From Uncertainty to Blossoming: Gabi Blair's Journey in Horticulture

From Uncertainty to Blossoming: Gabi Blair's Journey in Horticulture

The pathway to a meaningful career isn’t always linear. But at Seed Your Future, our mission is to support individuals throughout their career journey, ensuring they have the resources to pursue fulfilling jobs working with plants.

We recently sat down with Gabi Blair, Assistant Scientist at Star Roses and Plants, to learn more about her role and how she got there. Let’s dive into her Horticulture STEM Career.

Q: Give me a brief history of what led you to a green career. A: Originally, I started college not really sure what I wanted to do, and I thought I wanted to pursue a career path in addiction studies to help counsel addiction. As I was going through that program, I realized it wasn’t a good fit, so I explored other avenues and classes that colleges could offer, and I got interested in biology. Then I discovered there's a difference between biology and horticulture and had to decide which I wanted to study. Even though I figured out I wanted to study horticulture earlier on in college, figuring out what I wanted to do with horticulture was a very long process.

Q: How did you figure out what you wanted to do with horticulture? A: I did a lot of internships to try and figure that out, because that was a question – what do I want to focus on and do in my future and career; what did I have a passion for? A lot of what horticulture focuses on is production. It takes a very long time for a product to come out of research, but that's what I wanted to do. People within my internships gave me advice, saying that if I wanted to get into the science sector of horticulture, I would have to get a Ph.D. or become a teacher and teach while applying for grants, but I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher. Even though that was the advice given to me, my internships helped me learn more about myself, specifically what I didn't want to do and what I did want to do.

Q: What do you do in your role? What does a typical day look like for you? A: I work in a lab with two other people, and one of them doesn't even work in my department. I'm on the tissue culture product services side, and I get to do my own research and have my own programs. I work primarily with roses and blueberries, as well as some other plants. Oftentimes throughout my week or my day, I'll go into the lab, survey what the lab needs in terms of maintenance, and then work on whatever I have planned throughout the week. Typically, I'll be subculturing or making media, which is like our vitamin jelly in our containers. Depending on if somebody has requested material from my lab, I'll also try to ship material to them and coordinate testing services.

*Plant Tissue Culture refers to the technique of growing plant cells and other plant parts in a sterile environment.

*Subculturing is the act of transferring plant material from one sterile environment to the next. It is important to use sterile technique when subculturing to keep out contamination of bacteria and fungi.

*Media is substrate used in Tissue Culture that is made with vitamins, carbohydrates, salts, plant growth regulators, etc. according to the plants genus and/or needs.

Q: What or who inspired you to work in horticulture? A: He's retired now, but my uncle worked at a potato gene bank in Wisconsin. When he found out that I was interested in horticulture or biology, because I was still trying to figure out between the two, he invited me to come look at his research station and see what he did. He did a bit of tissue culture work, which is what I decided I wanted to do. He connected me with my future professor in college, and the professor ended up giving me a ton of resources. I would send him paragraphs asking questions, and my professor would give me pages of information. In that way, my uncle was one of the primary people that helped guide me in my career.

Q: What kind of training, certification, and or education is required for your type of work in your job? A: In my job, I work a lot with lab processes and protocols, but in college, that's not what I focused on, because I attended a horticultural college. A lot of times when I was working in my internships, I was working outside. Even though I work in a lab, I didn't have a lot of preparation and training for it in college, but I’ve completed certifications as I’ve been developing in my company, which has been a great opportunity. At the beginning of my internships, I was working in wholesale nurseries and outside in public gardens. Then, my work became more and more research based – I was a research intern at Longwood Gardens for a year. Then, I went to Star Roses with a research internship in mind, which is what Seed Your Future helped network me into.

