Rockey FFAR Fellows Alumni Share Program Highlights

Francesco Cappai, Danielle Gelardi and Kevin Xie

Established in 2018 by the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) and North Carolina State University, the FFAR Fellows (recently renamed the Rockey FFAR Fellows), creates unparalleled opportunities for professional development and growth. As a trailblazing force in food and agriculture research, FFAR invests in scientific workforce development, including supporting the development of early-career scientists like the Rockey FFAR Fellows. 

We spoke with several Rockey FFAR Fellow alumni who spoke from personal experience about the benefits of the program and how it has prepared them for professional success in the agriculture industry.  

Francesco Cappai is currently an industry research scientist and a recent Rockey FFAR Fellows alum. Cappai united his two passions in life: plants and technology to pursue a career in plant breeding and biotechnology. 

In addition to professional development trainings, the Rockey FFAR Fellows program pairs students with industry mentors who provide career guidance. According to Cappai, “Graduate school is very challenging. It was super hard. But having my mentor [Gourmet Blueberries Ltd. and Benson Hill] was the nicest part about it. Ninety percent of my success for my career could be attributed to my mentor, and I was empowered by the other mentors I gained through FFAR.”

The [Rockey FFAR Fellows] program has a groundbreaking structure having all these different perspectives and professional level coaching that taught us practical skills. This program bridges the gap between science and communication. One of the most memorable trainings centered on the need for science to be properly communicated for science as a whole to truly advance, which changed my perspective. It’s absolutely fundamental for the next generation of scientists to be aware of how to communicate to the public and other peers. Francesco Cappai
Rockey FFAR Fellows alum

Cappai described how the Rockey FFAR Fellows Program opened doors by giving him a clear idea of what would happen after graduate school. It also made him aware of the diverse career options available outside of a traditional career trajectory. “Having a clear idea of what happens after grad school, preparing for the future and feeling supported makes the entire experience more manageable,” said Cappai. 

We also spoke with Dani Gelardi, who is currently the Soil Health Scientist for the Washington State Department of Agriculture and a Rockey FFAR Fellows Program alumna. As a UC Davis graduate and PhD student, Gelardi investigated the use of organic amendments in conventional cropping systems. 

“This fellowship stood out to me because I already had funding for my research as well as research and scientific support. I had a lot of what the usual fellowships were offering, but when I looked across my graduate landscape, I felt what was really missing was the professional development, the networking component, and a lot of the softer skills like scientific communications and leadership. That’s really not built into graduate school or any career,” said Gelardi. “I realized if I wanted to push the boundaries of my career beyond just laboratory science, I needed support. It felt like this [program] was tailor made to what I was looking for.” 

Gelardi emphasized that the Rockey FFAR Fellows was not only beneficial to how she moved through graduate school, but also how she got a job including how she plans to supervise and onboard in the future. She highlighted the value of professional development and networking “soft skills” that are an asset to any career path. 

Having mentorship at the Almond Board of California and the California Department of Food and Agriculture really just broadened my network of who I can call when I have questions and when it came time to apply for jobs. It really showed that I had taken the initiative to broaden my career path and that I had worked closely with industry and government scientists, so it gave me a leg up over other scientists who maybe conducted more novel research or published more papers. This goes for not only access to mentors, but also access and networking with the other Fellows who were conducting research in fields other than soil health. Dani Gelardi
Rockey FFAR Fellows Program alumna

Additionally, we spoke with Rockey FFAR Fellow alum, Kevin Xie, who highlighted the importance of industry connections and insight gained through the program. Currently a post-doctoral researcher in China, Xie’s research focuses on plant phenotyping and genetics. Xie reflected on his experience with the program and expressed his gratitude that the Rockey FFAR Fellows Program is open to international students, a sentiment that was shared by Cappai. Opening the program to international students supports diversity of thought, experience and perspective, which is beneficial to the entire cohort. 

Xie was drawn to the program because it focused not only on funding, but also making industry connections, an asset for career growth. 

My sponsor [Bayer] invited me to the base several times and I got to talk to them all day long, which is a rare opportunity. My mentors are very intelligent people who have unique opinions about industry and agriculture and shared their perspectives with me. This broadened my horizons as I got to see firsthand how industry people are thinking about these questions and the important factors they consider when they do science. Kevin Xie
Rockey FFAR Fellow alum

Exposure to the industry side of the field allowed Xie to explore and think about his different career options prior to graduating and understand what research is valuable to industry compared with academia.  

Overall, Xie, along with Cappai and Gelardi, expressed optimism about the future of agriculture and the advancement of audacious technologies that are tackling pressing issues like climate change. 

Through programs like the Rockey FFAR Fellows, FFAR proudly invests in scientific workforce development to ensure early career scientists have the skills and tools they need to excel. Networking opportunities, connections to industry and other early career scientists, and scientific communications training are all unique benefits of the Rockey FFAR Fellows Program. The application portal for the 2022-2025 cohort is now open. 

In honor of Dr. Sally Rockey’s retirement, the FFAR Fellows Program was recently renamed the Rockey FFAR Fellows and the Rockey FFAR Fellows Fund was established to provide the funds needed to cover the matching requirement for the professional development component program. To donate to the Rockey FFAR Fellows fund please visit the fund’s webpage. 

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