Al Kovaleski joined the UW–Madison faculty in March 2021 as an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture.
What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I am originally from Vacaria, a small town in the southernmost state in Brazil. It is one of the coldest places in Brazil, with occasional snowfall every couple of years (including this past July). It is also known there for the extensive apple orchards. All in all, a very different place from what people generally expect of Brazil.
What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I received my undergraduate degree in agronomic engineering from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, in Porto Alegre, the capital of my state in Brazil. I went on to receive my M.S. in horticulture from University of Florida, and Ph.D. in horticultural biology from Cornell University. After that, I was a postdoc at the USDA-ARS Grape Genetics Research Unit, and then a Putnam Fellow at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.
How did you get into your field of research?
During my M.S. I had a side project that involved looking at bud morphological development during the fall, which happened to be much more interesting to me than my main project. That led me to conversations with one of my Ph.D. advisors about the intersection of bud development (my work) and cold hardiness (his field). The intersection of cold hardiness with dormancy (similar to hibernation, but in plants) was then caused by some unexplained results in research during my Ph.D.
What are the main goals of your current research program?
The goals of my program are to understand at the physiological and molecular levels how plants control their cold hardiness and dormancy during the winter, and how that leads to budbreak and flowering in the spring. This knowledge can then be used to inform models predicting phenology to understand how plants can survive in different environments or future climates. At the most basic level, we’re looking for molecules that serve as temperature sensors in plants. At the most applied level, we’re trying to figure out whether we can predict adaptation of a plant (or more specifically a cultivar of a given fruit crop) to an environment based on winter responses.
What attracted you to UW–Madison?
UW–Madison has a long history of high-quality research in plant cold hardiness – and why shouldn’t it, given how Wisconsin’s winters are!
What was your first visit to campus like?
The first time I was here at UW–Madison was in 2018 for a conference: the International Plant Cold Hardiness Symposium. This was a small conference with a very intense schedule, and so most of my time was spent at the Dejope Residence Hall where the meeting was being held (and I stayed at Bradley Residence Hall). I did run along the lake up to Picnic Point once, and towards the Capitol seeing the Observatory and going down Bascom Hill a couple times. I also took some time then to go see the Allen Centennial Garden.
What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
Plants have limited ways to deal with the environmental conditions they are exposed to, especially at the physiological level. If you have an understanding of the basic responses, you can use this in very applied settings to identify problems with crops too.
Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
Frequency of tweets is not constant, but my twitter account is @alkovaleski.
Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
I started my graduate career working directly with agriculture – my project was even funded by a grower association. And that was also the focus of much of my undergrad training. Even though now my work could be better described as basic science, studying the biology of often times non-crop woody perennial plants, I instinctively make connections to problems that fruit growers face due to climate and weather challenges.
What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
Plants hibernate, but it is called dormancy. To know when they should break bud and start growing again they keep track of time spent at low temperatures through a clock mechanism we don’t understand yet.
What are your hobbies and other interests?
I enjoy hiking, especially if there is some elevation gain and a nice view at the end. During the winter, downhill skiing is one of my favorite things to do.