AMES, Iowa - Plant breeders from around the world will soon have access to an advanced degree in their field though a new distance learning Master of Science program offered through the agronomy department at Iowa State University.

The program, believed to be the first of its kind, will be available this fall and is designed for plant breeding professionals who want to advance their careers, said Thomas Lübberstedt, professor, K.J. Frey Chair in agronomy and director of the program.

"We started developing the courses after meeting with breeding companies, both large and small, to find out if a program like this was needed," said Lübberstedt.

"We have designed the program with students' needs in mind," he added.

Even before the first student takes a course, research has been done on those needs.

"Sponsored by the USDA, we started the whole thing with a survey sent to plant breeding companies," said Lübberstedt. "This allowed us to learn what they want, and also let them know that this would soon be available."

Survey feedback led to the development of the program that consists of 12 courses and a creative component.

Requirements for the Master of Science in plant breeding could be completed in as little as two years, but most students will probably take four or five years, because they are likely to be working professionals, said Lübberstedt.

ISU will continue to offer the on-campus version of the degree.

The distance learning plant breeding program is patterned after the very successful distance Master of Science in agronomy program the department launched in 1997. That program has grown to more than 155 active students and has conferred 79 advanced degrees.

Potential students have shown a similar high level of interest in the plant breeding program even though it isn't officially launched yet, said Lübberstedt.

Janika Eckert, co-owner and plant breeder for Johnny's Selected Seeds in Maine, is eager to start her master's in the new ISU program.

"Mostly, what interests me about continuing education is the opportunity to improve myself, my capabilities and my job performance," she said. "By this, I mean that I hope to breed more and better varieties for our customers."

Offering the plant breeding courses through a distance education format presented unique challenges, said Lübberstedt.

"There was some debate about offering this course where students are expected to work with plants in the field," he said. "But because most of these students will already be employees of plant breeding companies, they have substantial field experience."

Getting the coursework remotely will also be helpful to potential students such as Jasmine Lopez of Fort Myers, Fla., an assistant plant scientist at Syngenta.

"[It's a] great program for working professionals who want to develop their career and at the same time want to go back home at night to see their family," Lopez said.

According to the ISU agronomy website, plant breeding is the science and art of improving crop plants through the study and application of genetics, agronomy, statistics, plant pathology, entomology, and related sciences.