Philanthropist Passionately Supports HudsonAlpha’s Greenhouse

When philanthropist Kathy L. Chan first heard HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology’s plan to build a greenhouse on its campus to advance the work of its Center for Plant Science and Sustainable Agriculture, she saw the possibility of a world that no longer knows hunger. 

“Growing up in China during the war, my mother and my grandmother would tell us to eat all of our rice — every last grain. ‘Do not waste it,’ they’d say. ‘Imagine the people in China who do not have rice.’ So, I was taught at a young age to value food and not to be wasteful,” she says.

Thanks in part to a generous donation from the Pei Ling Charitable Trust, which Mrs. Chan and her husband, Tony, and son, David, serve as trustees, HudsonAlpha’s Kathy L. Chan Greenhouse came to fruition in July, adding significant lab, teaching and greenhouse space to propagate and grow research plants. The Institute’s Plant Center team aims to improve existing crops, develop new uses for plants, lead more large-scale collaborations and develop low-cost tools and genomic sequencing to link plant genes. Additionally, the expansion enables HudsonAlpha to have more engagement with agricultural biotechnology. 

“In its most basic sense, simply opening this facility is tremendously exciting for us because of what this building represents,” HudsonAlpha President Neil Lamb, PhD, says. “Within these walls, scientific discoveries will unlock solutions to feed, fuel and clothe our world.”

The family-owned trust was established in 1988 in honor of the elder Mr. Chan’s grandparents. As trustees, the Chans are charged with carrying out the mission of making local, national, and global contributions primarily in the areas of art and education. The Chans have been longtime supporters of HudsonAlpha. “When I saw that they wanted to build this greenhouse and the goal was to improve crops and produce food faster for the world, I became interested in supporting it,” Mrs. Chan says.

The 14,000-square-foot glass greenhouse on the biotech campus is the only one of its kind in the U.S. It includes new top-of-the-line molecular laboratories and cutting-edge technological features to help researchers at HudsonAlpha advance their mission of using genomics to help sustainably feed and fuel the planet. It will also serve as a living teaching lab for Institute faculty, students and the general public. The facility was inspired by the rapid growth of HudsonAlpha’s agriculture genomics program.

The Kathy L. Chan Greenhouse is a showpiece on the biotech campus, with seven glass grow rooms rising 15 feet in the air. Each unit has the capacity to grow up to 500 plants in customized climates and lighting schedules. 

The impressively high ceilings allow scientists to grow larger, taller plants. It also helps optimize air conditions and eliminate hot spots within the greenhouse along with a floor heating system and HEPA air filters. The color and intensity of supplemental LED lighting can also be customized to simulate the setting or rising sun. This enables scientists to manipulate the flowering of plants and minimize the time it takes to breed new crop lines.

The greenhouse’s long-term seed storage vault enables the Plant Center team to work closely with preserved seeds that hold valuable genetic information about a plant’s history. These vulnerable seeds must be kept in specific conditions to protect their viability. The greenhouse’s temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms provide safe storage of seeds for up to 10 years. An alarm system alerts the team if it detects any changes in temperature or humidity. 

The greenhouse also houses two molecular labs that enable scientists to spend more time with their organism of study, opening the door for more discovery. 

Research conducted here will focus on advancing sustainability in a variety of crops, maximizing fuel production from plant biomass, reducing fertilizer use, and reducing or eliminating fungicides to increase crop yields. A public demonstration garden just outside the greenhouse showcases advancements in crop improvement. 

To Mrs. Chan, the greenhouse is where science meets art. An internationally-known jewelry designer and artist, Mrs. Chan grew up fascinated with plants and the beauty of nature. “Most of my jewelry designs come from nature,” she says, including three sculptures currently on display at the University of Alabama in Huntsville Library that use precious gemstones to symbolize germinating seeds. And this makes her especially proud to support HudsonAlpha’s greenhouse. 

“I think the scientists are going to produce something very amazing here that will improve the production of vegetables and grains,” she says. “And I believe it will help ease the world’s food problems.”