Recent grads set to make an impact in growing field of plant breeding and biotechnology

Garrett Larsen working in the lab
Garrett Larsen worked in UW-Platteville's plant-microbe symbioses laboratory for four years.
Garrett Larsen and Alyssa Headley in the greenhouse
Garrett Larsen and Alyssa Headley in the Pioneer Greenhouse.

Garrett Larsen had a passion for plant biotechnology even before he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Thanks to the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program through BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute and Promega, he had his first real exposure to research before college, which validated his decision to pursue it professionally. Larsen said that UW-Platteville’s Soil and Crop Science program, especially with the plant breeding and biotechnology emphasis, aligned perfectly with these goals. 

“Knowing that I could have a lasting impact on the environment and the world is really why I enjoy the field of plant breeding and genetics,” said Larsen, one of a handful of spring graduates from UW-Platteville’s Soil and Crop Science program who took advantage of the plant breeding and biotechnology emphasis to enter what Dr. Muthu Venkateshwaran describes as a growing field.

“Ever growing population and climate change have posed a severe threat to food security across the globe,” explained Venkateshwaran, associate professor and program coordinator of Soil and Crop Science. “Hence, there is tremendous need for plant breeders and biotechnologists in both private and public sectors to develop crops with improved genetics that are higher yielding and broadly adapted to biotic and abiotic stresses. Current students will be the future leaders in plant breeding industries that work non-stop in meeting our diverse demands.”

“Knowing that I could have a lasting impact on the environment and the world is really why I enjoy the field of plant breeding and genetics." – Garrett Larsen

Like many students who graduate from the program, Larsen is pursuing further education. He is currently a prospective master’s student in the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program at UW-Madison and is working as a biological research technician in the cranberry molecular physiology lab. 

“Wisconsin is the largest producer of cranberries in the United States, and I am excited to find new creative and innovative ways to improve cranberry production and quality,” said Larsen. “My interests in plant breeding and genetics involve understanding physiological mechanisms at the molecular level in agricultural and horticultural crops. Understanding molecular mechanisms will allow for more creative solutions to solve agricultural crises in a more sustainable manner. Hybridization, recombination and the commercialization of new cultivars is what I hope to find myself doing in the future. In addition, I can see myself teaching at the university level and mentoring students who share the same level of passion and drive for research in the discovery of new technologies for societal needs.”

Larsen was able to hone his research skills while at UW-Platteville, beginning as early as his first semester on campus, when he accepted an undergraduate research position in Venkateshwaran’s plant-microbe symbioses laboratory. He worked in the same lab all four years and collaboratively led three research projects while making significant contributions to a handful of other projects. After Larsen’s first year on campus, he was accepted to UW-Platteville’s Summer Undergraduate Scholars Program, an intensive summer scholarly experience that prepares students for graduate studies, through which he had the opportunity to dive deep into his area of interest and work full time on a research project.

These intensive research opportunities – rare among undergraduate institutions – are some of the characteristics that sets UW-Platteville’s program apart, said Venkateshwaran.  

“Many of our students gain two to four years of research experience – from freshman year until graduation – gaining technical skills on par with graduate students,” he said. “The employers from top biotech companies who contact us are thrilled to know the level of research experience and technical skills our students have when graduating.”

According to Venkateshwaran, graduates of the Soil and Crop Science program with the plant breeding and biotechnology emphasis who enter the workforce typically have a 100% placement rate. Many of the graduates, he said, pursue advanced degrees and have a high acceptance rate in prestigious doctoral and master’s programs. 

Alyssa Headley, another spring graduate of the plant breeding and biotechnology emphasis, is also continuing her studies. She is pursuing a Master of Science in Applied Plant Sciences-Plant Breeding/Molecular Genetics at the University of Minnesota, where she will also have a research assistantship through the Horticulture Department.

“[UW-Platteville’s] program greatly prepared me for applying to graduate programs,” said Headley. “I grew confidence in my research abilities throughout my time at UW-Platteville.”

In addition to the plant breeding and biotechnology emphasis, the Soil and Crop Science program offers other emphases, including agronomy, soil science, agricultural hydrology and water quality, international, and comprehensive agriculture. In addition, this program offers a soil and crop science minor and an agricultural hydrology and water quality minor. 

“Students in our program learn both theoretical and practical knowledge in the above-mentioned areas,” said Venkateshwaran. “Through course work and mentored research, students learn a variety of different technical skills pertaining to agronomy, agroecology, soil science, plant tissue culture, plant molecular biology, plant genetic transformation, aseptic, plant pathology and microbiological techniques.” 

Just as critical as the research experience the program offers, Venkateshwaran said, is the additional opportunities students have to join the collegiate soil judging and crop judging teams, which compete – and regularly rank among the top –  in both national and international competitions. 

Spring graduate Anastasia Kurth was a member of the UW-Platteville Crops Team and said it was an important part of her UW-Platteville experience. Kurth is now pursuing a Master of Science in Plant Sciences at North Dakota State University. Kurth said what she enjoys most about the field is something that usually surprises others. 

“I like all of the science and technology involved,” she said. “I don’t think people realize what is involved; they think it’s just farmers in a field putting seeds in the ground. They don’t realize all the research behind the seeds they are planting and all the new techniques.”

For more information about UW-Platteville’s Soil and Crop Science program, including the plant breeding and biotechnology emphasis, visit