Talking with Thilani Jayakody, an up-and-comer in the potato industry
The work of Thilani Jayakody, a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University, has recently been recognized by the Potato Association of America in the way of a Haynes Graduate Research Award and Potato Leadership, Education and Advancement Foundation (PLEAF) with its annual $10,000 scholarship award. Her current and future focus is on genome editing in plants.
1: Could you share a little about your background?
I was born and raised in the United States, although I am the first U.S. citizen in my family. My parents and brother immigrated here from Sri Lanka before I was born. I was raised on black tea (with milk and sugar), tons of adventures in the woods behind our house, and quiet evenings filled with meditation and reflection. My parents always encouraged me to pursue my curiosity, even to the point that now I am pursuing an entire career in research! My career in plant science research started when I was 18. I have worked in research labs studying a diverse range of topics related to plants and agriculture. This includes research on the evolution of plant symbioses, phosphate response and signaling in plants, genetic diversity of plant pathogens, as well as application and assessment of genome editing in diverse species of plants. I was even able to participate in internships at the Noble Research Institute and Simplot Plant Sciences during my undergraduate.
2: What attracted you to plant science?
My parents fostered my love of plants from a young age, but it wasn’t until college that I understood how I could make this passion a career. It was in my first college biology class that I learned about genetic engineering and, frankly, I just thought it was really cool and I could see how impactful this type of work could be. I immediately sought out research positions to gain some experience and to explore as much as I could. Now, years later, as I am pursuing my Ph.D., I still think what I do for a career is really cool.
3: What are you working on with potatoes?
My research is focused on the application, understanding and development of genome editing tools in potatoes. I’m interested in improving existing cultivars by altering genes involved in quality traits. I’ve also been studying the specificity of emerging genome editing reagents when applied to complex plant genomes, like potatoes. Finally, I’ve been developing genetic and genomic resources to be used for studying gene function in potatoes.
4: Do you have any long-term career goals?
I would love to be a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution, where I could focus on training the next generation of researchers in developing and applying genome editing tools in plants. I also have a little pipe dream of participating in a plant genome editing startup too, whether that’s leading a team in one that’s already established or starting my own.
5: What is your favorite thing about Michigan State?
The people! I have made so many lifelong friends over my career at MSU. Having a supportive network of friends and colleagues has really made a huge difference in my quality of life and research.
6: What do you do for fun?
My favorite pastime is what I like to call “treasure hunting.” I really enjoy scavenging for things, whether fossils at the beach or finding unique pieces from resale shops or garage sales or foraging for food to eat and flowers to press.
7: What is your favorite way to eat potatoes?
French fries, especially ones that are thin and crispy.