As the saying goes, “when one door closes, another door opens.” Some stories, like Ed Kaleikau’s, aren’t as much about doors closing as they are about being adaptable and having the courage to walk through the doors opening.
“When a door opens, walk through,” said Kaleikau, the 2014 Graduate School Alumni Fellow. “You may not know what that door is going to be but you will learn and grow.”
Kaleikau recently served as senior adviser for plant science in the USDA Office of the Chief Scientist in Washington, D.C. and currently is the national program leader in USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, where he provides leadership for plant genomics and breeding research, education and extension programs related to food security, climate change and bioenergy.
Before Kaleikau became a fixture in the USDA, he was a student at Graceland University interested in medical school.
“I wasn’t necessarily the best student, but my grades were good enough, but that door didn’t open for me,” said Kaleikau. “You need to be adaptable and do some other things.”
The door that did open was a summer internship at the ARCO Plant Cell Research Institute in California. There Kaleikau worked with Dr. Dennis Bidney, a K-State alumnus and former postdoctoral fellow in plant pathology and biochemistry, gaining hands on experience with genetic tissue culture methods, plant biology and genetic engineering.
After Bidney left the institute to join a pioneering biotech company called Advanced Genetic Sciences in Manhattan, Kan., another door opened for Kaleikau when Bidney asked Kaleikau to work as his research technician.
“We [Kaleikau and his wife, Lori] had just gotten married and I didn’t have a job, so I figured, you know, not a bad deal,” joked Kaleikau.
Bidney saw potential in Kaleikau and encouraged him to enroll in graduate school at K-State. After being accepted into the agronomy department, Kaleikau began working with Dr. Rollie Sears, senior research fellow at Syngenta, on the K-State wheat breeding project and with Dr. Bikram Gill, university distinguished professor of plant pathology, in cytogenetics. His thesis topic on mapping genes for tissue culture response in wheat combined his experiences in cytogenetics, tissue culture and wheat genetics.
“Thinking back about the group Ed worked with during his time at KSU…that was a very special group of graduate students,” said Sears. “Everyone worked together, I think that was the key, so the training and discussions were a blend of both basic science and fairly applied, boots on plant breeding.”
Another door opened when Kaleikau received National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowships in plant molecular biology at Stanford University. As part of his fellowships, he was required to present the results of his research in Washington, D.C. where was able to network with National Science Foundation program officers.
“During that networking I got to thinking this might be an opportunity,” said Kaleikau, “so it’s all about keeping an open mind about what you might do in the future.”
Kaleikau took advantage of the opportunity and became the first USDA program director for plant genome competitive grants. He rose up through the USDA ranks, serving as a division director and as the USDA liaison to the White House National Science and Technology Council’s federal partnership that sequenced the first model plant genome as well as the international collaboration that sequenced the rice genome.
The rice genome sequencing project “really opened the door, not only in science, but opened cooperation among the federal agencies, too,” said Kaleikau. “It not only helped the U.S., but also the global research community and out of that sprung so many other sequencing projects. Rice has become a model system for a lot of agricultural projects that we never imagined.”
A testament to the genuine, caring person he is, Kaleikau’s greatest enjoyment is being able to open doors for others.
“I have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of being a part of funding somebody from the program for the first time,” he said. “When you call them and let them know they are so ecstatic. It’s been fun.”
There’s no telling what doors might open for Kaleikau in the future, but one thing is for sure, he won’t hesitate to walk through them.