Amazing Students Profiles

Zachary King

Zachary King

Ph.D. student Zachary King’s academic exploits have included being co-author on 11 peer-reviewed publications and being named a Ph.D. Fellow by the United Soybean Board. His plant breeding expertise could soon lead to new corn varieties on your dinner table.


Old Forge, N.Y.

High School:

Town of Webb Union Free School District

Degree objective:

Ph.D. in plant breeding, genetics and genomics

Other degrees:

M.S. in plant breeding, genetics and genomics from the University of Georgia
B.S. with Honors Thesis, biotechnology, from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Expected graduation:

Summer 2015

University highlights, achievements, awards and scholarships:

I have had such an amazing time at the University of Georgia. For starters, through the UGA Marshall Plan Scholarship I was able to study abroad at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Sciences, Vienna, Austria. There I worked with Dr. Laimer and developed protocols to propagate a diverse collection of the biofuel shrub, Jatropha. It was a blast to be an extension of the University of Georgia and to represent the university internationally.

Last year I was inducted in the UGA Chapter of the Blue Key Honor Society. This group is inspiring and filled with leaders and those who want to give back to their community and the university. I have always tried to be active in my community, and each year the Plant Breeding, Genetics & Genomics Graduate Student Association does a vegetable-plant sale to raise money for graduate student activities. With some other student leaders in the group we decided we would donate all of the extra plants to community gardens every year, and it is a great feeling to help generate food in the local community and promote agriculture. I have also led canned food drives through the same organization when I was president.

I have always been competitive and that led me to recently take up local races and athletic events. My favorite was the Tri to Beat Cancer Triathlon held at Sandy Creek Park. With the support of friends and loved ones, I have raised over $1,100 for the American Cancer Society in memory of my father, Bill King, who passed away due to lung cancer during my Ph.D. I keep this account open and will run a marathon this year to raise more money for the American Cancer Society. I don’t plan on stopping raising money; I want it to be a lifetime commitment to fitness and philanthropy.

I have also taught at the Athens Christian School for Agriculture Day. I brought soybeans with a colleague and taught young children about soybean farming and the natural genetic diversity of plants we eat. I wish everyone was that interested in agriculture!

At the end of my Ph.D. I will have been a co-author on 11 peer-reviewed publications, and 10 of them will have been at UGA. That says a lot about the caliber of research being done at UGA and the dedication of the professors here. I wrote an interdisciplinary grant that was selected and funded by the University of Georgia to create a safer way to get DNA out of soybean plants and seeds. This work is helping keep UGA’s esteemed place as a leader in technology. We have since purchased two robots that are compatible with the DNA extraction process that will keep us at the forefront of innovation. The researcher I trained to help complete the project is named Jonathan Serrano and he now works in New York City doing research on helping identify cancer types using molecular tools.

In 2011, I wrote a research proposal and was one of two researchers nationally selected to receive a $100,000 gift to complete my Ph.D. from the United Soybean Board. The proposal was to research ways to create novel soybean varieties that are resistant to a disease known as soybean rust. I got to announce the proposal on a trip to New Orleans. Soybean rust has caused billions of dollars in losses including both yield losses and the cost of fungicide applications in South America. Additionally, millions in damages and control have been spent in the southeastern U.S.
My research project has had several great accomplishments including the discovery of novel soybean disease resistance genes that are naturally found in unique soybean lines (three thus far). The plants with resistance genes don’t necessarily need to be sprayed with fungicides because they don’t get diseased when soybean rust is present. We know this because we have tested the plants many times with soybean rust found in Georgia.

I have also worked to integrate previously found natural disease resistance genes into varieties that perform well in Georgia and the Southeast so farmers or researchers can have access to these seeds for free. I presented this research at the Annual Plant and Soil Interdisciplinary Symposium and at the E. Broadus Browne competition. In both competitions the research was recognized for its impact and I received first place in both of these competitions. This is a huge honor. Being passionate about these projects comes naturally when you believe so deeply in what you are doing. Both competitions were interdisciplinary hosting many Ph.D. graduate students from the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, making the recognition of the work especially rewarding. For all of the new disease resistance genes I also designed DNA markers that track whether the genes are present or not in soybeans with a high level of accuracy. This will allow the plant breeding process to happen with better speed and efficiency than ever before, and is also less expensive.

Current Employment:

Ph.D. Fellow supported by the United Soybean Board at the University of Georgia

Family Ties to UGA:

I have no family ties to UGA. Most of my family is from the New England area. I love the Dawgs, though, and Athens is an amazing place!

I chose to attend UGA because…

I was really impressed with the research taking place on campus in genetics and plant breeding. The facilities are fantastic and filled with smart, friendly people. Additionally, Athens and the surrounding area is beautiful, and the historic areas of Athens as well as the campus really make UGA an attractive place for anyone to call home.

My favorite things to do on campus are…

I spend a lot of time at the UGA intramural fields with my dog, Onyx. I know every trail like the back of my hand — the fitness trail is a blast and I have always thought Lake Herrick is truly beautiful at sunset. I’ve spent a lot of time at the Ramsey Center. Once after finishing a workout I saw Michael Phelps swim competitively and crush his competition. What other university has that happening!? The facility is quite spectacular. Where else can you climb a rock wall, swim in an Olympic-sized pool, and then run in a full-sized indoor track? I really enjoy North Campus too, and have always thought it is great I can show friends downtown, then take them by the Arch and Sanford Stadium. Having UGA and downtown on the same street is a beautiful combination! I really enjoyed my season tickets to the Dawgs games.

