Get to know our 2015 Vanier Scholars
Michael Becker has always been a polymath, being interested in everything from astronomy to law and medicine. He eventually decided on plant science as his focus, and now studies diseases that affect canola crops, specifically blackleg. He is one of four U of M students who have received the 2015 Vanier Scholarship.
Canola is one of Canada’s most profitable crops, generating almost 250,000 jobs and $19.3 billion for the Canadian economy each year. Like all crops, canola is constantly at risk of pathogenic attack, and blackleg results in $1.5 billion of crop loss annually across the globe. To protect canola from infection, there is a need to understand how the plant defends itself against this fungus.
Becker’s work involves creating a comprehensive blackleg infection dataset in oilseed crops that will be made available to the public and will serve as a valuable resource to plant biologists, breeders, and growers studying plant defensive strategies. He is developing cell-specific molecules that could inhibit fungal attack directly at the site of infection and help withstand the devastating impact of fungal pathogens like blackleg.
He spoke to UM Today about receiving the Vanier Scholarship.
UM Today: What’s the best part of your PhD job?
Michael Becker: I think the best part of my job is that it constantly challenges me, forcing me to find new solutions to complex problems. I’m always learning. Of the many jobs I have worked in my life it one of the few that I haven’t found immediately boring. Teaching is also a huge perk. I have been able to give a few lectures and found the experience quite exhilarating.
How did you feel when you found out you received the Vanier Scholarship?
I was ecstatic when I found out that I received the Vanier. It’s not only a large amount of money (especially for a graduate student), but it provides validation that someone other than myself believes what I am doing has value. Looking at some of the previous recipients of this award, I am incredibly honoured. It has motivated me to push forward with my research and to keep tackling some of the world’s toughest questions!
Who was the first person you told after finding out you received the Vanier Scholarship? How did they react?
When I opened the notice of decision and read “We are pleased to inform…”, I ran out of my lab and into Duff Roblin where my girlfriend works. I burst into her lab and as soon as she saw me, she knew I received the award. She started screaming, there was some jumping around, and I am sure everyone on the floor heard us. It was moment of joy, and probably one of the most memorable moments of my life.
Have you had any other experiences at the U of M that stand out?
Other than receiving the Vanier Scholarship, it would probably be the first time I lectured a class. It was 200 students, and I was pretty nervous – I still get nervous. I remember making a few jokes during my lecture and nobody laughed. What are the odds… 200 students and none with a sense of humour.
Do you have any hobbies?
Yeah, a few. I like chess. I used to play a lot with my brother growing up. I’m not professional or anything, I just find it relaxing. I went to a chess tournament recently and got destroyed. Even this 14 year old kid beat me, but it was still fun. I try to play a couple of games a week.
I’m also stage director of a Fringe play this year. I did it last year for a friend and this year he asked me again if I could help him out. I said sure because it was a neat experience and definitely something quite new for me.
- Becker’s passion for science has been demonstrated by his having one of the highest GPAs of all Science students.
- Beyond his research, Becker has been active as a teaching assistant in biological sciences and has been a mentor to other students.
- He also serves as vice-president of the Biological Sciences Graduate Student’s Association.
- Outside of the university, he has participated as a member of the Simaril Policy and Retention Committee and has been a volunteer for the International Lions Club.