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MSU AgBioResearch does “fundamental research with an intended outcome”

Russ White MSU Today
Doug Buhler, Kirk Heinze

AgBioResearch is the overarching organization within Michigan State University that has responsibility for most of the food, agriculture, and natural resources research within the university,” Doug Buhler, assistant vice president of research and innovation at Michigan State University and director of MSU AgBioResearch, tells Kirk Heinze in a wide ranging conversation focusing on some of the rigorous, timely, and impactful research underway at MSU. 

“We're a little bit of a behind the scenes organization because we're really not what you would consider an academic unit. We're a mission-driven, research organization, and we invest wherever we need to in the university to meet our mission. We currently have affiliations with about 350 faculty at Michigan State University across eight different colleges. The largest being agriculture and natural resources.”

Buhler talks about the new breed of researchers at MSU.

“We do fundamental research with an intended outcome. And so what we're looking for and we believe we've been able to hire are young people who come in here with the latest and best scientific skills. They come here and they apply them to real problems and real opportunities because that's what we do here. We don't do research for research sake like you might do at MIT or Harvard. Everything we do has to have an intended outcome to solve a problem or create an opportunity. It seems like there's a great deal of interest among this current generation of scientists to do those types of things.

“If you like to work in groups and do multidisciplinary research, there are few places in the country that are a better place to be than Michigan State University. We work really hard to keep the boundaries low so that if anybody wants to work together and they have the energy to do it, we just try to get out of their way and help them get it done.”

Buhler provides updates on initiatives examining chronic wasting disease, PFAS, and the spotted wing drosophila situation.

“It’s a fly that infests soft fruits, particularly in Michigan cherries, blueberries, and raspberries. This has been something that we've been working on for a number of years, and it's been a real struggle. It's a very, very difficult insect to control and it impacts fruit crops, which already have a very low tolerance for any type of injury or infestation.”

And on climate change?

“The climate issue and dealing with weather and weird weather in some ways is nothing new in agriculture. I mean, it's been that way forever. The weather is the weather. It is very extreme, but we have to address these issues. We now have what we call the Plant Resilience Institute specifically to address in Michigan and globally how we make plants more resilient regardless of the reason for the extreme weather and climate issues.”

Buhler talks about how MSU is working to improve food literacy through more active listening. And he describes the importance of managing our precious water resources and continuing to develop renewable, clean energy.

“I do believe that the work we do is very important, and working at this interface of fundamental science and application is something that I think is really important. It allows us to address issues in a timely fashion. A lot of the work we do is high risk. It takes time, but if you look back at some of the things that we're enjoying now, they seemed fairly obscure 25 years ago. The things that are going on in the lab now are going to produce some things that we haven't even imagined yet, and I think that's something that we really need to think about. So for us, it's the balance of solving the current problems - spotted wing drosophila, chronic wasting disease - but also investing in fundamental research that's going to create the things that we haven't even thought about yet.”

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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