AmericanHort Announces the HortScholar Class of 2021

Spotlighting Emerging Leaders in the Horticulture Industry

For the past fifteen years, AmericanHort has identified and supported emerging leaders in the horticulture industry through the HortScholar Program. After a rigorous application process, six students are chosen who show qualities such as a passion for the industry, growth mindset, teamwork, and leadership. Previous classes of HortScholars have gone on to become successful horticultural researchers, educators, growers, retailers, and much more – and the class of 2021 promises to do the same.

The 2021 HortScholars will be set on a path to success at Cultivate’21 where they will be exposed to the breadth of the horticulture industry, its opportunities, and its leaders. The program offers a beyond-the-classroom experience, giving insight and awareness of the industry, its supply chain, and where they might find a home for their passion. With a focus on professional development, the HortScholars will attend educational sessions, network, and explore the horticulture industry at Cultivate’21.

AmericanHort is excited to announce the HortScholar class of 2021. Take a moment to get to know them in their own words.

Jayden Black - Ohio State University

Jayden Black headshot

Growing plants and loving nature has been my passion for my entire life—for as long as I can remember. Though my first experience consisted of tending to a weed patch in my grandmother’s garden in Midwest, Ohio, it wasn’t long before I was exploring the world of ornamental horticulture. This hunger to learn more and expand my experience naturally led me to pursue a degree in horticulture at Ohio State University, one in Sustainable Plant Systems (Horticulture Specialization) and the other in Agriculture Business. I continuously strive to create sustainable, ecologically functional, and horticulturally enriched landscapes for people to enjoy. This industry combines my creativity, communication skills, and passion for plants, and I am excited to join the industry as a professional following my graduation in May of 2022. My goal has evolved into sharing and exploring my love of plants with others, and I hope to have a career in horticulture production, outreach, education, or state extension. I believe in the immense potential of teaching the world how to grow beautiful plants—inspiring others to make a change.

Stephanie Cruz - University of Florida

Cruz Stephanie

My interest in cooking and nature evolved into an interest in horticulture when I learned about the health benefits of eating plant-based foods. My interest in horticulture solidified when I interned as a farmhand at Field and Fork, Farm and Gardens at the University of Florida as an undergraduate. I became more curious about protected agriculture after taking several classes on greenhouse production; I have always been fascinated by the many methods a grower can use to manipulate how a plant grows or produces based on controlling the environment in a greenhouse or indoor growing environment. I enjoy the combination of art, nature, science, and business that comes with working in this field. I am currently a graduate student at the University of Florida, focusing on controlled environment agriculture of fruiting vegetables. I hope to build on this experience by learning from other growers so I can be on the path to becoming a grower myself upon my graduation in December 2021.

Maria Fernanda do Amaral Trientini - University of Florida

Maria Fernanda

As a child who grew up in a big city, I always sought to link people to nature. While earning my Bachelor in Agriculture at the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil), ornamental plant production sparked a special interest in me, as I saw it as a way to bring nature to city dwellers. After graduation, I worked for three years on the professional market in environmental education and outreach. I taught gardening and landscape design for children, associate degree-seeking, and vulnerable populations. I have had the opportunity to experience projects that put together people and plants throughout my career, teaching kids and adults about the importance of the environment, including landscape design, gardening, ornamental plants, and plant care. Since August 2018, I have been working at the University of Florida (UF), where I expect to earn my Master’s degree in Environmental Horticulture this Summer and to start my Ph.D. in the Fall. As a horticulture professional, I hope to bring scientific knowledge and methods to advance ornamental plant production and better meet consumer demands.

Juan Quijia Pillajo - Ohio State University


My passion for horticulture was inspired by the tireless work and commitment of my parents to successfully run their ornamental greenhouse business in Quito, Ecuador. I had the opportunity to pursue a degree in agriculture at Zamorano University in Honduras and later a master at The Ohio State University doing research focused on floriculture crop improvement. Throughout my professional career, I have been very into the floriculture industry. I have had the chance to work as a grower, technical advisor, and researcher. I am a very curious person with an unquenchable desire to learn. In my last position as technical advisor, I had the chance to get very into the use of beneficial microbes and bio-stimulation for crop production. I realized that although microbial-based products can be an important tool there is a huge need for information to successfully use them. These experiences prompted me to pursue a Ph.D. at The Ohio State University and study plant-microbe interactions and how these interactions can influence plant growth and health. My commitment has always been to help growers succeed. I want to promote an innovative and sustainable horticulture industry through developing environmentally friendly tools for crop production.

Ankit Singh - University of Connecticut

Ankit Singh

I am a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut (UConn), where I am studying the technical and financial feasibility of the novel GREENBOX technology (USDA funded). My grandfather was a farmer, and my mother has spent lots of time growing different types of guavas and roses and continues to grow different vegetables, so I am not surprised that my inherited green thumb manifested in me while researching urban agriculture. Through my research with GREENBOX, I aim to further the knowledge of large-scale urban horticulture that reduces the food transportation network’s strain and provides fresh, nutritious produce to the urban populous. I have also enjoyed growing lettuce for my research, making different salads, and sharing it with my friends and loved ones. I love horticulture that is localized with an educational component, as science shows that early involvement in horticulture increases nutritional messaging effectiveness and encourages people to eat healthier. I enjoy teaching environmental science and scientific writing to college students (freshman-seniors) and being a graduate mentor to high school students, as they take on environmental projects at UConn. I hope to have a career in sustainability or teaching, and I enjoy kayaking, visiting museums, and engaging with the arts in my spare time.

Runshi Xie - Texas A&M University

Runshi Xie

I have always been captivated by the biodiversity and improved well-being that plants bring to individuals since I grew up in a subtropical city located in southeast China. My childhood experience has led to my passion for nature and science. I started my undergraduate study in Landscape Architecture, where I was exposed to both nature and plant sciences. Later I joined Texas A&M University for my master’s degree in Plant Breeding, which ultimately leads to my current pursuit of doctoral-level education in Horticulture. I am currently working on a multi-state multi-disciplinary project to combat the crapemyrtle bark scale (CMBS), an introduced pest species in the United States. I have been confirming and evaluating the potential threats of CMBS to other important or native crops in the US. My current CMBS life table study aims to improve understanding of insect biology such as the life cycle and mating behavior, ultimately creating integrated pest management programs for CMBS. I believe my research goals would allow me to develop innovative and sustainable pest control and management methods in the horticulture industry.

Every year, AmericanHort also invites an individual from the previous HortScholar class to act as a mentor in the HortScholar Coordinator position. We are proud to welcome back David McKinney, a recent graduate from Colorado State University and current horticulturalist at the Denver Zoological Foundation. David is skilled in landscape management, greenhouse management, research, and teaching. He is strongly involved in the industry and has a background in perennial production and maintenance.

Get to know this year’s HortScholar class even better during Cultivate’21! All-Access Pass holders can join their panel discussion, Looking Ahead to Make Your Company Attractive to the Next Wave of Employees on Tuesday, July 13 at 9:30 AM. The HortScholars will also be presenting individual Ignite! Presentations on topics they are passionate about as a part of the Cultivate’21 On-Demand package as well as live on Monday, July 12 at 2:45 PM on the tHRIve stage, located on the trade show floor.

For more information about the HortScholar Program, please visit