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Behind the Research: Nathan Deppe

About the feature

Many people are involved in the remarkable range of programs, services and facilities that undergird research in the College of Agriculture. Collectively they’re integral to the college fulfilling its research mission. “Behind the Research” explores their individual roles. Each academic year, we profile six people whose work supports the College of Agriculture’s global reputation for developing innovative, multidisciplinary solutions to challenges and then putting those solutions into action.

Nathan Deppe, Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture (HLA)

  • Maintains the HLA greenhouses and College of Agriculture growth chambers so researchers, educators and Extension staff can carry out their work.
  • Has implemented advanced lighting technology, including new LED fixtures (in collaboration with Jon Guenin, energy group manager).
  • Has improved growth chamber capabilities for better function.

Nathan Deppe describes a greenhouse —only a little jokingly — as “a thin metal structure with a thin pane of glass that wants to come crashing to the ground and return to the earth.” His job is to ensure these unique facilities in the College of Agriculture are well maintained and equipped for current and future research.

Deppe supports plant science research in the college by managing the 50,000-square-foot HLA greenhouses and overseeing growth chamber facilities in coordination with Agronomy and Botany and Plant Pathology. Each year approximately 50 research projects occur in the greenhouse, and 80 to 100 research projects are conducted in growth chambers.

Deppe has been HLA’s plant growth facility manager since September 2017. He and his team help set up facilities and experiments for undergraduates as well as for faculty, graduate students and visiting scholars and in many Agriculture departments.

“They’re experts in their fields, and I’m trying to be the best resource I can for them,” Deppe says.

He can’t remember a time he didn’t love horticulture. Growing up in central Illinois, he looked forward to the arrival of each spring’s seed catalogs and enjoyed gardening.

After earning a BS in forestry from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2002, Deppe landed a job managing growth chambers, greenhouses and field plots at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) in Peoria, Illinois, from 2004 to 2011. Along the way, he returned to his alma mater for a master’s degree in urban forestry. He left the USDA-ARS in 2011 to become the University of Illinois’ plant care facilities coordinator.

After six years in the job, he was excited when a position at Purdue opened up. “Purdue historically is the premier site for advancements in horticultural technology like LED illumination,” he notes. “I also liked the idea that separate departments were doing their own research but people were also working together doing interdisciplinary research.”

Deppe hired technician Dan Little and employs undergraduates to ensure that users have what they need to carry out their research, teaching or outreach. Deppe finds his work especially satisfying because it supports the three core objectives of the land-grant mission.

He also manages smaller growth chambers across three buildings that are designed for research with specific environmental parameters. “This is a college resource, so I work with many departments,” he explains, including Agricultural & Biological Engineering, Agronomy, Biochemistry, Botany and Plant Pathology, Forestry and Natural Resources, and HLA.

Deppe’s own small research projects often support other researchers’ work. “Right now I’m testing different soils to see what works best with certain plant materials,” he explains. “I also like new irrigation design and new sensors — the technology piece.”

Deppe chairs the Association of Education and Research Greenhouse Curators, a network of professionals employed in controlled environment agriculture facilities at research and educational institutions.

As he looks ahead at what’s coming in the next five to 10 years, Deppe is thinking about how Purdue’s greenhouses can be ready: “We have a great strategic plan, but things are always evolving in the research field. You have to be able to adapt.”

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