Opening Plenary Lecture: “Indulging in Healthier Diets”

Senior Director of Agricultural Strategy leading Strategic Food Sourcing, Walmart Inc.

Victor Verlage is currently Senior Director of Agricultural Strategy leading Strategic Food Sourcing at Walmart Inc. In 2014 Victor relocated to Bentonville, Arkansas to spearhead the development of next generation produce and is responsible to secure long term food supply for Walmart’s growth demand plans while delivering enhanced freshness and flavor in produce to delight Walmart’s global customers. Victor joined Walmart Global Food Sourcing in 2010 to redesign the supply chain of fresh fruits and vegetables from Mexico to Walmart US and other global divisions of Walmart and to install direct sourcing in partnership with key agricultural growers from that region. From 2000 to 2010, Victor worked with Nature Sweet Tomatoes in operations and as Vice President of Business Development was involved in launching branded flavorful snacking tomatoes. Victor started his professional career in 1986 in a family farm in Tampico, Mexico and for fourteen years operated as an export grower shipping various produce crops to the US market.

Victor holds a BS in Agronomy and a MS in Horticulture from Texas A&M University.



Genetic Resources

Chairperson: Harry Paris

Thomas Andres
Honorary Research Associate, The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY; Visiting Scientist, Cornell University Long Island Horticultural Research & Extension Center

TALK TITLE: “Diversity of lesser known cultivated Cucurbita from Latin America: Landraces to locally grown cultivars
Thomas Andres studied the taxonomy of the Texas gourd (Cucurbita pepo ssp. texana) under Hugh Wilson at Texas A&M University and did research on Cucurbita ficifolia with Richard W. Robinson at Cornell University. Presently, Thomas is an Honorary Research Associate at The New York Botanical Garden and a visiting scientist at Cornell University Long Island Horticultural Research & Extension Center. He has conducted field investigations on cucurbits in six countries in South America, Panama, and Mexico, and presented talks or posters on cucurbits in Pasto, Colombia; Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador; and Trujillo, Peru. In addition, he is an avid photographer.

Kaori Ando
Research Geneticist (Postdoctoral Researcher), Crop Improvement and Protection Research, USDA-ARS

TALK TITLE: “Where in the new melon classification schemes does Cucumis melo ssp. agrestis var. texanus belong?
Kaori Ando is a Research Geneticist (Postdoctoral Researcher) at the USDA-ARS Crop Improvement and Protection Research Unit in Salinas, CA. She earned a B.S. degree in Horticulture and Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Genetics-Horticulture from Michigan State University. Her Ph.D. dissertation research elucidated the underlying mechanism of age-related resistance reaction of cucumber to Phytophthora capsici. She has also worked on research to introgress stem rust resistance into wheat from a wild relative of wheat as a part of Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat Project that was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at Washington State University. She was a recipient of Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum Early Career Award. Currently, she is characterizing the U.S. melon collection as well as developing diagnostic markers for disease resistance traits via QTL and GWAS.

Production and Quality

Chairperson: Johnathan Schultheis

Richard Hassell
Assistant Station Director, Professor-Vegetable Physiology, Vegetable Extension Specialist, Coastal Research & Education Center, Clemson University

TALK TITLE: “Challenges and opportunities using grafted cucurbit plants
Richard Hassell is the Assistant Director of the Clemson University Coastal Research and Education Center and Professor in the Plant and Environmental Sciences Department located in Charleston South Carolina. Currently he is the Extension Vegetable Specialist for South Carolina with his research focus on grafting of cucurbits which focus on making grafting affordable for the US Vegetable grower. For the last 10 years he has been a co-project director of two funded USDA Specialty Crops Grants dealing with grafting of vegetable plants with the current grant “Growing new roots: Grafting to enhance resiliency in U.S. vegetable industries” where he serves as director or the cucurbit grafting team. Along with publishing a number of research papers on cucurbit grafting, in January of 2014 Richard received a United States Patent “Methods and Compositions for the Inhibition of Meristematic Growth of Cucurbit Rootstock” and in 2018 (as a co-inventor) applied for a PVP on the first ever US rootstock “Carolina Strongback” (developed by the USDA-ARS, Charleston South Carolina). He has made trips to South Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, Israel and Australia learning as well as sharing ideas on way of improving cucurbit grafting. Richard’s current research is concentration on developing a method of producing consistent rootstock and scion plant material in a controlled environment to product reliable grafted plants.

