This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.
As a boy, Steven Cannon helped his grandfather in the garden grafting fruit trees, all the while developing an interest in plants. As an adult, Cannon has followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, working with USDA as a scientist—but only after first taking a different, though ultimately, complementary career path.
After graduating college, Cannon worked various jobs, including one as an educational software designer that used his knack for computing. In 2000, he rekindled his early interest in plant biology, earning a PhD and practical experience as a postdoctoral researcher assigned to a genome mapping project. In 2006, he accepted a position as a plant geneticist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Corn Insects and Crop Genetics Research Unit in Ames, Iowa.
Cannon didn’t simply cast aside his love of computing for his new career in plant genetics, however. Instead, he combined his two interests—so successfully, in fact, that on December 23, 2013, he was named as a recipient of the Presidential Early-Career Award for Scientists and Engineers by President Obama.
Since joining ARS, Cannon has hit the ground running, with significant contributions in projects to sequence the genetic code, or genome, of soybean, chickpea, and other legume crops that underpin the health and wellbeing of consumers worldwide.
Cannon’s computer skills proved valuable—from working with a team to improve SoyBase, a popular Internet resource among plant breeders and scientists, to successfully leading the Legume Information System Web site redesign, another online tool used by researchers worldwide.
Cannon’s fascination with plants that he cultivated as a boy has translated into important findings today about the evolutionary “road” that legumes have taken over the past 60 million years or so—particularly their relationship with root bacteria that turn nitrogen into forms that help them grow.
Cannon and colleagues’ efforts is geared toward fostering developing new, improved legume varieties to better meet humankind’s increasing global need for food, feed, fiber, and fuel.
“We need to make faster progress in crop improvement and the best way of doing that is by knowing where important traits and genes reside,” says Cannon. “Whatever we learn about soybean is going to be useful in these other crops and vice versa.”