Project Description

Paul Kusuma

Each year the Office of Research chooses a few of our many exemplary Presidential Doctoral Research Fellows to be Spotlight Students. We interview these students to learn more about their experiences as researchers and as graduate students at USU.

Paul Kusuma studies plant and crop physiology in the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences.  He works with Dr. Bruce Bugbee in Plants, Soils and Climate.

About You

Q: What is your name and where are you from?

A: Paul Kusuma from Florida, born in Pennsylvania

Q: What is your favorite thing about Logan/Utah State?

A: I like living in college towns with room to stretch and move about.

Q: What are your interests outside of school and your research?

A: Albert Camus, Humphrey Bogart, Tom Waits and Mark Rothko to name a few.

Your Studies and Research

Q: What are you studying? 

A: I am getting a PhD in plant/crop physiology. I got a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Florida

Q: When did you know what you wanted to study?

A: At 26, and on my way to a PhD, I still do not know what I want to become good at. I remember being told once that life is only long enough to get good at one thing. I hope that isn’t true.

Anyway, I started my current trajectory thinking I would move on to the culinary arts, with a focus on fresh herbs and vegetables, maybe working at a hotel in the countryside. However, I learned working during my undergrad that the restaurant industry was not for me. I then had a rude awakening during a professional development course when I was told that my resume did not cut it. I was told, rather sternly, that I had to get some experience. I shopped around a few labs, and was lucky enough to land a position working in photobiology, an area in which I had a lot of interest. I had a young wide eyed vision of vertical farming saving the world, an idea that I have since been disillusioned with. Post-graduation, I had a few more months before my lease ran out and I had to think of what the hell I was going to do with myself. Fast. I liked research well enough to keep going.

Now, I just like the challenge of my job. I just keep chugging along.

Q: What led you to Utah State?

A: My old mentor talking to my current mentor at a conference.

Q: What is the focus of your research?

A: To see how plants use color and intensity of light to perceive and interpret their environments. Then to use these signals to manipulate plant shape in beneficial ways. The majority of my funding comes from NASA. The main goal of the project is looking at designing lighting systems for Martian “agriculture.” Very specifically, my work looks at far-red light, a band of radiation at the very edge of human vision. These photons tell a plant that it is in the shade. It can either stretch to get out of the shade or develop large leaves to maximize radiation capture. We are also interested in blue and UV effects on plant growth. Typically, these wavelengths shrink plants.

Q: What is your favorite part of your research?

A: Having a sense of purpose.

More seriously (although that is true), I like the fact that (to an extent) I can do whatever I want. My focus is in plant physiology, but I find skills in programming, electronics, statistics, physics, chemistry, microbiology, design and communication all useful on a day-to-week basis. I am still surprised that an assistantship pays me to spend time learning and, from a certain perspective, playing.

A Typical Day

Q: Describe a typical day in your research.

A: Generally, 60% desk work: reading papers, analyzing data, writing, making presentations. 39% labor: setting up growth chambers/experiments, planting/harvesting. 1% other: don’t ask.

Q: What skills or expertise do you now have because of your involvement in research?

A: I often think that I did not learn anything before coming to Utah. I can remember doing pointless word problems in high-school math and science classes. Nowadays, those pointless questions are my raison d’être. I still have no use for figuring out when two trains will pass each other, but I do regularly do calculations involving things like figuring out how long some plant material will take to disappear based on a respiration rate, or accurately diluting solutions.

I have always been pretty good at calculations, and research provides a chance to exercise my brain. My desk is littered with sticky notes filled with quick calculations.

Additionally, my lab is well funded and we work on many side projects. These side projects are always a chance to learn new things. Sometimes they involve collaboration with other labs that have their own expertise. For example, I am currently working on a paper looking at the efficacy of LEDs for horticulture. We are working with someone from the department of energy. Just writing this paper I am learning a lot about the design and functions of light emitting diodes, something that is fairly removed from my own field.

Lastly, I’d like to say that working in a lab strongly reinforces classroom learning. Many classes have labs attached to them to facilitate learning, but I have rarely enjoyed attending these parts of the classes. However, I find a lot of enjoyment actually working in a lab. There is a certain rushed nature in a classroom lab, but working in a lab provides a chance to move slowly. Working through something, step-by-step, has helped me “see” things that were never clear in a classroom.

Despite all this, I’m not sure I ever actually answered the question.

Q: What has been a valuable USU resource for you and your research?

A: Financially, the PDRF program. I do not think it is USU run, but the Utah space grant consortium. Then there are a number of scholarships I have won through my department.

Mentor

Q: Who is your mentor and what department are they in?

A: Dr. Bruce Bugbee. Plants, Soils and Climate

Q: How did they become your mentor?

A: I asked my last mentor (back at the University of Florida) for a graduate position. I was turned down, but he shared my name at a conference, returned to Florida and asked me if I wanted to move to Utah. I was here four months later.

Q: What do you like about the collaboration process?

A: My mentor has his office door two doors down from my own. We have daily meetings lasting anywhere between 5 minutes to hours. My understanding is that this is not common, which is a shame, because it is invaluable, especially if you have open ears.

Q: What is one valuable thing that research has taught you?

A: Nothing beats tactile learning. It should feel like playing.

Do you have any advice for new research students here at Utah State?

College is a strange time. When I first started my undergrad, I was on a path that led to mechanical engineering. But, I never really thought about the consequences of what that meant. After I switched majors, it still took me time to really start considering the consequences. I liked goofing off and having free time. Really, it never occurred to me that I would even enjoy doing research. I guess I would recommend trying to get into a lab and working closely with a professor. Find a good mentor.