Plant Phenomics Community Feature: Katherine Frels

Tuesday, March 29, 2022
Katherine Frels
Katherine Frels

Katherine Frels is an assistant professor of the Department of Agrononomy and Horticulture.

Seven questions with Katherine Frels
  1. Which department(s) do you work in? I’m a small grains breeder for UNL in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. I develop new wheat, barley and triticale. Triticale is a man-made wheat-by-rye hybrid species. It’s similar to wheat, used for grain as well as forage and cover cropping.
  2. How did you get involved with plant phenomics? I was a graduate student in the UNL Small Grains Breeding program — I was a part of plant phenomics before it was an official program. Right when I was finishing up my Ph.D. research, it was getting started at UNL’s Innovation Campus.

    My Ph. D was on the cutting edge of high-throughput phenotyping. I was part of a multi-state grant looking at nitrogen use efficiency and wheat. Nitrogen use phenotyping is generally difficult and that’s why no one does it. It’s destructive and labor-intensive; it costs time and money. We wanted to see if we could use remote sensing to replace that destructive phenotyping, and we were pretty successful in finding vegetation indices that could be used to estimate plant traits related to nitrogen use. That was my first taste of phenomics at that time. I’m excited to get back into it, I see a lot of use in the wheat breeding program.
  3. What made you interested in this area of study and especially triticale? My parents are both veterinarians in Iowa. I decided I didn’t really want to go the animal science route. I loved life sciences, but I wanted things that weren’t going to run away, bite, bleed... all those fun things. I really focused on plants, and I love genetics. I did my undergrad at Iowa State after meeting a faculty member there who recommended that I get my BA in agronomy and plant breeding. That’s how I ended up there.

    While at ISU, I decided I didn’t want to be a corn or a soybean breeder, so I started looking west for small grains breeding programs and that’s how I ended up in Nebraska. Triticale has some of the qualities of wheat and some of the qualities of rye. It’s a little more manageable than rye and we don’t see it becoming a weed. It’s a really excellent forage species, great for grazing and hay or haylage. It can be used as a feed grain and we’re working with other breeders to develop it more for human food purposes, improving the flavor and the baking qualities so it performs more like wheat. If you think about how dense and aggressive the rye flour is in bread, that’s how triticale can be. It would be really neat to partner with some of our local breweries or bakeries to try to support that small business aspect.
  4. What plant phenomics research or projects are you currently working on? The first one is that we are reviving some research I started as a Ph. D student and I never had the opportunity to finish it. We’re actually putting some wheat into the Plant Phenotyping Center at UNL Innovation Campus. We’re looking at pairs of lines that had high yield and low yield or high Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) values and low NDVI values. We evaluated these lines in the field, now we want to drill down to more plant level differences like structure or chlorophyll differences.  We’ll be using the Lemnatec system to do that.

    The second project we’re getting started this year is improving our breeding tools for forage quality and forage quantity of triticale. That’s normally another destructive measurement, and we only get to measure forage yield and quality in one location at one time point. Once we harvest it, it’s gone. What we’re looking to do is develop models using unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) imagery, in collaboration with Yeyin Shi (BSE Assistant Professor and Agricultural Information System Engineer). We will be trying to predict the forage quality and quantity in our triticale plots in multiple locations to improve our selection methods. We have an MS student on that project, Catherine Mick, and she’ll be starting that project in the next few weeks. We’re pretty excited to see how that goes.
  5. What is one thing you wish people knew about plant phenomics? For someone who’s not on the breeding side, these phenomics tools are so useful for breeding because it allows us to collect so much more data in a short amount of time with less labor. That's really exciting to me as a breeder because it means I can collect data at my off-campus research locations such as Sidney, Nebraska, about six hours away. Getting good data from a site that’s so far away has been really limiting in the past.

    Our ability to extract data from images can be really revolutionary for getting data during the growing season. This is really important for our off-campus locations, because sometimes we can lose those sites to a storm before harvest. Without the growing season images, we wouldn’t have any information to use in our breeding programs. It already takes us 10-12 years to release a wheat variety, so preventing data loss keeps us from lengthening that timeline to release.  When we are down to our final four varieties to decide between, we can make our release decision more confidently if we’ve got better data. That means we can get new varieties out to farmers as fast as possible.
  6. What do you like to do in your free time? One of the things that my husband and I really enjoy doing is going to try new restaurants and breweries. We lived in the Twin Cities prior to returning to Lincoln, and we tried as many new breweries as we could. We’ve already done a lot of the Lincoln breweries, so it’s fun to explore other parts of the state as part of our brewery and restaurant tour.
  7. What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to? My favorite place is Vienna, Austria. I studied abroad there as an undergraduate on an exchange with an agriculture school in Vienna. I really enjoyed the city and the school, and now that I’m a faculty member I want to re-establish some of those connections. It would be awesome to go back and do science!