VitisGen2 Staff Spotlight – Olena Sambucci

Olena Sambucci worked on the VitisGen1 project as a graduate student when she was finishing her Ph.D. at the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis. During the first part of the project, she worked with the rest of the traits economics team to evaluate the economic benefits of incorporating powdery mildew resistance in new grape varieties. Olena is now continuing her research on the economics of varietal innovation as a postdoc. The focus of her work for VitisGen2 is economic payoffs to varietal innovation in table grapes.

Olena SambucciWhat got you interested in the economics of wine grape production?
My dissertation research focused on how grape growers use disease forecasting tools to adjust their management of powdery mildew. I quickly realized that grape production in California is an extremely diverse industry with many interesting challenges, and I look forward to continuing my research on the economics of new technology in viticulture.

What is your role with the VitisGen2 project, and how does your research fit in with the overall goals of the project?
I am a postdoc working as a part of the traits economics team on VitisGen2. Our current focus is economic payoffs to varietal innovation in table grapes, and we are considering both consumer-specific traits (such as flavor) and agronomic traits (such as disease resistance). By quantifying benefits to varietal improvements we hope to communicate the importance of projects like VitisGen2 to government, industry, and the public, in order to facilitate adoption of new varieties and motivate future funding for these types of projects.

What are some major challenges faced by the industry/breeders, and how will your work address them?
Our work is often data-centric and one of the main challenges we’ve faced is availability and access to the relevant sources of data. This is especially tricky for interdisciplinary projects such as VitisGen2, because a lot of the data that are generated by the project are in the lab, while most of the data we use for our work are generated outside of the lab. On the plus side, we have a great team and are coming up with what I think will be very interesting surveys for table grape consumers.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned or done since starting work with VitisGen2?
I am learning a lot about the production and market for table grapes. Until now, my research has been mostly on wine grapes and table grapes are very different product, with a different market. It is very interesting to learn about all the new and unusual varieties that have appeared in the recent years.

What music, podcasts, or other inspiration do you use to stay engaged and focus when the work gets repetitive?
I like listening to podcasts that package academic research in a way that is accessible and relevant to the general public, such as Conversations with Tyler and Freakonomics Radio, for example. When I need to get away from work, spending time outside is always a good way to recharge and clear space for new ideas.