During a time of economic strife and doubts, the new director of Peoria’s Ag Lab doesn’t have them. “The future is in our hands. Our mission is to solve important problems for the country and the world. As long as we do that, we’ll be fine,” said Paul Sebesta, who recently took over as head of the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research.
During a time of economic strife and doubts, the new director of Peoria’s Ag Lab doesn’t have them.
“The future is in our hands. Our mission is to solve important problems for the country and the world. As long as we do that, we’ll be fine,” said Paul Sebesta, who recently took over as head of the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research.
That’s not to say Sebesta thinks agricultural research is an untouchable when it comes to beleaguered budgets. “We worry about our funding and the sources of our funding. We just have to manage the best way we can,” he said.
Like other federal research centers around the country, the Peoria lab works on five-year plans, said Sebesta, who has been meeting with research units at the lab to familiarize himself with their work.
While Sebesta isn’t yet fully versed on all that goes on in his building, he has great respect for the people who work there. “I’m in complete awe of the scientists and support staff assembled here. It’s a humbling experience to be their director,” he said.
Peoria’s Ag Lab sprang from humble beginnings in December 1940 before making its name as the place that introduced the world to the large-scale production of penicillin. That accomplishment not only saved countless U.S. lives during World War II but is commonly regarded as opening the modern era of antibiotics.
Three hundred people, including 100 scientists, are now employed at a lab that has been the source of breakthroughs in biofuels, plastics and foods while leading to products such as Super Slurper, Fantesk and Oatrim.
Sebesta, 55, brings his own record of accomplishments to the lab, noting that his interest in agricultural research comes naturally. “My father was a wheat geneticist with the government. I learned about plants at an early age in Stillwater, Okla.,” he said.
Working with his father in the greenhouse and on field plots led to a career for Sebesta, who became a wheat breeder at Oklahoma State University.
After a brief stint teaching at North Dakota State University, he spent five years with the Monsanto company in Wichita, Kan. In 1987, Sebesta moved to Texas A&M University with responsibility for improving crop plants such as wheat, soybeans and turf grass.
The next stop was the University of Southern California, where Sebesta spent nine years as superintendent of the school’s Desert Research and Extension Center. While there he looked into the possibility of growing sugarcane in California’s Imperial Valley, the fertile growing area that serves as the nation’s major source of fruits and vegetables.
Sebasta’s interest in introducing sugarcane to the valley was to determine if it could be a source for ethanol to help meet California’s growing need for alternative fuels.
After what Sebesta described as a sabbatical — a return to Oklahoma to work for the National Audubon Society — he renewed his ag research at a federal lab in Texas near the Mexican border. “The focus there is entomology — insects — and it’s also one of four bee labs in the country,” said Sebesta.
That lab has been heavily involved with looking into colony collapse disorder, the mysterious ailment that has seen a huge reduction in the bee populations of the world, he said.
There’s no mystery regarding the Peoria lab’s focus: “Significant research on ethanol and biodiesel that’s all part of an international program to end our dependence on foreign oil,” said Sebesta.
Fuel is just one of various research projects being undertaken at the lab. Sebesta describes efforts that result in new food products as going “from field to fork” or “from the lab to the table.”
As a wheat breeder who used a note pad and a hand calculator when he started his research, Sebesta cites the ongoing impact that computer technology has made on his field. “We’re seeing huge changes in mapping genes and molecular modeling,” he said.
While work at the lab may be light years away from the understanding of the average office worker — or reporter — Sebesta recognizes the Ag Lab is “an integral part of the Peoria community.”
“We’re looking for ways to better communicate what we do here. We want to get more involved with the community,” he said.
Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 or email@example.com.