Ronald Phillips

Driven to Discover

Dr. Ronald Phillips is driven to discover how plant genetics research and teaching can improve the lives of people worldwide

You'd be forgiven for mistaking Dr. Ronald Phillips for, perhaps, a former anchorman. There's the sonorous voice, the striking smile, and the bountiful silver hair. But no. Phillips is a professor in the department of agronomy and plant genetics with forty years at the University of Minnesota. He might not have had much time to broadcast the latest news developments. But he can tell you about the latest developments in crops and agriculture.

Phillips is ensconced in an office on the St. Paul campus of the University. No ivory tower here; this sector of the campus sits amidst fields of corn and wheat. His office door opens just across the hall from his laboratories; the doorstop is a bronze ear of corn. At the moment, this "farm boy" is wearing a purple button-down shirt, and a tie with a bright abstract print. Phillips spent his first seven years on a farm in Indiana, and both his parents worked for a seed company. He describes this as his first exposure to plant hybridization, and in high school he decided he would pursue study in plant genetics. Phillips went on to earn B.S. and M.S. degrees from Purdue University. And after obtaining a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, he did his postdoctoral training at Cornell University.

Dr. Phillips' work seeks to improve cereal crops by coupling techniques of plant genetics and molecular biology. This involves developing genetic and molecular biological selection procedures of important traits in crops. So then, variations in crops are created that can affect not just crop yield but nutritional value. Thus, crops have benefits for farmers and consumers alike.

"You end up with the same kind of product as far as the farmer is concerned but it can have some special traits, like it's insect resistance or has increased nutritional value," Phillips explains.

Take rice. Rice is a food staple for over half the world's population. A variety called "golden rice" has been developed which has genes for a higher level of Vitamin A, a major and necessary nutrient.

"If we can improve the Vitamin A content," Phillips says, "It would have quite an impact on the health of people around the world."

Phillips serves on the board of the International Rice Research Institute which is on the forefront of similar efforts. The IRRI is currently working to create rices that will grow under natural conditions and adapt to varying conditions of water supply. In Africa, for instance, this could mean a strain of rice for farmers who cannot afford irrigation, or a rice that could recover from flooding.

Phillips is proud to point out that the research program at the University was one of the early programs in modern plant biotechnology related to agriculture. "The university has provided a great opportunity to be on the cutting edge of these developments," he says.

And these days, there are serious tools involved in this serious business. Agricultural crop breeding now involves DNA sequence mapping systems, extensive laboratory and molecular genetics work, and massive computer work. "We're not just working with soil and water anymore", Phillips says.

But Phillips never thought his work would become so controversial when he began in the 1950s. He acknowledges the public controversy surrounding genetic engineering, and points out that it's not the technology that should be worrisome but rather the kinds of products being produced. "In fact, over the past 10 years, over a billion acres of biotech crops have been planted with no issues," Phillips says.

In 1993, Phillips was named a Regents Professor by then-President Nils Hasselmo. "Oh, it was a big surprise!" he laughs. Phillips added, "I view it as a recognition of my work, and it carries with it a responsibility to assist the University in any way you can."

President Bruininks says, "Dr. Ronald Phillips embodies the expertise, resourcefulness and inventiveness of our renown faculty, researchers and educators who continue to make the University of Minnesota a leader in addressing world agricultural issues."

Along the way, there have been many other achievements for Dr. Phillips. Among many things, he served as Chief Scientist of the USDA in charge of the National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program in the late 1990s. Phillips is a founding member and former Director of both the Plant Molecular Genetics Institute and the Center for Microbial and Plant Genomics. The two then merged and became the Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute. And Phillips was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1991.

Most recently, Phillips was awarded the Wolf Foundation Prize in Agriculture. Moshe Katsav, the President of the State of Israel, presented the prize to Phillips in the Knesset in May, recognizing his groundbreaking discoveries in genetics and genomics and the important advancements in plant sciences. Phillips and his wife directed the Wolf Foundation to give the $50,000 award to the University of Minnesota Foundation to establish scholarships.

Phillips pauses as he chronicles the eventful decades. "I've been on the faculty for forty years," he says. "It feels like five."

"The University has been a great place to be," he says. "I like the Midwest and I admire the ethical values of the people around me."

Phillips plans to retire a few years down the road. He wants to enjoy his family and his pastimes while he's still in good health. He's an avid fisherman and boater, and his children are avid water skiers. In fact, he thinks many people might be surprised at his seafaring ways. He loves to take folks out on his boat, and says "People say, 'I didn't know you spent any of your time doing stuff like this!'"

But he'll also tell you that retirement is just "the right thing to do."

"It's a fast moving field," he says. "It's important that these positions turn over to others."

But for now, Phillips remains absorbed in his work. His typical Midwestern demeanor belies the zeal he still has for his profession.

"There's a thrill of discovery and you get a real high", Phillips says. "I love what I do - I'm still very excited about what I do."

—M.J. Pehl