UF/IFAS names Folta as horticultural sciences chairman
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Kevin Folta, the interim chair of the University of Florida’s horticultural sciences department, has accepted the permanent job, Jack Payne, UF’s senior vice president for agricultural and natural resources, announced last week.
Folta is an associate professor with internationally recognized programs in strawberry genomics and light regulation of plant traits. Recently he has gained national visibility in relating science to public audiences, particularly in the area of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Folta’s appointment as the permanent horticultural sciences chair became effective this month, Payne said. He had been the department’s interim chair since December 2012.
“Dr. Folta is such a unique, valued member of the UF/IFAS team,” Payne said. “I love that he’s so willing to defend science against misinformation. I believe he is absolutely the right person to lead the Horticultural Sciences department.”
Folta said the department is already strong and enthusiastic.
“Everyone from new faculty to emeritus retirees are publishing, teaching and training,” he said. “The place is buzzing on weekends. It is an honor to work with world experts that share unending enthusiasm.”
His plans to bolster the department include finding new ways – even nontraditional ones – to hire new talent. He also wants to ensure that younger faculty move smoothly into their careers and to work with stakeholders so that graduates have relevant skills.
Folta said he will continue to juggle his research, administrative duties and his unofficial career as a public spokesman for biotechnology, because they’re all critical.
“I have no doubt that our best research findings are in front of us,” he said. ”I’ve committed to a new level, I’m turning it up to eleven and I’m looking forward to operating at that level for a long time. “
His own research focuses on how plants use light energy to grow and develop. His lab has used LED lights of varying wavelengths to control the color and flavor of plants, such as salad greens. He also has focused on strawberry genomics, and helped guide the international team of researchers that published the DNA sequence for strawberry in 2010.
That DNA work, and what he views as confusion by the public about GMOs and fear mongering by its critics, provide frequent opportunities to help separate myth from fact regarding agricultural genetics.
Scientists having the ability to select for beneficial plant traits and vastly shorten the time it takes to create new cultivars has benefits on many levels , he says.
Folta, part of the UF/IFAS Plant Innovation Program, is also a strong advocate for taking science to the public, and is often tapped as a presenter at forums in the community and around the country.
He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Northern Illinois University and a doctorate in molecular biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago.