Published on 10/21/22

'I still bleed red and black': CAES and UF/IFAS academics cross over

By Maria M. Lameiras, Samantha G Murray
Stetson Bennett, UGA quarterback wearing the No. 13, faces off with a UF player during the UGA vs. UF football game in Jacksonville in October 2021. The stands in the background are full and a banner reads "Drive sober or get pulled over."
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) during a game against Florida at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida, on Oct. 30, 2021. While UGA and UF are rivals on the football field, graduates from each school contribute their talents to the other through their work. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles)

While the University of Georgia and the University of Florida are longtime rivals on the football field, both land-grant universities share a commitment to growing future leaders in agriculture and natural resources. In fact, there is a lot of “cross-pollination” between UGA and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) and the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

At CAES, 46 faculty members are UF graduates, while approximately 30 UGA grads work at UF/IFAS.

Coincidentally, former CAES Dean J. Scott Angle, who led the college from August 2005 to September 2015, joined UF as vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of UF/IFAS in July 2020, overlapping briefly with current CAES Dean Nick T. Place, who came to UGA in January 2021 after a nine-year tenure as director of the Florida Cooperative Extension Service at UF.

Gators to Bulldogs

Three influential faculty members at CAES who have made UF to UGA journeys are Peggy Ozias-Akins, UGA Distinguished Research Professor and D.W. Brooks Distinguished Professor in the Department of Horticulture; John Ruter, Allan M. Armitage Professor in the Department of Horticulture and director of the Trial Gardens at UGA; and George Vellidis, University Professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and director of academic programs at the UGA Tifton campus.

Ozias-Akins, Vellidis and Ruter each shared about their time at UF and how they came to UGA.

When did you attend UF, what did you study and when did you graduate?

Peggy Ozias-Akins
Peggy Ozias-Akins, UGA Distinguished Research Professor and D.W. Brooks Distinguished Professor in the Department of Horticulture

Ozias-Akins: I attended from 1975 to 1981, earning a Ph.D. in 1981. My research was conducted in a world-renowned tissue culture/biotechnology lab in the botany department. We worked with crop plants — pearl millet, wheat, maize — rather than model species.

Ruter: I attended from 1986 to 1989. I was in the Department of Environmental Horticulture. My research focused on heat stress physiology and biochemistry of plants. I graduated on Dec. 22, 1989, moved to Tifton on Dec. 27 and started work on Jan. 2, 1990.

Vellidis: I attended UF from 1985 to 1989, graduating with my Ph.D. in agricultural and biological engineering in 1989. I had a minor area of study in environmental engineering.

Why did you attend UF for your degree(s)?

Ozias-Akins: UF was known for its excellent botany department and the location was good for personal reasons. My advisor, Indra Vasil, was well known for his seminal work on cereal tissue culture and plant regeneration, a pre-requisite for genetic engineering.

Ruter: I attended UF for my Ph.D. Dewayne Ingram had a nationally recognized program on heat stress in plants, which I found quite interesting, and Florida had a large ornamental horticulture industry.

Vellidis: What I tell people is that I wanted to go somewhere warm after spending six cold winters in Blacksburg pursuing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Virginia Tech. But the real reason was that my advisor at UF, Allen Smajstrala, was one of the top people in the country working on drip irrigation systems, which is what I wanted to study.

What’s something you’ll always remember about your time at UF?

Ozias-Akins: I will always remember the multicultural environment of the lab where I did my research. My advisor was originally from India and students or postdocs in the lab hailed from China, Taiwan, Hungary, Chile, India and the U.S. among others. Potluck gatherings always were an interesting culinary experience.

John Ruter
John Ruter, Allan M. Armitage Professor in the Department of Horticulture and director of the Trial Gardens at UGA

Ruter: I’ll remember becoming a Christian, meeting a wonderful family who accepted me like a son, having good times with fellow graduate students, and playing church-league softball against Emmitt Smith. If he slapped a single to you in the outfield, you had to come up firing the ball to second base or he would turn it into a double!

Vellidis: I won’t forget finding medium-sized gators under my car many spring mornings. It’s quite a surprise when you back out of your parking spot! Explanation: During mating season, the large males chase off the younger ones who find refuge where they can (or so I was told…).

How did your time at UF prepare you for what you do now?

Ozias-Akins: The field of plant biotechnology was just emerging, and my research lab at UF was at the forefront. Having been well-trained in the field, I could extend my knowledge to crops of interest in Georgia, such as peanut.

