Spud research lands WSU grad student $10,000

Rhett Spear and Mr. Potato Head
Mr. Potato Head celebrates with Rhett Spear, a Ph.D. horticulture student at Washington State University, who landed a $10,000 scholarship for his research on potatoes. Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services.


PULLMAN, Wash. – When Rhett Spear first saw the message emailed to him from Washington, D.C., he figured it was a scam.

Congratulations, it said. You have been awarded a $10,000 research scholarship from the National Potato Council.

“I e-mailed them back and asked them to verify it,” recalled Spear, a Ph.D. horticulture student at Washington State University. “Eventually, I believed it was legitimate. To say I was happy would be an understatement.”

Encouraging potato research

The nation’s potato council awarded Spear the scholarship last month to bolster his ongoing research on 14 potato varieties. His project evaluates how cost-effective it is to grow them, how well they tolerate storage and resist bruising, and, of course, how good they taste.

Spear, who applied for the scholarship in late spring, learned of his selection shortly before his wife gave birth to their third daughter. “The news couldn’t have come at a better time,” he said, gesturing to his blood-shot eyes from lack of sleep with a newborn baby at home. “When I’m at work, I might be tired, but I’m able to focus more.”

A scholarship committee of potato growers singled out Spear for his academic record, leadership abilities and the potential of his research to benefit the entire industry, said council spokesman Mark Szymanski in a phone interview from D.C. Previously, the scholarship had been for $5,000, he said.

“Potato growers around the country contribute to the fund and we made a decision to award $10,000 for the first time this year,” said Szymanski. “As you can imagine, Rhett was selected from a strong pool of candidates.”

Healthy spud habits

Spear’s scholarship comes as the humble potato is undergoing a much-needed makeover in the wake of the low-carb diet craze that vilified potatoes as carbohydrate beasts.

“More and more research is showing that the potato is a healthy food. It’s the way they’re prepared that distinguishes the healthy from the not-so-healthy,” explained Spear, who, growing up on a wheat and sugar beet farm in southern Idaho has enjoyed eating potatoes most of his life, he said.

“There’s so many more ways to eat them than as fries and chips. It’s the preparation that matters.”

Nutrition experts on HealthCastle.com, a website run by registered dieticians, applaud the spud’s comeback. “As low-carb diets become less common, the potato is being welcomed back to the dining room table, and with good reason. One medium potato essentially contains no fat, sodium or cholesterol, and is also quite low in calories.”

63 varieties of russet potatoes?

As Americans regain their appetite for potatoes, it’s a good time for a 10-grand scholarship to give Spear’s research a lift. He’s evaluating 14 varieties of the russet, the nation’s number one-selling spud.

Wait – there are 14 varieties of the oblong, dark-skinned tuber often served with a pad of butter alongside a steak?

“You’re not the first person to be surprised,” said Szymanski of the potato council, “but you know, there are many more varieties than that.”

In fact, a look at WSU’s Research and Extension website reveals 63 russet varieties, with names ranging from Freedom and Sunrise to German Butterball (Go to: http://potatoes.wsu.edu/varieties/russets.htm).

Washington State PotatoesPotatoes are Washington state’s third-biggest crop, behind apples and wheat. Combined, Washington and Idaho produce more than half of the nation’s annual supply, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Which means, there’s definitely a niche for potato research in this area. Spear began his scientific inquiry in 2011, growing varieties at a sprawling test field at WSU’s Othello Research Station located about a two-hour drive from Pullman. There, planted among the Teton, Norkotah and Burbank russets, is one with a title reminiscent of the Star Wars’ droid, R2-D2. It’s called A01010-1.

“Some varieties are so new that they don’t have names yet,” Spear explained. The potatoes are put through vigorous trials to determine how they rate. Potatoes that do well, “graduate, get a name and may eventually get released to growers,” he said.

Super spud search

Spear is monitoring the 14 russet varieties for bruising resistance, yields, storage durability and taste. The tasting portion is done by volunteer taste-testers at WSU’s Food Science and Human Nutrition Building. Four “Baked Potato Taste Panels” have already been held, with two more planned this school year, he said.

Rated for taste, aroma, texture and smoothness, “We’re definitely starting to see some top scorers,” said Spear.

Perhaps one day the Teton or Classic russet — or even the A01010-1, renamed — will sprout into an edible prize of snowy white flesh that holds up in storage and fends off viruses and bruises alike.

Fascinating versatility

In the meantime, Spear hopes the once tattered image of the potato continues to improve. After all, not only is this misunderstood vegetable nutritious, he said, but how many other crops can you whip, fry, bake, serve stuffed as an entrée, sliced in a side dish or molded into a dumpling?

“Having worked on a farm for much of my life, I’ve never come across a crop that’s so versatile, that comes in so many sizes, shapes and colors, and can be prepared in so many ways. I enjoy eating them. But researching them? It never gets boring.”