About Michael


A younger Michael Dzakovich investigating Hosta spp. plants in his backyard.

My interest in plant science began when I was young. Around the age of four, I assisted my neighbor with her vegetable garden, but as I grew up, I explored other directions. In high school, I was selected to collaborate with two astrophysicists at Caltech to study the cataclysmic variable star WZ Sge. This work excited me and I presented a poster at a national meeting, but I could not see myself working in this field. My penchant for plants reemerged when I designed a self-regulating aeroponics unit that could be deployed anywhere. I communicated this science to a panel of venture capitalists from Silicon Valley and won second place in the Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge. These experiences prepared me for my undergraduate and graduate career.

I was engaged in research since my second semester of college. My interests in space and plant science led me to Dr. Cary Mitchell’s lab where I started to hone my skills as a scientist. I conducted three 5 month experiments where I analyzed tomatoes from different light treatments for basic physicochemical properties and conducted several organoleptic sensory panels. A manuscript detailing this work can be found here. Additionally, I authored a chapter on light-enhancement of produce quality in a review article. Through these projects and several others including constructing a closed-system gas exchange cuvette, I further developed critical-thinking skills, better understood the scientific method, and gained valuable laboratory skills.

As a master’s student, my aim was to further the scientific community’s understanding of plant responses to varying qualities of light ranging from ultraviolet C to far-red. During my first year, I established collaborations between our lab and labs in food science and biochemistry at Purdue and an ecophysiologist at the University of Helsinki. The breadth of my thesis projects helped me develop skills such as GC-MS and LC-MS to analyze volatile and non-volatile tomato metabolites, and qRT-PCR to quantify the expression of genes involved in light signal transduction. Lastly, I developed a strong outreach program for the Mitchell Lab through talks to the public, tours with school children, social media, and mentoring three undergraduates and one high school student.

An older Michael Dzakovich investigating how greenhouse tomatoes respond to different wavelengths of light.

With my goal of going into academia or the USDA-ARS, completing a PhD is a logical next-step in my career. As a PhD student, my primary aim is to increase the scientific community’s understanding of how natural variation present in both cultivated and wild species of tomatoes influences the type and abundance of specific health compounds. Moreover, my research addresses how dietary tomato consumption alters the chemical landscape of the liver and how global gene expression patterns are influenced as a result. By working under the mentorship of Dr. David Francis, a geneticist and bioinformaticist, and Dr. Jessica Cooperstone, an analytical chemist and metabolomicist, I foresee myself making important contributions to both the fields of plant genetics and nutrition.