A Teacher Remembered

Dr. Christian Thill's legacy in the potato industry

Published in the April 2015 Issue Published online: Apr 30, 2015 Lila Westreich
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During the summer of 2014, I interned in a potato breeding program with the late Dr. Christian Thill of the University of Minnesota. Dr. Thill supplied me my own germplasm to study through planting, observation and the harvesting of leaf samples for virus detection. My goal was to better understand which clones in the germplasm were genotypic carriers for potato virus Y and whether they displayed the phenotype for the disease or carried PVY silently across generations of clones. This was work that had been started by Dr. Thill’s previous graduate students and had continued throughout the years when he had time to devote to the germplasm or interns to put in the hours. The clones that were carriers without phenotypic evidence would be the most dangerous to the future of Dr. Thill’s experiments in virus resistance, undercover predators able to wipe out entire fields of a crop.

It was late May when we planted my clones, and the temperature was supposed to reach the upper 80s. Dr. Thill’s assistant Spencer and I sat on the planter while Dr. Thill drove, hollering when we misplaced clones or dropped too few pieces down the planter’s openings. By the end of the day, I was drenched in sweat, sunburned and more tired than I’d felt in years, but Dr. Thill was smiling. He joked and laughed the whole way home. When he dropped me off back at the campus, we unloaded the truck and he shook my hand, congratulating me on a job well done. All of our plantings and observations together ended this way, with a jovial laugh from Dr. Thill and a congratulatory handshake. It made the long, hard days worth the effort, and Dr. Thill’s love for his work easily rubbed off on those around him.

During a local potato field day in southeastern Minnesota, I was recruited to help Dr. Thill and Spencer. We left at 6:00 in the morning and drove to fields across local counties to pull samples of each of Dr. Thill’s potatoes. The last field we stopped at was in Rosemount, where Dr. Thill had his most famous potato cultivar, MonDak Gold, stretching out in mile-long fields of bushy purple flowers. We stopped to take a few pictures of Dr. Thill and his clones with University of Minnesota photographer David Hansen. After snapping a few photos of Dr. Thill, potatoes in hand and a wide grin spread across his face, the photographer motioned for me to join him.

We laughed as he asked Dr. Thill to pretend that he was teaching me something about the flowers. Dr. Thill reiterated lessons about emasculation of anthers we had performed in classes the previous semester. When he ran out of lessons about the flowers, he began to talk about the rest of the field. The photographer eventually had to interrupt us to announce that he had enough photos, and Dr. Thill promised to continue the lessons later. We arrived back on campus in the dark after 14 hours in the field. Dr. Thill got out of the truck, smiled, shook my hand and handed me a hat he had grabbed from the field day display.

Dr. Thill had a habit of disappearing during plantings, taking the truck with him and reappearing an hour later, soaking wet. Spencer told me that he would go to local ditch ponds or nearby lakes and jump in, swimming for a while to cool off from his work in the field. He was known to wear his swim trunks underneath his shorts to make it easier to jump in at a moment’s notice. It was a part of the field days that he loved, as much as standing in a field after a day’s work and looking out at the skyline. On a long drive one day, he confessed to me that he had tried lab work, but had hated it. He said that he couldn’t go more than a few days without being able to see the wide open Minnesota skies.

As summer wound down, my time with Dr. Thill decreased. He continued his work traveling the state to visit his plantings and working to secure the release of his MonDak Golds. I worked independently, thanks to Dr. Thill’s lessons, making observations on our clones and collecting tissue samples to study in the lab. We’d just set up one final meeting to go over my results in August, when I got the call that he had passed away suddenly.

I realized a few weeks later that I not only missed Christian as a friend, but as my teacher. There were so many questions I still had to ask him—about our experiment, the future of his program and the outcome of our results. When he died, he left a hole in the hearts of friends and family, as well as a missing piece of the puzzle in the future of my germplasm studies.

After a few weeks, I decided to continue my experiments. My hope was that I could still learn from Dr. Thill, even after he was gone. Sure enough, after multiple runs of our initial lab experiments and many failed trials, I was able to produce positive virus detection results in many of our clones. His lab director, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, was able to give me historical data that Christian had prepared for me prior to his death, which I matched to my findings. Christian’s clones had retained their virus resistance from the previous year, and there were traces of viral proteins in plants that displayed no viral symptoms. These were the plants Dr. Thill had been interested in, as they posed the greatest threat to the industry as silent viral threats. The clones that retained their viral resistance were equally important, having held their resistance to viruses for almost 10 years of germplasm study. These were Dr. Thill’s special potatoes, with the potential for breeding beyond the realm of diseases.

Dr. Thill taught me many things. Some were about potatoes, about field research and lab work, and about putting in hard work to reach a great outcome. He taught me about the importance of breeding programs and the great things they can do for world hunger. Dr. Thill taught me about passion, hard work and doing everything for the greater good—something I believe is not common to classroom learning—and his ability to reach beyond the classroom to impact his students will continue to inspire me for the rest of my career.

“Christian marched to his own drum. He was creative. He was exuberant. He loved potatoes and the potato growers and the industry. He didn't always follow conventional potato breeding program paths, but instead thought out of the box, often borrowing techniques from other crops. Christian was particularly gifted at germplasm enhancement efforts. He was a great teacher and mentor to many graduate students. He really took every opportunity to teach, whether in the field or lab, or over a tailgate of a pickup truck. He worked hard, played hard, and was always smiling and standing up for colleagues.”

—Susie Thompson, associatepProfessor of potato dreeding, North Dakota State University

“One of the many things I remember about Christian was his very firm handshake as he would look into your eyes, with a twinkle in his eye, and greet you. He always had a smile and a positive attitude and was very eager to discuss the latest news of the potato world. He was a brilliant man who was always willing to share.”

Chuck Gunnerson, president of Northern Plains Potato Growers Association

“Christian was truly interested in our ideas. He encouraged us to follow through with our creative ventures and passions, whether they were a research paper or a million-dollar business proposal. He was also very dedicated to our education. I remember more than one evening where he stayed on campus with a group of us students until 10 p.m. the evenings before a genetics exam.”

            —Jenny Heck, University of Minnesota student