VitisGen2 Staff Spotlight – Janet van Zoeren

Janet van Zoeren joined the Cornell AgriTech and the VitisGen2 project in October 2018, when she began work as extension support specialist with Dr. Tim Martinson at the Cornell viticulture extension program. Prior to coming here, Janet was an extension associate to the Fruit Team and the University of Wisconsin, where she got her Master’s degree in Entomology. Janet grew up in Michigan, and after undergrad took a few years to work on farms in Michigan, Vermont, Costa Rica, and across Europe. With VitisGen2, Janet is excited to help communicate promising, cutting edge grape research to a wide range of audiences.

What got you interested in wine grape extension?
It’s been a bit of an indirect journey to get here. I grew up in northwestern Michigan, in the “cherry capital of the world”, and the summers I worked in a cherry orchard. There I developed a love for perennial fruit crops; I really appreciate the long-term approach to management decisions and the investment in each plants’ health. I also saw first-hand how difficult being a fruit farmer can be, and what an important role extension can provide through giving the growers relevant information in a format with which they can connect.

Working in extension allows me to learn something new every day, and challenges me to continue to better understand both current crop production recommendations and how to best communicate them. In particular, VitisGen2 has provided a fun challenge, to take highly technical, specialized, and long term research projects, and to communicate them accurately but understandably to a wide range of stakeholders, from vine to wine to resale to consumer.

What is your role with the VitisGen2 project, and how does that fit in with the overall goals of the project?
My role in VitisGen is somewhat unique, in that I am not conducting any of the research, but rather am responsible for being able to (at least passably) understand and communicate the research taking place in all the other team members’ labs. I think I am really lucky to have this opportunity! I get to meet with colleagues from many fields, and learn about all aspects of the VitisGen project, from basic genetics, to applied plant breeding, disease resistance, fruit quality measures, and even the economic impact of our research.

Extension and outreach is an important part of the project because we tie all the research findings together, and present them to the outside world. Another big part of the role of extension specific to the VitisGen project is to help explain why such complex, technical, and long-term research goals are so important to sustainable grape production in the United States.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned or done since starting work with VitisGen2?
There are so many new and exciting things I’m learning about since joining this project! There have been some very important recent developments in how plant breeders are able to use genetic markers, gene sequencing, and marker assisted selection to make the process of breeding a new variety much faster, and this is especially true and important in a woody crop like grapes. Additionally, I’ve also been astounded to learn about the degree of automation and computer learning being used by the disease phenotyping team! We truly are in the age of robots, and the VitisGen team is putting them to good use.

Finally, something that has been really interesting to me personally is learning about the work being done by the fruit quality teams. Wine grapes are a relatively unique crop in that there is an additional step (being turned into wine) before reaching the consumer. Additionally, the history of wine production, wine grape varieties, and the tradition of terroir, all create an incredibly interesting and complex set of fruit characteristics and marketing that combines to create a high-value product.

How would you describe your job to a kindergardener?
I would tell them that there are a lot of really smart scientists who are working hard to develop new kinds of grapes – ones that taste better, are able to stay healthy and fight off diseases and insect pests, and can be grown in many different types of climates including the northern United States. However, for their work to help put new, better types of grapes in the supermarkets (and in grown-ups’ wine glasses), I need to help explain what the scientists are doing. I help talk to the farmers, so they will know if they could plant a new variety of grape, to grocery stores so they can buy the new grapes, and to people in the government who can help pay for our research.