Transforming Agriculture, Perennially


Angela Brekalo

Research Resident, Crop Protection Genetics

Angela Brekalo (she/they) grew up in Ohio near Cleveland and and considers much of the state home, from the waters of Lake Erie to the foothills of Appalachia. She went to school in Columbus where she earned a B.S. in Evolution & Ecology and a minor in Neuroscience at Ohio State University, but also enjoyed studying the social sciences and humanities as much as the biological sciences, so took every opportunity to take  history and creative writing courses as well. Angela started college as a neuroscience major, and spent a year and a half in a neuroscience/microbiology lab.  She says, “The research subject was wildly different from what I work on at TLI (neurons vs. fungi), but many of the lab skills I developed in Columbus are useful today.” As a resident, her time here is being spent working on our Crop Protection Genetics team with Dr. Kathryn Turner, where she is researching plant diseases, like silphium rust, and breeding for resistance.


What drew you to work at TLI?
I’ve been interested in sustainability for a while and have understood most environmental problems to be related more to how we structure our societies than to a lack of technical solutions. My personal and community gardening efforts as well as individual research fostered in me a sense of food and agricultural change as necessary and potentially revolutionary; this interest in ag from both social and scientific sides made TLI’s interdisciplinary approach seem like a great fit. The Land Institute seemed like a place where people were working on technical solutions but not forgetting the social context of the research and the agricultural systems we are trying to change.

What would people never guess that you do as part of your role at TLI?
I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how to make plants sick. Like, most of my time. Working on new crops means that there are new diseases that people have had little to no reason to pay attention to until now, so we don’t always know how to grow them. One of the ways to reduce disease levels in our fields is to find plants that are genetically resistant to a disease, but we can’t judge that a plant is resistant genetically unless we know it has been exposed. So we need a way to make sure every plant we’re interested in has had a chance to be infected, and then if it looks healthy after that, we know it’s due to genetic resistance and can use it to create future healthy plants. This is harder than it seems, especially for some diseases like silphium rust.

What else are you passionate about (outside of work)?
I am passionate about the social practice (organizing) and creative practice (reading, writing, etc.) of building revolutionary futures. Sometimes this looks like local activism, and sometimes it looks like reading Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, or Miriame Kaba.

I also love foraging for and growing vegetables, especially peppers—which I recently found out can be perennials in some climates! I have about forty pepper plants in my backyard and a number of plants in our community garden, and I’m very excited to try some of the new varieties we planted this year!

If you were to write a book, what would it be about?
I love reading and writing speculative fiction, so it would likely be in that vein. Probably something about the climate and ways to build healthy human and ecological communities, but who knows! Every time I sit down to write, I am taken somewhere I did not expect to go.

What’s your motto / favorite quote?
This, from Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, beautifully encapsulates what it means to live in reciprocity with the world, especially one with a changing climate:

“All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
Is Change.”

What were you like at age 10?
At age 10, I was either reading, biking, or playing in the dirt. Besides being less shy, not much has changed.

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