At Cornell, she spent long hours in the greenhouse and field, learning about disease and disease resistance in wheat, focusing on stem- and leaf-rust pathology. Additionally, she learned how to program and analyze data using statistical and qualitative genetics.
A year after earning her Ph.D., Rutkoski’s focus is on improving all traits of wheat – she is widening her net to include crop-yield increases in her portfolio.
“I eventually want to use the available technology to predict all traits,” she said. “Data allows us to create prediction models based on genomic fingerprints, rather than using genes – we don’t necessarily have to know anything about genes or the underlying mechanisms of traits.”
Rutkoski is now an assistant professor at Cornell. She spends about three months a year teaching a course called “Selection Theory and Methods,” in which students learn how to maximize gain from selection in breeding programs. The rest of the year she spends working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
“Women are doing this kind of work, but I haven’t really followed in anyone’s footsteps,” she said. “I was inspired to pursue post-graduate studies by colleagues who were frustrated that they found themselves in underpaid, dead-end jobs.”
Some women take another path, choosing to prioritize finding a spouse and having a family, Rutkoski said, adding: “If you’re really passionate about something, then don’t worry about that, it’ll happen on its own. If you’re really passionate about something then just follow it and the rest will fall into place.”