Ruter: My major professor had a primary appointment in nursery crop extension, so I got to go on numerous extension visits and give presentations to growers. This gave me a good overview of problems and research opportunities. I also developed and taught a plant propagation lab course and wrote my first book, a laboratory manual for teaching plant propagation. My lab mate was Chris Martin who started the Urban Horticulture program at Arizona State University. We learned a great deal from each other.

Vellidis: For my first 20 years at UGA, my research had little to do with irrigation. But my Ph.D. at UF prepared me to apply my engineering skills to solve all types of research problems. My research has ranged from water quality to precision agriculture and now it’s come full circle back to irrigation.

What drew you to your current position at UGA?

Ozias-Akins: My current position at UGA allowed me to apply what I learned in graduate school and beyond to agricultural problems. It also brought me back to my hometown where I could contribute to higher education in the local community that nurtured my development.

George Vellidis
George Vellidis, University Professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and director of academic programs at the UGA Tifton campus

Ruter: What initially drew me to UGA was a brand-new position in Tifton and getting to build a nursery crop research program that had not existed before. In 2011, I accepted my current position as the Allan Armitage Endowed Professor of Horticulture. It was a good opportunity to work with the floriculture industry, be the director of the Trial Gardens at UGA, get involved with teaching and graduate students, and start an herbaceous plant breeding program. Maybe I should have taken Lyrene’s plant breeding course at UF?

Vellidis: I was lucky enough to be offered a job in my area of expertise at UGA’s Tifton campus before I completed my Ph.D. The people working here at the time were doing some very creative things with irrigation and chemigation. I never even thought about pursuing other options.

Who do you root for during football season?

Ozias-Akins: That is a good question. Since I am not a die-hard football fan and have other football “conflicts” (FSU – did my undergraduate; Clemson – my son’s alma mater), I usually just claim the winning team! 

Ruter: I married a Georgia peach – go Dawgs!

Vellidis: Usually I root for the team that has the most to gain from winning the game between UGA and UF, but I root for both teams throughout the season. I must admit that the Spurrier years, which took place shortly after I graduated from UF, were a fun time to be a UF fan working for UGA.

Bulldogs to Gators

Three Bulldogs who earned degrees at UGA before going south to take on leadership positions at UF/IFAS include Dean Kopsell, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Horticulture; Jeanna Mastrodicasa, senior associate vice president agriculture and natural resources; and Matthew Whiles, professor and chair of the Department of Soil, Water and Ecosystem Sciences.

Kopsell, Mastrodicasa and Whiles reflected on how their experiences at UGA shaped them and set them on a path to UF.

When did you attend UGA, what did you study and when did you graduate?

Dean Kopsell
Dean Kopsell, professor and chair of the UF Department of Environmental Horticulture

Kopsell: I attended UGA from August 1993 to December 1999 as a graduate student in the horticulture department. I received my master’s degree in horticulture in December 1995 and a Ph.D. in horticulture in December 1999.

Mastrodicasa: I attended UGA from 1988 to 1992, earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations with a minor in political science in 1992. I also attended the UGA School of Law and earned a J.D. in 1995.

Whiles: I was at UGA from 1987 to 1995 for my master’s degree in entomology and Ph.D. in ecology. I focused on the ecosystem ecology of human disturbed streams in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Why did you attend UGA for your degree(s)?

Kopsell: I applied to graduate school at UGA on a recommendation from Peggy Balbach, my horticulture professor at Illinois State University. She was close friends with Mike Dirr, a famous ornamental plant identification professor at UGA. She told me, “with a guy like Mike Dirr on the faculty, UGA must be a great school.” I had grown up in the ornamental horticulture industry in Illinois. My dad worked at, and eventually purchased, a nursery specializing in trees and shrubs, so I knew all too well the great reputation Dirr had in horticulture. As it turned out, I accepted a graduate assistantship in vegetable crop physiology, not ornamental horticulture. I had the goal of one day becoming a professor. I had plenty of ornamental experience, so I thought branching out to vegetable crops would give me a solid horticulture background. I began my graduate studies in the onion flavor physiology lab led by Bill Randle. My graduate work focused on plant nutrition and plant breeding of allium (onions) and brassica (cabbage) crops.