Pratibha Acharya
Graduate Student Researcher, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center, Texas A&M University

TALK TITLE: “Green nanotechnology: An effective approach for watermelon growth while maintaining quality
Pratibha Acharya is a PhD student in the Department of Horticultural science at Texas A&M University. After completion of her B.S and M.S in Horticulture at Tribhuvan University in Nepal, she worked in a participatory plant breeding project with a NGO in Nepal and as a Research Assistant in a horticultural plant pathology lab at the University of Minnesota. In 2015, she began a PhD program working with Dr. Bhimu Patil in Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center in the Department of Horticulture at Texas A&M University. Her research focuses on the application of nanotechnology to agriculture, specifically looking at the effects of nanoparticles on growth and quality parameters in watermelon and onion.

Floral & Fruit Development

Chairperson: Li Li

Amit Gur
Researcher, Newe Ya’ar research Center, ARO, Isreal

TALK TITLE: “Genetic characterization of a key regulator of pigment accumulation in melon and watermelon
Amit Gur earned his Ph.D in Genetics and Plant Breeding from the Hebrew University (2004), where he worked with Prof. Dani Zamir on tomato genetics. He then occupied a post-doctoral position at Cornell University studying corn genetics (2005-2007). From 2008 to 2015, he held a geneticist position at Monsanto vegetable division in Israel. Since 2015 he is a researcher at the Agricultural Research Organization (ARO) and located at the northern center at Newe-Yaar, where he is a part of the cucurbits research unit. His group is working on genetics of yield and fruit quality traits in melon, watermelon and squash.

Christopher Hernandez
Graduate Student Researcher, Plant Breeding and Genetics Section, School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University

TALK TITLE: “Understanding and predicting fruit quality in winter squash
Christopher Hernandez is a PhD candidate with Prof. Michael Mazourek in the Section of Plant Breeding and Genetics, School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University. His thesis work is centered on the application of genomics towards understanding and improving fruit quality traits in winter squash. Current work includes the application of genomic recurrent selection to improve fruit traits in a squash breeding population and the use of gene expression profiling coupled with metabolite analysis to better understand the genetic basis of squash fruit metabolism.

Biotic Stress

Chairperson: William Wintermantel

Nathalie Boissot
Génétique et Amélioration des Fruits et Légumes, INRA, Montfavet, France

[/su_frame]TALK TITLE: “Aphid triggered immunity in melon: key determinants for durable resistance to virus and aphids
Nathalie Boissot has been working in Avignon (France) at the INRA Unit for Genetics and Breeding of fruit and vegetables (GAFL) since 2002. She earned her PhD degree in Plant Sciences in 1990 from the South Paris University where she studied in vitro plant regeneration in rice. Then, she undertook a post-doctoral year in breeding rice for resistance to blast at the International Rice Research institute in the Philippines. When she joined INRA in 1992, she switched to working on vegetable crops, specializing in resistance to insects. For several years she worked overseas in La Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and Guadeloupe Island in the French West Indies, both islands that offer an excellent ‘playing field’ to investigate efficiency of plant resistance in different agro-ecological environments. At that time she specialized in resistance to Hemipterans and their transmitted viruses. When she joined GAFL, she became part of the team working on plant resistance durability and focused on the trio Melon/Aphis gossypii/viruses, taking advantage of fruitful research initiated by Michel Pitrat and Hervé Lecoq. She aims to understand plant resistance, from genetic architecture to effects in the field, bringing together entomologists, virologists, geneticists and modelling to investigate key determinants of plant resistance durability.

