From the UK to ND: Sugarbeet research brings Rob Blundell to NDSU

When Rob Blundell arrived in Fargo in August of 2016, he wasn’t sure what to expect. It was his first trip to the U.S. and to North Dakota, and all he had been previously told was that it gets “a little chilly” here in the winter.

The weather was one of many new experiences for Blundell, who came to North Dakota to work for the USDA-ARS at NDSU.

“At NDSU, our research focuses on the Cercospora leaf spot, a foliar fungal disease of sugarbeet. We are particularly concerned with identifying how Cercospora beticola becomes resistant to the fungicide tetraconazole,” Blundell said. “The worldwide sugarbeet research community is tight-knit, so it was quite straightforward to come and do research in Fargo in Melvin Bolton’s laboratory.”

I have learned many new laboratory techniques and have been part of an exciting project,” he said. “Coming to North Dakota has given me a wider perspective of the problems that crops face.”

Rob Blundell

Blundell, 23, of Sissinghurst, United Kingdom, has always loved biology and agriculture. Sissinghurst, a tiny village in the southeast part of the country, is located in a county called Kent.rob pic

“Kent is also known as ‘The Garden of England,’” he said. “It has rolling hills, and cereals and fruits are primarily produced there.”

Blundell attended the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norfolk, where he majored in biological sciences. His time at UEA included an internship at the John Innes Centre, a world-renowned plant research facility in Norwich.

“I wanted to pursue a career in crop research,” said Blundell. “Sugarbeets are widely grown in Norfolk, and I often saw sugarbeet fields while riding my bike.”

One of Blundell’s university professors introduced him to Dr. Mark Stevens, lead scientist at the British Beet Research Organization (BBRO).

“I met with Dr. Stevens and we discussed the research conducted by the BBRO,” Blundell said. “I was very interested in their work on the Beet Yellows virus.”

Blundell worked for the BBRO for one year after graduating from UEA in 2015. For Blundell, the real world applications of agricultural research and benefits to growers are what motivate him.Rob1

“With the rapid population growth and extreme weather events, it’s imperative that we boost crop yields and save them from pests and disease,” he said. “Crop diseases particularly interest me because of their ubiquitous presence, and sugarbeets are subject to bacterial, viral and fungal diseases.”

According to Blundell, the recent mild winters currently pose some of the biggest challenges to British sugarbeet growers.

“There is likely to be a large disease pressure of Beet Yellows carried by the aphid, Myzus Persicae,” he said. “The mild winters are also likely to exacerbate leaf miner and downy mildew.”

There are currently no genetically engineered crops grown in the UK except for research purposes. Blundell said that the recent ‘Brexit’ vote brings hope of a new regulatory system that could approve GE crops.

“However, the flip side is that the UK would be unable to export any GE crops it grew into Europe, so we would perhaps be better off remaining within the EU to lobby for a continent-wide acceptance of GE,” he said.

Blundell has enjoyed his time in North Dakota and the weather here has been a unique experience.

“It’s interesting to live somewhere that has such extreme weather conditions. English weather is very predictable in comparison,” he said. “I love North Dakota’s vast expanse of land and the wide-open blue skies.”

In his free time, Blundell is an avid tennis player and long distance cyclist, and once rode his bicycle from London to Paris. He’s also became a fan of Bison football since he arrived in Fargo.Rob2

“I was very excited about watching American sports when I arrived and it’s safe to say I have not been disappointed,” Blundell said. “The atmosphere in the Fargodome is incredible and once I understood the rules, I loved watching it. The investment and interest in U.S. college sports is great and something which needs to be pushed harder for in English universities.”

Blundell leaves Fargo next month for California, where he will spend six months doing crop research at UC Davis. He plans to return to England in the summer and begin a PhD program with a focus on drought and salinity stress responses in wheat and barley.

Blundell said that his time at NDSU has provided him with valuable experience.

“I have learned many new laboratory techniques and have been part of an exciting project,” he said. “Coming to North Dakota has given me a wider perspective of the problems that crops face.”