Mastrodicasa: I grew up in western Massachusetts, and my parents still live there. My grandparents moved to Georgia when I was about 10, so I spent several summers in the Atlanta suburbs and on Lake Hartwell as a teenager. They were about an hour away from Athens, so I spent many breaks at their house for Thanksgiving, weekends, etc. My grandparents actually moved me into my first dormitory of Creswell Hall, which did not have air conditioning. I chose Georgia for its excellent Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication because I wanted to be a magazine journalism major and they had that option. Also, my grandparents provided a local resource for family.

Whiles: UGA's was one of the best ecology programs in the country at the time, and as a senior at Kansas State University, I was working for a postdoctoral associate who had a doctorate in ecology from UGA and he introduced me to the program. I was lucky to get in!

Jeanna Mastrodicasa
Jeanna Mastrodicasa, senior associate vice president agriculture and natural resources at UF

What’s something you’ll always remember about your time at UGA?

Kopsell: As I get older, I have come to appreciate that it is the people, not the places, in life that you remember most. I remember my fellow graduate students and how we supported each other in our research. I remember the tremendous support from the professors and the departmental staff. But the thing I remember most about my time at UGA was meeting my future wife (1997 horticulture graduate Jennifer Turner Kopsell). We got married three months before I graduated with my doctorate.

Mastrodicasa: I will remember hanging around the Office of Judicial Programs daily as an undergraduate student leader. Being heavily involved in many student organizations and honorary groups like Defender/Advocate Society, Campus Girl Scouts, Palladia and more. The restaurant and bar scene in downtown Athens. Fraternity parties. Getting rides from Your Cab home. Working as a Guthrie’s girl at the counter and drive-through selling chicken tender boxes. Working at the UGA Law Library the last two years. Reading the weekly Flagpole magazine. Riding the campus bus system. Attending seven years of home football games (minus one — only terrible people get married on a home football weekend!).

Whiles: I will never forget the incredible live music scene and nightlife. The amazing camaraderie among the students, staff and faculty members in the ecology program — it was like being part of a big family with common interests and goals.

How did your time at UGA prepare you for what you do now? What drew you to your current position at UF?

Kopsell: My time at UGA was great preparation for my academic positions. Lab, greenhouse and field projects prepared me for a future as an academic researcher. I also took advantage of opportunities to guest lecture in classes for professors in the department. Those early experiences in the classroom gave me a passion for teaching. Graduate school also teaches valuable networking skills. You cannot do everything on your own, so you must find experts to help you with your projects. In a way, those early experiences at UGA helped to shape me into a researcher, teacher and administrator by providing me with experiences I could build on as my career has progressed. When I was attending UGA, I learned of the size and breadth of horticulture in the state of Florida. Many of my classmates took jobs within IFAS after graduation. The one thing that attracted me to my current role at UF was the opportunity to work at a world-class institute of agriculture and in a state with one of the biggest horticultural industries.

Matt Whiles
Matt Whiles, professor and chair of the UF Department of Soil, Water and Ecosystem Sciences

Mastrodicasa: While I didn’t realize I would end up as a college administrator — I thought I would end up as a lobbyist! — the combination of classes in public relations, political science and law prepared me for managing crises, solving problems and understanding bureaucratic processes. I also did an internship as a senior with the Georgia General Assembly, the state legislature in Atlanta, in 1992; it really confirmed my passion for government and the political process. I helped work on a campaign for a state senator who successfully ran for Congress in 1992 (and got crushed in his reelection in 1994).

Whiles: My time at UGA convinced me I wanted to be an academic and prepared me appropriately.

Who do you root for during football season?

Kopsell: Since my days as a Georgia Bulldog, I have worked at the University of New Hampshire (the Wildcats), the University of Tennessee (the Volunteers), and the University of Florida (the Gators). My football Saturdays are now spent watching three teams in the SEC. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at each of my previous universities. But come football season, I still bleed red and black. Go Dawgs!

Mastrodicasa: Georgia, of course! I went to four Georgia games last year — the season opener against Clemson in Charlotte, North Carolina; a home game in Athens, Georgia; the Orange Bowl game in Miami, Florida; and the national championship in Indianapolis, Indiana! I always catch up with my old college friends at games, who are connected to a fraternity in Athens. Go Dawgs!

Whiles: Nebraska — where my family is from — and UF.

Maria M. Lameiras is a managing editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Samantha Murray is a public relations specialist at University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Communications.