By: Ananya Sen
Victoria Kramer is a Field and Greenhouse Technician at the RIPE High-Throughput Phenotyping Facility where she helps with the day-to-day upkeep of the plants.
If you walked into the RIPE HTPF, located on the southern part of the Illinois campus, the first thing you would notice is the never-ending rows of plants. At any given time, several hundred plants are carefully cultivated over the 8000-foot greenhouse, lovingly tended to by a dedicated staff.
“The greenhouses are the foundation of the plant-based research and seed production for both the RIPE project and the transformation facility associated with the project,” said David Drag, the Senior Manager of Field and Greenhouse Operations for RIPE. “The state-of-the-art phenotyping system allows us to measure hundreds of plants at a time and get an insight into the photosynthetic performance and growth rates of the plants instead of just measuring one in the same amount of time.”
If you come in during the afternoon, you might also notice Victoria Kramer walking around the greenhouse, sorting through the different plants and organizing them for the researchers. Kramer has a unique journey that brought her to the RIPE greenhouse. Born at 34 weeks, in Palo Alto, California, Kramer was diagnosed with vision and speech issues, autism, and cerebral palsy. The only reason she can work for 30-40 hours a week is due to Botox injections in both her legs that cuts off misfiring nerves, preventing her muscles from constantly firing. “Some things take a lot more concentration and energy than what other people might have to face,” Kramer said.
Despite all the different and numerous challenges she faces daily, Kramer pours her energy into her time at the greenhouse. “She is incredibly focused and it is clear that she’s passionate about plants. She has been very dependable and adds a lot to my team by showing up and jumping in to make sure everything is in order,” Drag said.
Kramer’s interest in science stemmed from her parents—both of whom are computer scientists. “My dad worked at NASA and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and now he is the Executive Director of the Blue Waters Supercomputer at Illinois,” Kramer said. “I grew up liking NASA and all these organizations were involved in a number of science projects. It gave me the opportunity to see and talk about lots of different types of science.”
Kramer moved to Illinois in 2009. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with an Associate degree in Environmental Horticulture from Danville Area Community College. During her time there, she investigated the effects of different concentrations of fertilizers on Coleus plants. She also studied how different amounts of lighting affected various grass species. “I like growing things and making things that are pretty, which is why I took the path of horticulture,” Kramer said. “Horticulture involves science and also helping create beautiful things.”
After graduation, Kramer worked at Central Illinois Produce for 2.5 years during the pandemic. “I was one of two people who worked in the vertical hydroponic freight farm, which was essentially a shipping container that had been converted into a farm. Although some of the controls were automated, I manually planted and grew different plants including basil, lettuce, Swiss chard, and power greens. There were over 4,500 plants growing at all times,” Kramer said. The food that Kramer helped grow was sold to restaurants and the Illinois dining halls. It was also donated to the Mobile Market, a converted MTD bus that Carle Health used to give the community an opportunity to get free, fresh produce.
After the freight farm at CIP was shut down in 2021, Kramer was hired by the RIPE HTPF greenhouse. Her current tasks include preparing the pots, planting seeds, transplanting to larger pots as the plant grows, inspecting and measuring plants as they grow and putting that data into logs, harvesting the seeds, and organizing them into vials for shipping to researchers on campus and around the world.
“I am usually taking care of a thousand plants at any one time, each in different stages. We also have to clean up after harvest—all the plant material has to be autoclaved and destroyed so it does not contaminate other experiments. We also have to wash and sanitize everything that will be reused,” Kramer said.
“I am very proud of being a small part of a much bigger effort to improve the world’s food supply – particularly for poorer countries and in the face of climate change,” Kramer said. “The people I work with are great and I have met many other interesting people.”
Currently, Kramer is part of an effort to manage pest control without using chemicals. To do so, her team releases beneficial insects that eat the pests. The staff have been growing aromatic flowering plants that attract the beneficial insects and encourage them to reproduce. “There's a lot of diversity in those plants compared to the research plants, which are mostly tobacco and soybeans at this point. Kramer plays a huge role in getting all those plants taken care of,” Drag said.
In her spare time, Kramer enjoys watching and learning about baseball. “I love watching baseball and reading about it,” Kramer said. She is working on her bucket list, which includes visiting all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums in the US. So far, she has been to 18.
She also spends her time recycling old objects into beautiful garden art, which Kramer sells at art and craft fairs. Some of her flowers are on display at the door of the RIPE greenhouse for all to enjoy. “It combines my love for horticulture with my love of reuse, creating, and selling art, along with being an advocate for persons with special needs,” Kramer said.
By: Ananya Sen
Photos By: Victoria Kramer