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SUPER WOMAN: Jessica Rutkoski conquers math demons, finds success as wheat breeder

May 29, 2015

Jessica Rutkoski at the CIMMYT research station in Toluca, Mexico. CIMMYT/Julie Mollins

EL BATAN, Mexico (CIMMYT) — In high school, Jessica Rutkoski was similar to many girls who suffer from the tedium and complexity of high school arithmetic – she avoided it.

However, after graduation she went to college and took a stab at it again, picking up a course in calculus and surprising herself by scoring top marks.

“I discovered I wasn’t bad at math, I was scared of it, had low confidence or maybe just a bad attitude,” laughed Rutkoski, whose first love has always been science.

“Don’t assume that what you think you’re good or bad at is set in stone because when you get to college you may just find out you are better at something than you thought.”

Rutkoski’s mathematical successes at university helped her become an even bigger whiz at science than she was in high school.

Her interest in genetics got her started helping out in a sweet maize breeding program while she was an undergraduate science student at the University of Wisconsin. Subsequently, she decided to study for a doctoral degree, and was attracted to the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell University in New York.

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.”