Thomas Molnar's breeding vision

Thomas Molnar's breeding vision

The Rutgers University professor and plant breeder shares the path that led to his current work with hazelnut and dogwood trees.

November 30, 2017
Susan Martin
New Varieties Plants

Like many in his generation, the first priority of Thomas Molnar, associate professor and plant breeder at Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, is to make a positive impact on society with his work. Molnar’s vision of tree-lined streets and parks planted with highly nutritious, nut producing trees remains at the core of his breeding program today, though it had a much different beginning.

As a young college student with a passion for genetics and applied research, Molnar discovered plant science through an introductory plant biology course and subsequently secured a job in a plant research lab at Rutgers working under the direction of Reed Funk during the summer after his freshman year.

Funk was a highly successful plant breeder and one of the first to develop cool-season turf grass varieties. By the time Molnar met him, he had built the Rutgers turf grass breeding program into one of the largest in the world. Soon after Molnar began working under Funk, he began a new breeding program for underutilized nut trees for food production. He needed a young plant breeder like Molnar to take over his turf grass program, and Molnar eagerly obliged.

“[Dr. Funk] really had a serious impact on me in many ways and of course he shaped my future career path. I quickly learned that plant breeding was the perfect field for me—I was absolutely fascinated by it and really loved the idea of being a breeder someday. Breeding is a great job for people who love all aspects of science and the points where they intersect: genetics, pathology, botany, taxonomy, entomology, soils, climate, statistics, chemistry and molecular biology,” Molnar says.

From turf to trees

After a few years of breeding turf grasses, Molnar shifted his efforts entirely to breeding trees, under the direction of Funk. The 18-year-old student worked six to seven days a week to keep up with his 70-year-old cohort who never seemed to tire of breeding trees.

Funk introduced Molnar to an ornamental tree breeder at Rutgers named Elwin Orton. Molnar could not have imagined a better pair of mentors. He truly was in the right place at the right time to launch his own career in plant breeding.

“I realized the amazing things Dr. Orton had accomplished during his career, and how hard he worked to get where he was. For example, his notebooks, which we still have in the lab today, are some of the most meticulous and detailed hand-written notes that I have ever seen, and they represent thousands of hours of work and immeasurable dedication,” Molnar says.

Once it was decided that Molnar would take on Orton’s work after he retired, Orton began to share his most carefully guarded secrets he had developed through decades of meticulous ornamental tree breeding work. Details on how he made his crosses, stored pollen, best plants to use in crosses and more, were all recorded in his notebooks. Molnar became one of Orton’s few trusted confidants while also continuing his work on nut trees, which had been started by Funk, his other mentor.

“The exposure to both Dr. Funk and Dr. Orton’s approaches to breeding very strongly shaped the plant breeder I am today. Both accomplished their goals in different ways, but both were very successful. One thing they had in common was both spent nearly all of their time out in the field or greenhouse with their plants. They were not inside working in the lab or on the computer writing grant proposals and research papers. They both had this amazing eye to spot minute differences in plants and to separate the genetic from the environmental effect on plant phenotypes,” he says.

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Photos by Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University