Gabriel Rennberger
Clemson University, Charleston, SC

TALK TITLE: “Diversity and pathogenicity on watermelon of six new fungal species in the family Stachybotriaceae
Gabriel Rennberger grew up on a farm in Lower Bavaria, Germany, where his family grows wheat, corn, sugar beets and pickling cucumbers. Gabriel received a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Science from the Technical University of Munich in 2012. Due to his background in cucumber production he conducted fungicide trials for the control of gummy stem blight in cucumbers for his bachelor’s thesis. He continued at the Technical University of Munich with a Master of Science in Agricultural Science with a focus on Plant Sciences. During his master’s Gabriel spent an exchange semester at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín, Columbia, where he completed courses in plant sciences. For his master’s thesis he worked on differential susceptibility of cucurbits to gummy stem blight. Gabriel graduated in 2015 and started a doctoral program with Dr. Anthony P. Keinath at Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center in Charleston, South Carolina. During his Ph.D. he has mainly worked on foliar fungal diseases of cucurbits, especially gummy stem blight, powdery mildew and Myrothecium leaf blight. He received the Thomas Heyward Jr. Fellowship from the South Carolina Agricultural Society and in June 2018 an APS Foundation Student Travel Award. Gabriel will graduate with his Ph.D. in Plant and Environmental Sciences in December 2018.


Chairperson: Shan Wu and Zhangjun Fei

Rebecca Grumet
Professor, Department of Horticulture, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Michigan State University

TALK TITLE: “The CucCAP project: Genomic tools and resources to facilitate breeding for disease resistance in cucurbits
Rebecca Grumet is a Professor in the Department of Horticulture and the Graduate Program in Plant Breeding, Genetics and Biotechnology. She is a W.H. Beal Outstanding Faculty at Michigan State University and a Fellow of the American Society for Horticultural Science. Her research deals with vegetable genetics and genomics, with a primary emphasis on cucurbit flower and fruit development and disease resistance. She is currently the lead PI, along with 20 co-PIs, for the USDA-SCRI CucCAP project: CucCAP: Leveraging applied genomics to increase disease resistance in cucurbit crops ( also has performed research, teaching and outreach in the area of biotechnology biosafety working both nationally and internationally through USDA-, USAID-, and Bill and Melinda Gate’s Foundation-funded projects regarding risk assessment for transgenic crops. R. Grumet has authored or co-authored more than 100 papers, was the lead editor for a book published in 2011 on ‘Environmental Safety of Genetically Engineered Crops’, and in 2017 for ‘Genetics and Genomics of Cucurbitaceae’ along with J. Garcia-Mas and N. Katzir. R. Grumet has a B.S. degree from Cornell University, M.S. and Ph.D. from Michigan State University, and was the recipient of a North Carolina Biotechnology Postdoctoral Fellowship in Plant Molecular Biology at Duke University.

Shan Wu
Post-Doctoral Researcher, Boyce Thompson Institute, School of Integrative Plant Science, Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section, Cornell University

TALK TITLE: “Pan-genomes of the Citrullus species
Shan Wu obtained her bachelors degree in Horticulture from China Agricultural University (China) in 2007, and her PhD in 2015 from the Ohio State University, where she studied tomato fruit development in the van der Knaap lab, before she joined the Fei lab at the Boyce Thompson Institute as a postdoc researcher (2015-now) to develop genomic resources that facilitate crop improvement. She has contributed to generating high-quality reference genomes for important crops, including sweetpotato, pumpkin and bottle gourd, which are being used to accelerate the process of breeding. She is also interested in investigating genomes to improve our understanding of the evolution and domestication of crop species.

