Scott Smith is more than a PhD student. He’s a father to three small children who is about one year away from finishing his degree in Plant and Microbial Biology from North Carolina State University, and he is one of the original graduate mentors in the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP).
P2EP, a graduate training program and summer internship focused on crop science based at the NC Research Campus (NCRC), began in 2013. As a graduate mentor, Smith led teams of undergraduate student interns for four summers. He trained the interns who assisted him with specific research projects such as genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of oats.
“During that first summer and in the summers since, we’ve planned research projects knowing that we’d have extra hands on deck to get the work done,” Smith said.
As a graduate mentor, the majority of his time was spent at the lab bench alongside his P2EP interns. Having a fresh batch of interns every summer boosted his efficiency, Smith said. During the academic year, he applied the summer research results to his doctoral work that involved many hours sitting at the computer, reviewing the literature, and writing papers.
For Smith, juggling time in the lab and time at home with family is a constant struggle. “Time management is key,” he explains. “I have to be as efficient as possible so I can get home to my wife and kids.” Smith has a four year-old daughter and two sons, three years and 14 months.
Committed to Crops
Despite the challenges, Smith is committed to crop research. He received his Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, both in genetics and biotechnology. He studied barley and quinoa while working on his Master’s, where he quickly developed a passion for plant genetics. “My work at BYU solidified my desire to work in crop improvement,” Smith said. “I believe these types of studies have the potential to benefit a lot of people, especially those in countries with little arable land.”
During his time at the NCSU Plants for Human Health Institute at the NCRC, Smith researched genes responsible for beta glucan production, a type of polysaccharide that is linked to reducing the risk of heart disease. Smith tested specific genes in a plant model species called Arabidopsis, which doesn’t normally produce beta glucan. Over four years and with the help of dozens of P2EP interns, Smith has been able to identify and characterize genes involved in the production of beta glucan in oats.
Smith collaborated often with food company and NCRC partner General Mills. He hopes to work with them or a similar company to apply his scientific knowledge and P2EP experience to more projects that will benefit people in need of healthy and sustainable foods.