Brandon Califar - 2020 Berns Award Winner -

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.

Jordan Callaham (left), Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul, Dr. Robert J. Ferl, and Brandon Califar from the UF Space Plants Lab visit the recovery of the Blue Origin's NS-13 capsule in October, 2020.

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.

Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul (left), Dr. Robert J. Ferl, Jordan Callaham, and Brandon Califar visiting the sand dunes near the capsule recovery site. Califar noted that plant survival in extreme environments like this and science fiction such as Dune by Frank Herbert inspired him to pursue a scientific career.

Dr. Paul and Dr. Ferl have fostered Califar’s growth in the UF Space Plants Lab for the past three years and have been impressed, calling him a capable, skilled scientist.

“[Califar] does an outstanding job of bringing the power of genetics and the technology of genomics to an area of science that demands competent planning and exquisite attention to experiment detail,” they stated.

Something Califar appreciates about the Space Plants Lab is how his academic growth has been fostered during his time there.

“Plants and people are quite similar,” he said. “When you challenge a plant, you can get great results. Much like when you challenge a person!”

Califar was also involved with an experiment aboard the the Blue Origin NS-10 capsule, seen here being recovered January, 2019, in Texas.

Califar’s impressive technical expertise and intellectual approaches to his research were commended by his mentors. They explained that he participated in every aspect of the publication and is a competent scientist in his own right.

“[His] paper stands out as it uses genomics to muscle out details of the spaceflight adaptation process, as well as genetic mutants to dissect that process to provide underlying biological explanations… He is the first author in every respect.”

His mentors stated that his research pursuits are exactly what the Genetics and Genomics Program should inspire.

Califar said he appreciates how supportive the lab has been for him while still allowing him to be creative. “Scientific independence is the goal for any scientist,” he said, but in the Space Plants Lab, “if you want help, it is there. Always.”

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.”

Upon graduation, Califar plans to continue using his creativity and collaborative skills to work towards his ultimate goal of becoming a spaceflight mission specialist.

“It would be fun and challenging to work alongside people from other scientific disciplines on projects that no one discipline could complete alone.”

The interdisciplinary and collaborative work that the G&G Program inspires has been one of the most rewarding parts of Califar’s time at UF. He wishes to thank all of his mentors and his fellow students for their part in helping him grow as a scientist and as a person.

“It’s often been the case that seeing the work of other students in the program has brought me out of the figurative and literal forests of Arabidopsis to gain a wider perspective and the experiences I’ve had here are irreplaceable. It’s my hope that I have been able to give back as much as I’ve received from the community here, the way that I originally intended to when I decided to come to UF… It’s been a strange journey, but I now feel that it’s a part of what I’m meant to do,” Califar said. “I’ll keep moving towards my dreams in the ways that I’m able.” ∎

Photos courtesy of Maddie Haggbloom and Brandon Califar.