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You say tomato, she says learning

Kenny Kemp
Barbara Liedl, an associate professor and research scientist at West Virginia State University, breeds tomatoes in a greenhouse on campus and teaches students about all aspects of gardening and plant genetics.
Kenny Kemp
Liedl cuts a tomato for her student Brian Wooten to try.
Kenny Kemp
Some of the tomatoes grown in the greenhouse.
Kenny Kemp
Student Brian Wooten trims the tomato plants.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While most people use tomatoes for food, Barbara Liedl is using them to teach students about teamwork, patience and the importance of hands-on learning.Liedl, an associate professor and research scientist at West Virginia State University, is the only public tomato breeder in the country that specializes in the protected culture method, and she's been using her unique niche to get students involved at State for nearly a decade.Students study things such as genetics and plant reproduction in a laboratory, but the most important part is the dirty work at Liedl's greenhouse, she said."Getting hands-on is critical. For me, it's the only way. I believe very strongly that if I bring a student in to work on a project, if they don't know how to actually grow a plant, what's the point?" she said. "You can do all the fancy molecular stuff, but if you don't understand how it grows, it's really hard to get that connection.""The students get really excited once they invest in a project. It becomes theirs, and they get very passionate," she said. "Ultimately, we have to work together as a team -- sometimes the work is hard and hot and sweaty and you have to make sure everyone's going to pull together."When Liedl recently attended a conference in Florida to share her students' work -- one student's project took first place, while the other tied for second.Liedl received strange looks when she shared that neither was a science major. One was an education major, and the other an English major."I had a lot of people at that conference who said, 'I'm really sorry you don't have any science students.' But I said, 'Why?' Two years ago this student hated science, now he sees how he can bring science into his future classroom. I've made more of an impact by converting him than I would have having five science students because through him I'm going to be able to impact students for the rest of his career," she said.
While West Virginia is not a major producer of tomatoes, WVSU's work has garnered attention, drawing an international crowd of breeders to the school every 18 months to talk about tomato breeding in different countries.Liedl, who received her bachelor's degree from Purdue University in horticultural production and a master's degree and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota focusing on genetics and breeding of plants, is currently focusing on her unique expertise of breeding tomatoes via high tunnels on State's campus.High tunnels are unheated greenhouses that are ventilated and allow for season extension.She also worked as an editor for a book published earlier this year titled "Genetics, Genomic and Breeding of Tomato."For Liedl, it's not just about the red and green fruit, it's about changing the way people think about their food."Ten years ago, gardening wasn't something people did. The industry was really worried -- nobody was buying, they weren't looking at investing in any of that. But there's been a complete turnaround. I think people have a better idea where their food comes from and pay more attention to where they're buying it from," she said. "That to me means they're buying better produce that's been locally grown and they're keeping money local. So, if god forbid anything happens, we at least have the ability to produce our own food.""I never thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with tomatoes."
Reach Mackenzie Mays at or 304-348-4814.
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