Current Lab Members

Blueberry Breeding Team

Blueberry Breeding Team

Photo left: Blueberry Breeding Team from furthest to nearest. Far: James Ballington; Middle: Terry Bland; Near: Tessa Ruth Brydon-Yelton (Tessa left the group in June 2016 to pursue her career in Yosemite National Park)



Partnering Faculty:

Dr. Jim Ballington

Information coming soon…


Research Associates:

Terry Bland

Information coming soon…

Jessica Spencer

Jessica SpencerJessica grew up in High Point, North Carolina and attended NCSU, graduating with majors in Biochemistry and Biological Sciences in 2004. After working with mosquitoes, termites, ants, and other insects while at BASF, then with human chromosomes at Lab Corp, and finally with mice and cytokines at the UNC Thurston Arthritis Research Center she finally decided that if she wanted a career working with plants she would need an advanced degree. She was accepted into the NCSU graduate program in Plant Breeding, obtaining a Monsanto Fellowship.  She graduated with her Master’s in Science in 2012 and moved to Naples, Florida to work as an assistant sweet corn breeder with Syngenta.  Missing her home state more than she reckoned, opportunity knocked just as she started searching for jobs back home. A friend let her know that Dr. Hamid Ashrafi was looking for someone to fill the position of Research Associate in Castle Hayne, managing the traditional breeding side of his Blueberry Breeding program.  Jessica now resides in Wilmington NC, working at the Castle Hayne Horticultural Crop Research Center where she manages all stages of the blueberry breeding program from the greenhouse to the field.  She hires temporary labor and interns to help harvest and evaluate berries, care for plants, and wok on tissue cultures in the lab.  You can contact her at for more information.



Rishi Aryal

Rishi AryalI completed my PhD in plant genomics form the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I am interested in molecular biology, genomics and bioinformatics as my primary area of research. With the advancement in sequencing technologies, genomic data are growing everyday by leaps and bounds. Obtaining meaningful information out of such vast amount of data pose a major challenge in present day biological research. I specialize in using various bioinformatics and computational tools to analyze such large amount of genomic data.

Blueberry, Vaccinium sp., is a highly valuable fruit crop in many parts of the world. It is gaining even more popularity, because of high pigment content, as a source of biological antioxidant. The highly marketable blueberries crop belongs to the northern high bush variety, which requires moderate amount of chilling to initiate flowering. However, repeated frosting can be devastating for crop production as the subsequent frostings tends to damage the previously initiated flower buds. Another setback to the commercial blueberry farming is difficulty of mechanical harvesting of the ripe berries. Since blueberries are non-climectaric fruit, pre-ripe harvesting is not an option. Mechanical harvesting of the ripe fruit can cause significant damage to the fruit quality. I am using various molecular and genomic tools to understand the flowering time and fruit quality of the cultivated blueberries. I use next generation sequencing technologies including Illumina and PacBio to obtain the genomic and transciptomic sequences from wild and cultivated blueberries. Using those sequences I hope to identify the genes that regulates the economically important traits in different cultivars of blueberries. Thus identified genes can be used to further improve the crop quality by molecular and traditional breeding strategies.



Graduate Students:

Ashley Yow


I’m from Durham, NC, and as the eldest child of two, I always had a lot of responsibility for my younger sister and myself growing up, so I learned at an early age that hard work, independence, and time management were important life skills. My work experience includes a broad range of molecular applications, phylogenetic and bioinformatics software use, and even some field-based research. I also have a lot of different work experience that has helped me to develop soft skills like inventory management and people skills. I worked for Dr. Xiang in the plant biology department for the entire year of 2014, including the summer semester. I developed strong skills in CTAB DNA extraction, PCR use/troubleshooting and sequencing reactions. I performed flow cytometry on 33 different species in the Dogwood genus, and used Mesquite and RASP software programs for analyzing and interpreting the data from flow cytometry.

Elisheba Young

Elisheba is using a bioanalyzer to measure quality and quantity of a blueberry genomic library,

Horticulture allows Elisheba to blend her pursuit for a scientific career with her ever-burgeoning fascination with the inner workings of plants. As a child, plants were her favorite thing to
study and experiment with. She learned in a middle-school science fair that plants are not sessile, boring creatures, bending aimlessly in the wind, obedient only to the whims of sunlight and water. Instead, she learned that they were meticulously crafted entities that possessed deeper self-regulation than her middle-school classes let on. As she got older, her fascination did not diminish. As a sophomore Biology/Pre-Medical student in Spelman College, Elisheba took an elective in Botany and became even more intrigued with the intricacies of plant life. This elective incorporated trips to sustainable herbal gardens during the year. It was here were she had her first exposure to the maintenance, expertise, and responsibility that horticulturalists require to have a persistent impact on their communities. After this experience, she immediately began maintaining vegetable & herb gardens at home, work, and in my surrounding communities.

Lauren Redpath

Lauren RedpathMy name is Lauren Redpath. I was born here in Raleigh but have moved around a lot since highschool. I went to College of Charleston for my undergrad in Biology and French. From there I moved to a small town called Yeongwol in South Korea and taught English for a year. I then moved to Kyoto, Japan for 4 years where I again taught English in Osaka. I love trying new food and exploring new cultures and travel every chance I can get; I have been to over 40 countries! I also love nature and being outdoors, camping and hiking are two of my favorite activities. And as cliché as it sounds, I really like learning. After I graduated undergrad, I continued taking various courses and tests to keep my mind active. I returned to the U.S. to attend the University of Georgia, where I studied cold hardiness in blueberry floral buds and obtained my masters in August 2017. Thus, it is quite natural you find me here in Ashrafi lab! I hope someday to be just as good a mentor to others as I walk them through laboratory experiences.


Undergraduate Students

David Keck

David Keck is helping to collect leaves for DNA extraction in a blueberry farm.

David Keck is a Georgia-born N.C.S.U. student pursuing a degree in Agricultural Science. The younger of two siblings, David grew up surrounded by rural, undeveloped land which sparked his interest in the wonder of the natural world and the inner workings of plants. This interest has brought him from a small town in central Georgia to Raleigh in pursuit of his interests.

Having experience in managed Pinus taeda populations and plant propagation techniques including grafting, cuttings, and nurse rootings, David was ready to broaden his horizons from the field to the laboratory.

Now, David’s educational career has led him to blueberry genomics –currently developing practical skills in aseptic techniques, tissue culture, and genomic data analysis. He hopes that between his past experience and new skills, that he may contribute to the research that Dr. Ashrafi is spearheading in the department.


Eric Stahling

Eric StahlingAs an Eagle Scout, have had an interest in the outdoors since I was a little kid! This interest lead me to Ashrafi’s Lab, but it’s been quite an ordeal. I was born and raised in Raleigh, close to NCSU, and I always knew that I wanted to go here. I enjoy hiking, biking, longboarding, and playing video games, but it is my passion to learn and to work outdoors that brought me here.

I’m a Horticulture major, and as such, I want to apply my knowledge of the growth of plants, culturing, and different lab techniques, to Ashrafi’s lab, and develop various skills to contribute to the research!


Adjunct Graduate Students

Kelsey Zielinski

Information coming soon…