.”

But it’s not just the volume and value of soybean that interests Rainey. It’s the stuff most don’t see when they look at a field that really draws her in.

“Most people look at a field of corn or soybeans and that’s what they see – some plants in the dirt. They don’t see what I see, which is all of the technology that goes into that field of corn or soybeans. It’s really striking.”

Included in each and every field of soybeans, she said, is a vast number of research hours and dollars invested to make sure each plant is best suited for the environment in which it’s grown. That means genetically improved traits, development of new soybean varieties, and constant assessments of which soybean varieties are best suited for any number of conditions – and that doesn’t even include the technology found in the inputs and machinery farmers use to grow a crop.

“Farming is a very technological endeavor. It just doesn’t look like it.”

Rainey, who started her career at Virginia Tech, said she was first drawn to Purdue because of the university’s Indiana location. The state sits in a prime soybean production area and boasts 5.5 million acres of the crop.

Purdue’s crop-breeding programs, faculty, vital relationships with industry, and the freedom to pursue more exploratory research also played a major role in her decision.

Rainey hopes to use those resources and opportunities to tackle major production challenges and revolutionize the soybean industry.

“I know about the challenges for soybean and where it could go,” she said. “I have this vision of how the industry could be different, and I want to bring that about. I’m motivated by my own personal vision for how the soybean industry should change.”

Rainey knows that’s a tall order. But because of her practical experience and very realistic understanding of the industry, she feels confident she and her colleagues can influence change. Some of her current research efforts include predicting yield, identifying genetic diversity, and using transdisciplinary approaches to optimizing soybean value.

If her passion for improving soybean weren’t enough to motivate her, Rainey said the students she teaches and mentors keep her focused and excited.

“I’m very proud of my students, what they do, the experiences they’re getting, and the quality of the data they’re collecting,” she said. “I love training students who are just gobbled up by industry. I love that they have great career opportunities and that those opportunities are driving good students into the plant breeding field.”

Soon after Rainey arrived, she learned she’d get to be a part of Purdue Agriculture’s Plant Sciences Research and Education Pipeline, an initiative to bolster plants research in an effort to feed the more than 9 billion people projected to inhabit the Earth by 2050. The initiative started with a $20 million commitment from the university by Purdue President Mitch Daniels in late 2013 as part of the university’s Purdue Moves campaign.

“The plant sciences initiative is the icing on the cake,” Rainey said.

Her favorite part of the initiative is the Automated Plant Phenotyping Facility scheduled to open at the Agronomy Center for Research and Education in the spring of 2016. The facility will allow for the development of automated systems that collect billions of field measurements showing differences in plant characteristics, such as canopy development, leaf area and photosynthetic ability.

“The phenotyping building out at ACRE completely modernizes what we do,” Rainey said. “We’re really going to push the envelope because we’re going to have this place for collaboration with engineering and computer science, and even industry.

“It puts a different perspective on what I’m doing. I feel like now I’m investing in the future.”

Contact Rainey at krainey@purdue.edu