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Jason Londo: ‘My nerdiness matters’

Jason Londo believes his research will help growers of two fruits synonymous with the Finger Lakes region — grapes and apples — continue to thrive in the face of climate change.

While his work is serious, Londo has a lighthearted way of looking at it.

“I think all scientists love science, but we also want to be able to help the world in a positive way. I like to say my nerdiness matters,” Londo said with a laugh during a recent phone interview. “It’s a daunting but exciting opportunity.”

Jason Londo

It’s that kind of outlook that Londo has embraced since 2011, when he first came to Cornell AgriTech to specialize in grape genetics for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency has a long history at the Geneva site.

Earlier this year, Londo joined the AgriTech staff as a professor of fruit crop physiology and climate adaptation. That includes work with apples as well as grapes — the latter is what has made AgriTech most famous.

“At its simplest, that means I am trying to solve problems for New York growers that arise from environmental stresses like temperature and water availability,” he said. “In New York, our two big fruit crops are apples and grapes, so my primary research focuses on these two crops.”

Londo grew up on Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula.

“We are pretty proud of that area,” he said. “We are called Yoopers.”

Londo earned his undergraduate degree in molecular biology from Florida Institute of Technology and his PhD in plant biology from Washington University in St. Louis. There, he worked in the plant evolution lab and studied the domestic history of rice.

He completed his post-doctoral work at Western Oregon University and the University of Arkansas, and was a consultant for the USDA in St. Louis and Massachusetts before coming to Geneva to work for the USDA.

During his time with the USDA, Londo collaborated with Bruce Reisch, a renowned member of the Cornell University faculty best known for developing numerous new grape varieties during an illustrious, 40-plus-year career that continues. While Londo’s work with USDA focused on cold-weather hardiness of grapes, with AgriTech he is studying climate adaptation in all seasons.

“I have a passion for trying to understand how grapes — and now apples — are able to shut down their growth and physiology at the end of the season and go dormant,” he said. “During dormancy, they can track changes in temperature, somehow, and know how to change their fully dormant physiology into a different form, so when temperatures warm in spring they can start growing again. I’m fascinated with how they are able to do this, and this research area is something I will keep working on, particularly as winter temperatures get milder from climate change but also more erratic and frankly, more dangerous for our fruit crops.”

Londo also is building a program to look at heat and drought effects on apples and grapes.

“I’m specifically interested in understanding how climate change in the Northeast is different from that of California or Washington (state), where most grapes and apples are grown. There is a lot of climate research in those hot and dry climates, but far less in our warm and humid climate,” he said. “Since we have historically bred apples and grapes for the New York climate, with good winter hardiness and shorter ripening seasons, those varieties may not respond to climate like those varieties out West.”

Londo said one of the biggest challenges in his position is the somewhat erratic nature of climate change and its impacts.

“Climate change is not like pests or pathogens. It isn’t something we can spray for every year and mitigate,” he said. “It will require a whole battery of methods to try and predict — and respond to — shifting temperatures.”

Londo is a member of AgriTech’s diversity, equity and inclusion council. The goal is to make the campus a haven for talented people of all backgrounds.

He works closely with area farmers, readily admitting their future could depend heavily on his research.

“Farmers are so incredible. They know their vines and trees far better than any of us at Cornell ever could,” he said. “I’m really excited to learn from them and when I can bring my very specific expertise to bear, hopefully pay them back for teaching me.”

“It’s actually really intimidating,” he added of his work. “The growers depend on good answers … and with these crops, it takes multiple years of data to trust your answer is worth sharing. I am a pretty cautious person when it comes to recommendations. I want to be right.”

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