Q: What is your favorite thing about what you do? A: I really enjoy tissue culture work, which is where we work with plants in a sterile condition, meaning we must make sure that everything is free of contamination or access to bacteria or fungi. It’s hard, because a lot of times, just in our air, we'll have contamination that's not harmful to us but can be harmful to plants in a sterile environment. So, we have equipment that will blow sterile air out, and we'll work with plants in this sterile condition, where we'll have to integrate them by sterilization with ethanol and a bleach solution, and then have them grow in the lab on vitamin jelly in some containers. It takes a lot of patience, especially since you’re working with tweezers and forceps and little, tiny scalpels, but I really like it. Not a lot of people can sit and work with tiny tools for a very long time. Part of my internship at Longwood Gardens was teaching people about tissue culture, and a lot of people wanted to just be outside working with the soil and with bigger plants, because the plants I typically work with are very tiny – just a few inches tall. It's very niche but fun.  

Q: With your work, what is the end goal? What's results you're trying to get? A: A lot of times with tissue culture, the goal is to get a plant as clean and sterile as possible. Typically, if a plant has a virus, we'll try and get a clean plant without that virus for research and production purposes. When shipping to another country, a lot of times there's going to be paperwork on making sure it’s virus and bacteria-free and meets certain requirements, which can be bypassed by having a tissue culture plant. We can not only provide them with a list of testing paperwork but also visually show the plant is in a sterile environment. Any contamination of bacteria or fungus would be visible. We provide clean plants to whoever needs them, whether that's for research purposes or to use in an experiment.

Q: Tell me about where you work – Star Roses and Plants. A: Even though I'm located in Pennsylvania and at the lab that I work at is Star Roses and Plants, I am technically a Ball Horticultural employee. Ball is a domestic and international company, and they're huge. I remember Ball being a part of my four-year university, having people come up and talk to students. They're educating students at universities, and even from a ground level, domestically, they're trying to help teach people about plants. Their collaboration internationally is also quite impressive. We believe in always doing the hard stuff, meaning don't take the easy way out. In other words, we must keep on doing the hard stuff for the payoff long-term.

Q: Who are some of the people you work with and how do you work together as a team? A: Even though my lab team is small, we are connected to our parent company in West Chicago. I got to visit the lab in West Chicago, which now I have access as a resource. The lab has testing services, pathology, a molecular team, and they have their own TC services, which is what I am part of. My supervisor is Jan Van der Meij. He is incredible in his plant and industry knowledge. Before I was a Ball employee, I was craving connection and collaboration with other labs, finding out what they know and getting outside input on my programs, which I now have.

Q: How did Seed Your Future’s resources help you make a pivot to working with plants? A: I went to a two-year university and then a four-year university and had been doing internships all along the way. I had applied for a research internship at Longwood Gardens, which I got and was so excited about. I was there for a year or a year and a half. The internship was set to end in May, so I had all summer to figure out what I could do before I had to go back to school to finish one semester. I didn’t want to move back to Wisconsin, so I decided to try and find something in Pennsylvania. Through a career panel hosted by Seed Your Future at the Philadelphia Flower Show, I was able to find an opportunity to talk to the director of research at Star Roses and Plants, where I now work.  


Q: Why do you think horticulture is important for the world? A: I think it has a lot of positive aspects as horticulture provides us with so much of our basic needs. As horticulture continues to expand, as our understanding of plants continues to grow, as our future changes, as our society changes, and as our planet changes, figuring out what and how plants work is one of the most important things to learn. When we learn more about horticulture, sometimes our mind just boggles at the scope of it, because learning more about plants is pivotal to our future.

Q: What advice would you give to someone thinking about entering the industry? A: Horticulture is big, and I think pursuing internships to narrow down what you do and do not like is important. As I said before, a lot of people were advising me to become a professor, and that was a career path that held no appeal to me. I tried to work on my professional career path with tissue culture, but there was a lack of opportunities. So, try to figure out what you want to do. Keep on with trying to talk to people, keep on trying to find internships. Keep on going. It'll turn out for the better. I think that the relief that I feel to be excited about my job every day is something that I won't give up for the world.

Q: Do you have any other thoughts about your job, horticulture, or plants that you'd want people to know? A: What have I not already said about plants being amazing, science being awesome? I think that the melding between plants and science is something that's always going to continue to be one of my favorite things about life.

Q: Thank you so much for your time! A: Thank you so much as well.

For more information about careers at Star Roses and Plants visit the 

- Lillie Wightman, Seed Your Future