Small fruits specialist leaving YouTube legacy

Small fruits specialist leaving YouTube legacy
Gary Gao
Gary Gao

By Bradford Sherman, OSU South Centers

Yu “Gary” Gao, PhD, has accomplished nearly everything professionally possible. He was the editor and co-author of a highly cited and award-winning publication; he has established many successful programs over the years; and all the while, he has been a mentor to, and helped launch the careers of many young scientific minds.

But nothing tops his most recent achievement, when he fulfilled a lifelong dream by earning a promotion to the rank of full professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES). So, you might ask, what is the logical next step for a man like Gao, who has now reached the pinnacle of a career in academia?

Gao leads a workshop at South Centers.

Become a YouTuber, obviously.

In all seriousness though, using the immensely popular, self-publishing video platform to share the wealth of knowledge he has accumulated over his career is part of a much larger plan for Gao. Now, his career path forward is all about leaving a lasting legacy.

“I don’t know if it is an age thing or what, but this desire to leave a legacy for other people means a whole lot more now,” Gao stated. “One thing that excites me a lot is recording YouTube videos, where I show people how to grow things, et cetera. And since videos are kind of permanent, it is like leaving a legacy.”

If you ever talk to Gao for very long about YouTube, he will be sure to tell you about the video that first got him thinking about using the platform as a way to enhance his programming. It featured a common man in his backyard showing the viewers a few slick tricks to effectively rake leaves. As of the writing of this article, the video with a simple title and unpretentious presentation has been viewed 3.2 million times, and the host “David” now has nearly 11,000 subscribers.

“‘How To Rake Leaves’—that was my inspiration,” Gao said with a chuckle.

And while “Gary” still has a way to go before he catches up with “David,” right now he is having a lot of fun being in front of the camera and working alongside the talented team of Duane Rigsby and Sarah Swanson, who shoot and produce the videos.

“It is also exciting to know that we have people like Duane and Sarah at The Ohio State University South Centers, who are equally passionate about this,” he said. “I can do what I do, and then they turn it into really neat videos. I have a little more time and freedom to do these types of things now, following my promotion to full professor.”

That ultimate career goal Gao spoke of was finally fulfilled on May 30. A letter of intent to pursue the full professor rank went through a long process that included a departmental review, the CFAES promotion-and-tenure review, a letter from the dean of CFAES, and then the provost’s review before ultimately being approved by Ohio State’s Board of Trustees.

Gao leads the classroom portion of a workshop at South Centers.

“It was one of the happiest days of my life. It is hard to imagine getting here from my humble beginning as a graduate student. This has been a lifelong dream for me,” Gao reflected. “You always want to accomplish great things, but there are no guarantees in life.”

He was also quick to point out all the help he received along the way, from everyone including graduate advisors to co-workers to students/scholars to members of his family.

“Even though it was a personal achievement, a lot of people have helped me along the way,” he said. “It certainly took a village.”

Gao currently serves as a small fruits specialist and the co-leader of the specialty crops program at CFAES’ South Centers, where he has worked since 2010. During that time, he has built a program that includes a staff consisting of Ryan Slaughter, full-time research assistant, and a steady stream of visiting scholars. He holds several popular events throughout the year including the “Blueberry, Bramble, and Wine Grape Field Day;” the “Blueberry, Bramble, and Wine Grape Field Night;” the “Pruning School;” and the “Grape and Wine Workshop.” He also conducts research and trials on a variety of small fruits.

His previous stops at Ohio State have included horticulture specialist roles with Ohio State University Extension, CFAES’ outreach arm, in Delaware County and Clermont County, where 25 years ago, he founded the “Southeast Ohio Perennial Flower School” that is still going strong to this day. He also founded Extension’s Master Gardener Volunteers program, and he has spent time as a post-doc researcher at Purdue University, working primarily with culinary herbs, blueberries, and muskmelons.

Born in Taiyuan, in northern China, he came to the United States in 1985 as a graduate student at Ohio State, where he earned his master’s in viticulture and his doctorate in table grapes.

Looking forward, in addition to producing educational videos, he wants to continue his work as a mentor to young people, and he also wants to continue his work on the development of new rootstocks, one of the major goals of which is the development of a small blueberry tree through grafting.

“If this comes to fruition, there is a very good chance that anybody could plant this, and harvest blueberries from your little tree in your backyard,” he said.

Gao and his wife, Wendy, reside in central Ohio and are the parents of two sons, Tom and Alvin, a medical school student and a technology development specialist for PNC Bank, respectively.