New faculty profile: Shelby Ellison focuses on exploring and utilizing genetic diversity in alternative crops

Shelby Ellison joined the UW–Madison faculty in August 2020 as an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Plover, Wisconsin.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I received my B.S. in genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then my Ph.D. in genetics from the University of California-Davis. I previously worked as a plant geneticist for the USDA-ARS and as an assistant faculty associate in the horticulture department here at UW–Madison.

How did you get into your field of research?
Here are several of the key moments that led to my current research interests: 1) I have always enjoyed working in the lab and field equally, 2) I was lucky enough to learn about plant domestication from the plant domestication world expert, Dr. John Doebley, and 3) I believe plant breeding is the perfect intersection of my research interests – genetics, statistics, plants, and people.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
My primary research interest is preserving, characterizing, and utilizing genetic diversity in alternative crops, such as hemp, to meet the needs of Wisconsin farmers. I am also interested in how human interactions with plants, through domestication and breeding, have altered the plant genome and how we can use these selection signatures to trace domestication and improvement throughout history. Above all, I am interested in using what is already known in the fields of genetics, genomics, molecular biology, breeding, and engineering and applying it to crops with fewer resources but potential value in the face of economic and climatic uncertainty.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
It is an excellent university known for stellar academic and research programs that is in the middle of a great city with lots to do and see. It’s perfect!

What was your first visit to campus like?
My first time visiting campus was during undergraduate orientation, SOAR. It was in June and the weather was perfect. I could not wait to move to Madison and start school. I also remember touring the old Union South and being very impressed that there was a bowling alley. Priorities.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
How important and awesome plants are! Plants are essential for practically every aspect of human life (food, shelter, energy, clothes, medicine, recreation, and entertainment). I also hope to expose the many career paths that involve plants.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I hope to utilize social media more in the future. Right now you can see lots of hemp related content on my Instagram @headmistresshemp.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Absolutely. My first task in any new crop I work on is to seek out farmers and ask them to identify what areas of research are the most important. Strong farmer relationships are also incredibly important for identifying farmers willing to participate in on-farm trials or locating specialized knowledge, resources, and equipment. I look forward to the opportunity and challenge of applying modern day genetics, genomics, and breeding tools to a diverse array of alternative crops so they can thrive in Wisconsin and beyond.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
Here are two: 1) the legal definition of hemp is Cannabis sativa with less than 0.3% THC by dry weight and 2) canvas (the fabric) got its name from Cannabis, which it was commonly made from pre-1950.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I enjoy spending time with my family and friends by hosting dinner parties, going to concerts or live comedy shows, camping, and traveling. I enjoy my time to myself by reading, biking, making jewelry, and listening to podcasts.