When I have free time, I like…

I go to the UGA gym, run the trails at the intramural fields with my black lab, compete in local races or escape to North Georgia to hike. Most of my hobbies involve hiking, being active and enjoying the outdoors. Recently I made a trip to Tallulah Gorge and was completely blown away playing in the waterfalls. Kayaking the Broad is another favorite. Georgia has a number of beautiful waterfalls and places to check out.

The craziest thing I’ve done is…

During my second semester at UGA I applied for the Marshall Plan Scholarship, and to my surprise won. I packed up all I could fit in my two suitcases and flew about 5,000 miles to Vienna, Austria. I learned a little German and worked on a new project in an amazing city and made the absolute best of it. I am still friends with all the great people I met there. About a year ago my mentor from Vienna, Dr. Laimer, flew to UGA and gave a talk on campus. It was great to see that adventure go full circle. It goes to show there are so many crazy opportunities if you want them. UGA has taught me anything is possible.

I also spent a month in the Philippines through Cornell University, the University of Georgia and the International Rice Research Institute. The program allowed me to plant, transplant and harvest rice by hand, and discuss with farmers the problems most affecting them. I stood behind a water buffalo (caribou) to till the rice paddies thigh deep in mud being bitten by ants. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I even hiked miles up a mountain to interview a farmer named Jose Baton. There were no roads, and he showed me his fields on the largest rice terraces in the world (Banaue rice terraces) in the Ifugao Province and taught me about water usage. I’ll never forget my two experiences abroad while representing UGA. Go Dawgs!

My favorite place to study is…

When I used to study for hours on end for my Ph.D. candidacy exams I would go to the biggest conference room in the Center for Applied Genetic Technologies and sit in the comfiest chair. I ended up spending so much time there I would bring my dog and he would sleep on my feet while I pored over notes and drew chromosomes on the white board. His spare dog bowl is still in my filing cabinet. I also work a lot at my desk and my advisers have provided me with a wonderful work environment right next to the lab.

My favorite professor is…

This is tough, but three professors truly helped shape me as a professional. Wayne Parrott believed in me during my master’s and brought me to UGA. I learned many good professional qualities from him. Roger Boerma brought me on as a Ph.D. student and put a lot of faith in me and taught me about quantitative genetics and plant breeding. He always told me no matter what happens, an “education is valuable and can never be taken away from you.” He saw potential in me as a future plant breeder. Together Dr. Boerma and Zenglu Li, my co-advisers, have supported me through my Ph.D. and they are responsible for continually encouraging me to do my best and challenge myself. Without their support, patience, time and mentorship, all the great work I have accomplished wouldn’t be possible. Dr. Boerma built a program with excellence recognized internationally, and Dr. Li continues that tradition of excellence with new technology. These mentors allowed me to travel to over a dozen international conferences and take an industry internship while completing my Ph.D. with Jesse Gilsinger at Monsanto Company. Some people are lucky enough to have one good mentor. I’ve had at least three!

If I could share an afternoon with anyone, I would love to share it with…

Two people come to mind. I would pick the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I find them both inspiring for many of the same reasons. They both started from humble beginnings, each is overwhelmingly positive and hardworking, and each has built his life from the ground up. Both support the idea that in America you can achieve whatever dreams you have. Maybe after they both read this article while drinking their morning coffee they will see my potential for a cameo in their next movie and think “that’s our guy.” We will spend the afternoon on set. The Rock is famous for saying, “Be hungry, be humble, and always be the hardest worker in the room.” That is a recipe for success for anyone to follow.

If I knew I could not fail, I would…

… start my own seed company (King Genetics). I think it would be a blast to start a seed company and develop healthy specialties foods for consumers. The idea of combining niche foods with added qualities would really be a lot of fun! Imagine that your work consisted of making the best tasting blueberries, blackberries, grapes, or the nicest grains for specialty foods such as quinoa. Plant breeding is so awesome and exciting.

If money was not a consideration, I would love to…

I would start taking a lap around the U.S. and hit the major national treasures, especially hiking trails and natural wonders. It would be great to do a tour of South America, and Asia too. I promised myself that every year I will take one week of vacation and travel to a new country or amazing place. Regardless of money, I believe anything is possible if you are willing to work for it.

I had a six-month internship in Vienna, Austria. While there at the center of Europe, I visited Rome, Venice, London, Zagreb, Budapest, Salzburg, Graz and others. I toured some of the Philippines too by myself. What a rush. I caught the travel bug.

After graduation, I plan to…

… start a career with Monsanto Company. I am excited that all my education at Georgia has held such value personally and professionally. I was hired as a corn breeder near the Minneapolis, Minnesota area. My job is to help develop new corn varieties that will have added value to farmers. I’m excited to represent UGA and really hope to drive forward the excellence of Monsanto.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…

This for sure would be my first 24 hours here. I loaded all my belongings into my 1998 Subaru Legacy station wagon and drove 20 hours straight to Georgia (I got lost using an old-fashioned map). I was so excited to start graduate school in a place I’d only visited once. It was a thrill. I found Wi-Fi near an old library to eventually find my new place. Turns out the other people I was going to live with were out of town, so I slept in the driveway. I thought, “What have I got myself in to?” The point is, sometimes you need to take a leap of faith and just hope things will work out, and usually if you are persistent and enthusiastic they do. The next morning I pried open the window and I was home.