Glenda Gillaspy’s first day as the new dean of the UW–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences was Aug. 4. She comes to the college from Virginia Tech, where she was a professor of biochemistry since 1998 and head of the department since 2015.
In this Q&A, Gillaspy talks about some of her initial tasks as CALS dean and goals for the college. She also shares details about her research program, her hobbies and more.
What are some of the first things you’ll be doing, now that you’re here on campus?
One of the first things I’ll be doing is going to the Wisconsin State Fair in an official CALS capacity. I’ll also be getting a parking permit. I discovered how important parking permits are at UW–Madison.
I’m really looking forward to meeting people, and learning more about the college. There’s a pretty steep curve to learn about all the really great things that go on in CALS.
I’m looking forward to that first day of class. The beginning of every semester at any institution is really an exciting time. I love drop-off days, to see parents with their adult children, and all the hopes and excitement at the beginning. Later there’s the forging through the semester and making some of those dreams a reality, or adding some concreteness to those goals, but there’s no time as joyful as the beginning. I look forward to being a part of that in Madison.
On a personal note, I’m looking forward to purchasing really high-quality cheese in lots of different places in Madison. I love dairy – cheese, ice cream, yogurt.
What are some of your goals for the college?
I think the biggest goal is to continue the excellence in CALS in both research and education programs, and then as well, the Wisconsin Idea. I think the college does an excellent job with these missions. We definitely, at the college level, want to continue to support efforts that will continue that excellence.
It’s an exciting time for the college right now because we have some special programs that will be initiated this year such as the new federally-funded plant germplasm facility. These special programs are the culmination of a lot of people’s hard work and planning over many years, and supporting the launch of those is going to be really critical for the college. I’m looking forward to working with the other leadership in CALS because there’s an excellent group of highly trained leaders that know their domains well.
I know that working on inclusion and diversity is a really important piece for the college. I don’t have a prescription of what needs to happen, but there’s clearly a lot of enthusiasm for making things happen in this area. I look forward to engaging in that. I think everybody knows there’s work to do and we’ll do it.
Spreading the word about what happens at UW–Madison to the broader state is something that is also critical to do. The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has a key connection to people across the state, and a large impact on people in the state, so we will want to focus on communicating our impact.
How did you get into your area of research? What is your research focus?
I was trained as a biochemist, and then became a plant scientist in my post-doctoral fellowship. I’ve been working on plant signaling pathways for all of my post-Ph.D. career.
The interesting thing is, a few years ago, one specific molecule I work on that’s involved in the signaling language of plants – inositol pyrophosphate – was discovered to be very, very important. It’s the most important “word” in the plant’s signaling language for sensing phosphate, the bioactive form of the element, phosphorus. My lab worked out how plants synthesize inositol pyrophosphates, which we hope will be useful to address important agricultural challenges.
For example, in the developed world, we use phosphorus and nitrogen so that plants grow at a maximum rate and farmers can bring crops to the market sooner, but the global supply of phosphorus is limited. In addition, the majority of phosphorus added to crops does not get taken up and used by plants, and can contribute to phosphate pollution and subsequent growth of algae within lakes or streams. One member of my lab group has designed a potential biological solution in the form of plants designed to take up excess phosphate, which can then be recycled into a novel fertilizer called biochar.
It’s exciting that this research could have an important impact for Wisconsin. It was fortuitous that we got into working on this phosphate reclamation pathway.
What is the plan for your lab and your research program?
My lab will stay at Virginia Tech until next spring, and then portions of it will move to UW–Madison. We will close out a lot of the research over the next year, but will continue the applied work to increase use efficiency and phytoremediation of phosphate. This work will take place in space graciously offered by the biochemistry department. For me, this will be a nice way to stay engaged in our research mission, but in a pretty limited fashion because being a dean is a big job.
Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media and which channels do you use?
Yes, I use Twitter professionally to talk about issues that are important for science or sometimes just fun things about nature. I also like to highlight the achievements and accomplishments of my colleagues. I look forward to doing that as a member of the CALS community.
What is something interesting about your area of expertise that you can share with us to help us sound smarter at parties?
Plants use language. They use small molecules as that language, and there are words, phrases and sentences in that language. We’re just beginning to learn how to speak that language.
Animals, when things get tough, can run away, but plants can’t run away. Instead plants synthesize thousands and thousands of small molecules – or secondary metabolites, as we call some of them – that do a lot of different things, including signaling a lot of different situations that allow the plant to respond or defend itself.
We enjoy some of these secondary metabolites in our food. For instance, some of the molecules in the grape peel that protect the fruit from pests are absolutely essential for the taste of red wine.
We also utilize them as drugs. A lot of the drugs that are made by plants are molecules made by the plant to protect itself from pathogens or pests.
What are your hobbies and other interests?
I’m a gardener – surprise. I also work with plants at home. I love growing plants in my yard. I always grow some vegetable plants, but I mainly grow a lot of flowers. I’m looking forward to doing that in Madison as well.
I read fiction, and I like to cook. I’m a cake baker, and I’ve been told I make good cakes.
I like modern art, and I also paint. I love texture and I incorporate different components and materials into my paintings that add texture. I come from a family of artists.
Any final words?
I’m excited and honored to be dean, and am looking forward to getting out around the college and the state to learn more about all of our programs and our people.