David Douches spends his days at the office surrounded by Mr. Potato Heads.
Amidst a slew of paperwork, folders and research documents, Mr. Potato Heads of all kinds peek out from every corner. The professor and potato researcher even has a Mr. Potato Head flag hanging from his office window that’s prominent from the outside.
To some, Douches’ collection might seem like an odd quirk. But for a man who has spent more than three decades studying the art of potato growth, it makes perfect sense.
Douches teaches a plant biotechnology class during spring semesters while conducting potato research studies year-round and developing potato varieties for Michigan’s potato industry.
The New Jersey native is nationally known for his research, and his efforts recently paid off in a big way — Douches was able not only to meet President Barack Obama when he visited MSU, but also feed him potato chips. Douches has set down roots in East Lansing, and with a network of friends, family and coworkers, he plans to promote potatoes for years to come.
For the love of potatoes
Douches discovered his love for potatoes while studying genetics in graduate school and has been a researcher for 32 years.
He said he likes the potato because he’s aware of its international importance as the No. 3 food crop in the world. But Michigan’s niche is developing varieties that will store into June.
“Dave’s developed several varieties for both applications, whether we’re eating it with a fork at the table or a potato chip bag,” MSU research technician Greg Steere said.
Douches coordinates a research team while developing potato breeding trials in 11 different locations in the U.S. The team is working to replace two main potato varieties that are a staple of the potato industry, Steere said.
“If we can develop varieties that are even geographically specific, that’s an advantage to the growers themselves,” Steere said.
Douches spent his years as an undergraduate studying at Rutgers University. He earned his master’s degree at North Carolina State University and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis.
The institutions he attended are all land-grant universities, or government-sponsored colleges that must teach agriculture, science and engineering to raise statewide funding. One of the reasons Douches chose to come to MSU was because of its original land-grant institution status — MSU became the nation’s first land-grant institution in 1855.
Douches said there’s a certain responsibility to teach and research aspects of agriculture, and he said roughly 120 faculty work on plant research at Michigan State.
“It’s so much fun,” Douches said. “Between what I knew 27 years ago and what I know now, a lot has changed on how we conduct research because of the great advances in molecular biology, genetics and genomics. These advances have created new research opportunities, and it is exciting to come to work each day.”
The science of potatoes
Steere said Douches is a well-rounded individual and is constantly reading up on the latest potato research news.
Douches and his team of MSU potato researchers create trials for companies in the state of Michigan including Better Made Snack Foods based out of Detroit, Mich. Steere said 70 to 80 percent of the potatoes grown in Michigan are for potato chips.
Douches and Steere describe their average workdays as yearly cycles that consist of harvesting crops in the summer months and conducting lab and greenhouse studies in the winter.
It takes 10 years for seedlings to be chosen for top potato breeds, Douches said. With the assistance of C. Robin Buell, professor of plant biology, potato gene maps are being examined to shorten the process.
Buell described her professional relationship with Douches as a merger of expertise. For almost seven years, the two have worked on several projects together.
“He has a very, very good group of people that work with him,” Buell said.
She said Douches constructs a positive work environment that his research team adapts to.
Buell and Douches were chosen to meet with Obama in February while Obama signed a farm bill on campus. They ate potato chips with him and discussed the importance of potato research science as well as plant science research overall.
“The point we were trying to make to the president was the linkage from the basic science to the field in that type of way to advance the science,” Douches said.
Douches is expanding potato breeding beyond where it has ever been, releasing new potato varieties to growers in Michigan that will have an economic impact on the potato industry, MSU Potato Specialist Chris Long said.
“I don’t know where we’d be without Dave — we probably wouldn’t have the research that we have,” Long said. “He’s very good at fostering a ‘let’s work together’ attitude.”
Douches was selected for the William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award this year, but it’s his personality that wins people over, Steere said.
“The thing I enjoy about Dave is he’s like a little kid when it comes to the fall; he’s always in the field with us planting, he doesn’t just sit up in the lab,” Steere said.
All in the family
Douches isn’t the only member of his family that bleeds green. Both of Douches’ children have attended MSU, and his wife is an MSU staff member.
He even named a potato variety after his daughter, Jacqueline Lee.
Packaging senior Daniel Douches , Douches’ son, said he spent five summers working with his dad on his research, helping him prepare plots, evaluating newly-planted potatoes and getting ready for harvest season.
He doesn’t have a potato named after him like his sister, but Daniel Douches jokingly said he wasn’t sure if he wanted that honor.
Daniel Douches said he was proud of his dad for all he’s accomplished. He said he was surprised when his father was able to meet the president, and he noted that some people he’s encountered at MSU, including an advisor of his, have known or heard of his dad before he even told them what he did.
“A lot of adults come up to me and say, ‘Your dad is a potato researcher?’” Daniel Douches said. “Most of my friends knew growing up what my dad did, but when he got recognized by Obama, my friends were like, ‘It’s about time.’”
Steere said the balance Douches has found between work and family life has contributed to his overall success.
“He takes time for himself and his family, but he’s just a really hard, disciplined worker too, and I think that accounts for his success and what he’s done,” Steere said.