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His work keeps him focused

Published: August 6 2009

Michael Kane

Professor, Assistant Chairman of Environmental Horticulture
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

There are jobs where you get paid to do something you love, and there are jobs that are just work. Michael Kane wanted the kind he could love.

That commitment once prompted him to leave a doctoral program. In 1977, Kane was a newly arrived doctoral student at another university. Over lunch, his soon-to-be adviser broke some bad news: Kane wouldn’t be able to pursue the academic field he’d been planning to enter, developmental plant physiology. So Kane followed his heart and said “no thanks” to the program—and its four-year scholarship.

“That was a very difficult career decision. But I knew that it was important that I work on a scientific project that I was interested in. My father had always worked two, three jobs and they were jobs—that’s all it was. I wanted more than that,” Kane said.

A few years later, he went back to school to pursue his doctorate at the University of Rhode Island and ended up at the University of Florida shortly after he earned a doctorate in biological sciences. He’d long been fascinated by studying the control of growth and development in aquatic plants; the way they grow differently depending on whether they were above or below the surface.

In 1980, while still a graduate student, Kane spent two weeks in the peaceful Adirondack Mountains studying at the W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center, learning from the world’s top plant-tissue culture experts in the manner he likes best: hands on.

He’s been helping others learn that way ever since, holding workshops around the country to teach plant tissue culture techniques.

“That’s what really changed my life. It taught me the techniques I needed to use for my research,” he said. “That’s really what made me aware how important it is to teach people about scientific techniques.”

In June, Kane’s work led to him being named a fellow of the Society for In Vitro Biology.

Kane’s lab focuses on alternative techniques for producing native plants—in short, growing plants in a sterile lab environment. It is a technology with many benefits: You can grow plants quickly and efficiently, and it doesn’t take up much space.

Florida is the country’s top producer of plants that use this technology. And if you’ve bought a houseplant in recent years, it probably got its start in a lab. Crops most likely to be grown in a lab are those with a higher dollar value, such as ornamental plants.

Kane’s lab most recently has focused on working with sea oats and orchids. His graduate students are prolific publishers—they’ve placed 27 papers in peer-reviewed journals in the last three years—and they get plenty of hands-on experience.

“They write grants with me, they manage the budgets,” he said. “They’re not labor, they’re colleagues.

“To see them develop and be recognized like that, to me, that’s the best perk of the job, that’s worth more than anything. That’s why I like being at a university.”

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