By Rosie Kereston
Brandon Califar, a fourth year UF Genetics Institute graduate student, is the winner of the 2020 Kenneth & Laura Berns Excellence in Genetics Award. Typically, the winner is announced at the annual Genetics Symposium, but this year it was announced virtually on December 21st, 2020.
This award, established through the generosity of former UFGI Director Dr. Kenneth I. Berns and his wife Laura Berns, recognizes a Genetics & Genomics Program graduate student for a significant contribution to the scientific community, such as a publication or other scholarly product in the preceding year.
Califar was nominated by his mentors Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul, the director of the ICBR, and Dr. Robert Ferl, assistant vice president for research in the Office of Research. His research focus is on understanding the limits of genetic adaptability of terrestrial life to the microgravity environments of space travel. His paper was published in Frontiers in Plant Science and focused on the spaceflight responses of root skewing mutants in Arabidopsis thaliana, a model organism popular for use in genetic studies.
Prior to studying at UF, Califar grew up in South Florida, eventually majoring in Biotechnology at Florida Gulf Coast University. He was inspired by a lifelong love of science fiction and his dream to become an astronaut.
“I still have a small toy rocket from when I was around 5 years old, and I remember standing outside my elementary school with everyone to watch the space shuttles go up.” Califar was unfortunately unable to begin the US Marine Corps pilot track due to a minor type of colorblindness, so he turned his focus towards academics involving space travel instead.
Califar’s studies at Florida Gulf Coast University and volunteering with the FGCU Food Forest led him to appreciate permaculture and sustainability practices. He became fascinated by the functionality of a stable, closed agricultural system and the ability to meet the precise environmental needs of crops while keeping energy conservation in mind.
In regards to his time at FGCU, Califar expressed gratitude for his undergraduate mentor Dr. Marilyn Cruz-Alvarez. “If it weren’t for her convincing me I could do it and that she could see me becoming a great professor and scientist one day, I might not have taken the path that I did.”
The UF Genetics Institute inspired Califar to join because “the program is relatively young, and at the time I liked the idea of being a small part of building something new.” When he learned about the UF Space Plants Lab, he knew it would be a great place for him to explore his academic interests in spaceflight and sustainability, and to one day help him make it to space.
Califar’s award winning publication focuses on how spaceflight presents unique environmental conditions that terrestrial life has not experienced in its evolutionary history. The distinct challenges faced by plants in an extreme, microgravity environment require their genetic resources to be utilized in unconventional ways.
Operating in an essentially closed system, plant growth in space requires a multidisciplinary approach to study and close attention to the system as a whole.
“Alteration of any individual part has an effect upon the output of the system,” Califar explained, referencing his primary research goals of sustainability in spaceflight systems and the addition of a biological buffer in a precisely engineered environment. His research focuses on the spaceflight responses of Arabidopsis thaliana root skewing and development in presence of spaceflight stresses. He hopes to connect this to long term, larger scale research involving biological acclimation to microgravity environments.
Califar explained that “permacultural practices are focused on creating self-sustaining food production environments via agricultural engineering. As such, the lessons from the most basic and natural farming methods on Earth can be applied to make the biologically hostile environment of spaceflight more tolerable.”
In the future, Califar ultimately hopes to “serve our astronauts by aiming to replace as many mechanical systems as possible with self-repairing and self-propagating biological systems that can fulfill the same function.”