Writer: Kay Ledbetter

Texas A&M AgriLife Research recognized two faculty members from the Texas A&M University soil and crop sciences department — as a Faculty Fellow and Senior Faculty Fellow — on Jan. 8.

Dr. Cristine Morgan, a soil physicist, was honored with the Faculty Fellow title for impactful research recognized by her colleagues in the U.S. and globally. Her research has affected change both within and outside of her discipline, according to her nomination.

Dr. Bill Rooney, a plant breeding and genetics professor, was recognized with a Senior Faculty Fellow Award – he received the Faculty Fellow in 2011 – for his extensive research and direction of the AgriLife Research Sorghum Improvement Program at College Station, his nomination stated.

Morgan has led a major shift in moving her discipline from laboratory studies to addressing critical challenges using technically innovative, field-based methods, said Dr. David Baltensperger, head of the department of soil and crop sciences.

Cristine Morgan
Dr. Cristine Morgan

Baltensperger said Morgan also has translated her skill set to other disciplines such as ecosystem sciences, civil engineering, anthropology, geology and biosystems and agricultural engineering.

“Dr. Morgan’s standing in the Soil Science Society of America as an elected member of the board of directors and the co-coordinator of the first International Soils Contest for the International Union of Soil Science indicates she is viewed by her peers as a leader in soil science,” Baltensperger said.

“As a researcher, her reputation of performing quality, cutting-edge research and incorporation of practical and creative solutions is demonstrated by her success in grantsmanship,” he said.

Morgan’s successful grants portfolio includes the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as agricultural industry and state organizations.

Morgan’s impact reaches beyond academia through mentoring of students and leadership among non-academic stakeholders as evidenced by her work with the Soil Health Institute, recognition by the White House and international leadership involving economists, sociologists and capital markets to achieve global soil security, the nomination stated.

Her most cited accomplishment has been the development of diffuse reflectance spectroscopy, VisNIR, technology and methodology to quantify soil constituents, such as organic carbon, inorganic carbon, clay content and petroleum hydrocarbons in situ, the nomination continued. She transformed VisNIR technology from a newly explored laboratory instrument to a robust and reliable field method that maps soil profiles without pulling physical soil samples.

This technology enables collection of fine-spatial resolution soil data for application in digital agriculture including environmentally specific plant responses and soil chemical and physical processes. She has filed a patent application, and in partnership with The Climate Corp., continues to make her inventions commercially applicable.

Morgan also organized three international Soil Security Symposia. This leadership resulted in an invitation to be a member of the coordinating coalition for soil health led by the Soil Health Institute with 11 other blue-ribbon organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, The Fertilizer Institute and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.

In the last five years, Morgan has directed research funded at over $7 million. For over $6 million of these funds, she is the principal investigator and has allocated 70 percent of the money to support research programs in sociology, agricultural economics, plant breeding, genetics, hydrology, physics and agricultural engineering.

Bill Rooney
Dr. Bill Rooney

Rooney was named a Texas A&M Regents Professor in 2015, and in 2018 was designated as the Borlaug-Monsanto Chair in International Crop Improvement.

His research pertains to the genetics of important traits in sorghum and sorghum germplasm, germplasm development and application in U.S. and world sorghum production systems. He also trains graduate students in plant breeding and genetics using the sorghum breeding program as a model program.

Rooney’s program originally focused on grain sorghum but expanded and pioneered research in the use of sorghum as a bioenergy crop and specialty grain crop, Baltensperger said.

Utilizing a base of sorghum germplasm, Rooney, his research group and a wide group of collaborators conducted research into the genetics of biomass sorghum yield, composition and stress tolerance, and developed parental lines of sorghums used to create the first bioenergy sorghum hybrids, Baltensperger said.

In the specialty crop area, his program produced and licensed the first black sorghums, prized for their high antioxidant profile and health benefits. These products are now used in GrainBerry Cereals, which are marketed nationwide.

Over the past five years, this research has attracted over $10 million to Texas A&M and AgriLife Research from an array of funding sources, which include Ceres, Inc., a bioenergy crop seed company, Chevron, Inc. and the USDA DOE, NRI and SunGrant Program.

In addition to sorghum-specific research, Rooney has been involved in the development of a wide hybridization sorghum program designed to enhance and improve sorghum and other potential bioenergy species through hybrids.

The program developed unique genotypes of sorghum capable of hybridization with sugarcane. This allows production of sorghum/sugarcane hybrids, which provide researchers valuable opportunities to transfer important traits between the two crops or even possibly the development of a new bioenergy hybrid combining useful traits from both parents in a seed-propagated crop. While this work remains years from application, the wide hybridization work represents a new and novel discovery with potentially wide-ranging applications.

Because he is recognized as an excellent educator, researcher and communicator, Rooney is in demand as a speaker at national and international meetings and is considered one of the leading experts in the world in sorghum improvement for feed, food, forage and fuel uses, Baltensperger said.

Rooney has been engaged with administration to interact with major corporate sponsors and has the unique ability to communicate highly complex and technical processes to corporate executives in a way that relates to their bottom line.