Geneticist Zalapa Connects with Science Students

Dr. Juan Zalapa

Those who enjoy cranberry sauce as part of their Thanksgiving and Christmas meals have Dr. Juan Zalapa to thank.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Horticulture faculty and USDA-ARS Research Genetecist spoke to a group of Maranatha students recently. Zalapa’s primary area of research is plant breeding and genetics, and his primary focus is the cranberry.

“When I look at the vines, they look kind of plain,” Zalapa said. “I wonder how a plant like this can produce something so beautiful, so interesting, and so unique.”

Zalapa told the students a little about growing up in Texas and his conversion to Christianity in 1999 after being handed Bible literature while walking through Madison’s State Street shopping district. He is now a member of Grace Baptist Church in Madison. Zalapa also discussed the practical concerns of undergraduates looking to pursue graduate degrees.

“Your research project is your scholarship, so be ready to take whatever project is available,” Zalapa said. “Wherever the funding is, that’s who is going to hire.”

Zalapa spends much of his time in cranberry beds that are eventually flooded to allow workers to harvest the floating fruit. He works to produce specific clones that meet the guidelines requested by growers.

When he isn’t in the field, Zalapa is in the lab—interestingly enough, the same lab once occupied by the late Dr. Robert Hanneman. Maranatha’s Hanneman Hall, which houses Nursing and Applied Science classrooms and labs, is named for the former UW-Madison horticulture professor and Maranatha Board of Trustees member.

“Dr. Hanneman interviewed me when I first came to Madison,” Zalapa said. “I remember him as a very nice man with very interesting stories.”

Zalapa’s connections to the College have continued since that interview. He has hired five Maranatha students to assist his genetics work and helped Applied Science professors at the College more effectively teach students do genetic analysis.

“My goal is to help produce cranberries that are cheap and easy to grow and good to consume,” Zalapa said. “God provided a great job for me, something that allows me to serve people. “