VitisGen2 Staff Spotlight – Surya Sapkota

Dr. Surya Sapkota joined the VitisGen2 project in January 2018 as a Post-doctoral Associate working under the guidance of Dr. Lance Cadle-Davidson and Dr. David Gadoury at the powdery mildew phenotyping center located at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva. Prior to this position, he completed his PhD in Plant, Insect, and Microbial Sciences from University of Missouri with a major in Plant Breeding and Genetics. He was also involved in VitisGen1 project while working under Dr. Chin-Feng Hwang at Missouri State University.

 You can follow Surya Sapkota on twitter  @Dattu_51.

Surya Sapkota and David Gadoury watching like phenotyping robot Blackbird images grape leaf disks.

Surya Sapkota (right) pointing out the grape leaf disk arrangement to David Gadoury, while the leaf disks are being imaged by the phenotyping robot ‘Blackbird’.

What got you interested in grape breeding?
I grew up in a farming family in Nepal, where my parents used to grow a variety of crops, including livestock. Since then, I have been involved in growing a variety of crops. From my middle school science teacher I found out that breeding is one of the ways to improve crop yield, which was important to my family in order to grow enough food to feed the family. This circumstance, combined with curiosity, brought me to crop breeding.

However, my interest in grape breeding came only when I joined Missouri State University as a graduate student. I thought: grapes are the cool crop to work with, with tremendous potential to improve, as classical varieties are facing challenges and the hybrids are gradually taking their place. The demand for grapes and wine is increasing globally with the increasing number of wineries. To keep up with this, growers are looking for alternatives – mainly high yielding and disease-resistant varieties.

What is your role with the VitisGen2 project?
My role in VitisGen2 is to work at the interface of various disciplines. On one hand, I work closely with experts in robotics, machine vision, optics, microscopy, and image analysis to facilitate high-throughput phenotyping, by planning and executing phenotyping experiments mainly for powdery and downy mildew at the phenotyping center. I also collaborate with various experts including plant breeders, plant pathologists and geneticists to update project outcomes and plan for upcoming experiments. The VitisGen2 project is a great platform to develop an interpersonal relationship with experts from various backgrounds, and I was fortunate to be a part of VitisGen from the very beginning.

What are some major challenges faced by the industry/researchers, and how will your work address them?
The climate is changing! We have clearly seen weather patterns that are hotter and drier in California, wetter in New York, and unpredictable in the Midwest (frosts and winter injury). The grape and wine industries are the victims of these changes. Growers are facing increasing populations of current pests and diseases, and few pests and diseases are posing new threats. Fungal diseases pose a serious challenge, and growers spend millions of dollars every year to control them. Our work focuses on understanding these diseases by utilizing computer vision and machinery through various controlled and field experiments to find data-driven solutions. These collaborative efforts will pave the path to develop disease-resistant varieties for future generations, and to make grape production more environmentally sustainable.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned or done since starting work with VitisGen2?
As a breeding project, the challenge we used to face was having a limited number of people to phenotype large number of samples. However, this has been overcome by the recent development of robotics and computer vision for phenotyping. This system allows us to generate and analyze thousands of data points in a matter of days. Just this past summer (2018), we were able to process around 2,000 samples for grape powdery and downy mildew, generating more than 70, 000 images. As a result, our focus is changing from low-throughput observations (by humans with a microscope) to high-throughput, replicated and multi-time point robotic observations — a significant breakthrough in phenotyping fungal diseases.

What’s a typical day like for you, including both work tasks and what you look forward to when you get home?
During my normal workweek, I am responsible for keeping up to date on project tasks, reporting outcomes, and staying on schedule for upcoming activities. Our peak season starts in April and ends in September. During the winter months, I spend a couple of days per week in the greenhouse to maintain grape populations and utilize them for additional experiments. Along with the greenhouse work, I stay busy in lab with maintaining grape powdery mildew strains and analyzing data. I also collaborate with other colleagues on a variety of projects. As we are finishing year one of the VitisGen2 project, currently, I am focusing on finalizing the accomplishments and planning for spring and the summer.

When I get home, I look forward playing with my seven-month-old son.