Breeding and Genetics

Chairperson: Amnon Levi

Yong Xu
Research Professor and Director, National Engineering Research Center for Vegetables, Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences, Key Laboratory of Biology and Genetic Improvement of Horticultural Crops (North China), Beijing, China

TALK TITLE: “Watermelon whole genome and variation
Yong Xu is a Research Professor and Director at the National Engineering Research Center for Vegetables (NERCV), Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences (BAAFS),China since 2004. He is a Lecturer of Horticulture at China Agricultural University since 1989. He earned his M.S. (1989) from China Agricultural University and Ph.D. (1999) degrees in Zhejiang University, China. He joined NERCV, Beijing in 1994, as an assistant scientist, to take over a watermelon breeding PI position. He then, served as the head of NERCV since 2004. He led and coordinated the “International Watermelon Genome Initiative (IWGI)”, funded by the China Science and Technology Department (2010-2015) and included more than 40 scientists from China, USA, France and Israel and published the first draft genome of watermelon in Nature Genetics in 2012. He is a member of academic board of China Agricultural Academy since 2016 and is the chief scientist of Watermelon and Melon Industry, China Agricultural Research System (CARS) since 2011. He is also serving as the chair of Vegetable Subcommittee, China National Seed Association (Vegseed-CNSA) since 2014. He received the awards “Beijing Scholar” from the Beijing government in 2015 and entered “Ten thousand people plan” of China government. His research spans over diverse areas of cucurbit genetics and breeding, with a strong emphasis on genomics, molecular marker-assisted selection and gene editing, to improve watermelon and melon resistance and quality. He has over 100 peer-reviewed publications. His current interests are on the genetic and molecular mechanisms regulating the watermelon fruit quality development and evolution.

Sandra Branham
Post-Doctoral Research Geneticist, U.S. Vegetable Laboratory, USDA-ARS

TALK TITLE: “Genomics-enabled genetic mapping and marker development of disease resistance loci in melon and watermelon
Sandra Branham is a postdoctoral research geneticist with the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory (USDA, Agricultural Research Service) in Charleston, SC. She earned her Ph.D. (2013) in Plant Genetics from the University of Texas at Austin where her dissertation research focused on determining the genes underlying quantitative trait variation in seed oil composition and melting point in Arabidopsis thaliana through genome-wide association mapping. Her research focus is to use genomics and bioinformatics as tools to facilitate the improvement of vegetable crops through breeding. She has worked with multiple ARS scientists on diverse agricultural problems to understand the genetic basis of heat tolerance in broccoli and resistance to multiple diseases in watermelon, cantaloupe, and brassica leafy greens.

Breeding for Resistance

Chairperson: Todd Wehner

Xingfang Gu
Research Professor, Institute of Vegetables and Flowers, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Beijing, China

TALK TITLE: “Advances in molecular breeding for disease resistance in cucumber
Xingfang Gu is Research Professor and Team Leader for the genetics and breeding of cucurbits at the Institute of Vegetables and Flowers, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Beijing, China. Professor Gu received a B. Sc. Degree, majoring in vegetable , from Nanjing Agricultural University, Jiangsu province, China. in 1985. Since 1988, she has been working on cucumber genetics and breeding, and was instrumental in the development of the Cucumber Genome Initiative (CuGI) in 2007. Professor Gu was accepted as a post-graduate student at the University of Adelaide, Australia, where she obtained an M. Sc. degree in agricultural biotechnology in 1998. Her thesis involved techniques of tissue culture and genetic transformation. Her career in research spans germplasm collection and evaluation, molecular marker-assisted selection, gene mapping and editing, haploid techniques, and breeding for resistance and quality. She has over 150 publications and has released over 30 cucumber cultivars which are cultivated in more than 700,000 hectares throughout China.

Luis Rivera-Burgos
Research Associate, Cucurbit Breeding program, NCSU

TALK TITLE: “Improving gummy stem blight resistance and fruit quality in watermelon germplasm
Luis Rivera-Burgos is a Plant Breeder currently working as Research Associate at the Cucurbit Breeding program in NCSU. Luis obtained his B.S. in Agronomy and M.Sc. in Plant Breeding and Genetics in Peru. After working as a Research Assistant at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima – Peru, he attended Purdue University for his Ph.D. also in Plant Breeding and Genetics. Besides training and mentoring students, he enjoys a multicultural and interdisciplinary environment of retroactive exchange of knowledge with other researchers. His interests include applied plant breeding for cultivar development, breeding for disease resistance, statistical genetics, molecular breeding, QTL mapping, GWAS, and MAS.