So biochemistry plays a crucial role in Mazourek's breeding program, especially when it comes to flavor, which is not as easy to select for as visual traits.

"How do you get new chemistries to develop in a plant and react with other organisms -- in humans, as nutrients, in pests, as defense mechanisms?" Mazourek said. "We want to come up with ideal new trait packages to help growers and consumers, by understanding the biochemistry and genes controlling it."

Mazourek, who joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 2009, is following in the footsteps of many visionary breeders at Cornell, and is one of only a handful left in the public sector. His immediate predecessor and graduate adviser, Molly Jahn, spearheaded organic breeding at Cornell and made breakthroughs in understanding what makes peppers pungent. And supermarkets are full of the fruits of Henry Munger's efforts -- he introduced more than 50 types of cucumbers, as well as many popular varieties of melons, onions, squash and carrots. Calvin Noyes Keeney, for whom Mazourek's professorship is now named, worked with Liberty Hyde Bailey to develop the first stringless variety of beans.

Mazourek, who grew up on a farm in nearby Newfield, N.Y., says he is fulfilling his boyhood dream -- but not exactly the way he expected.

"I always thought I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. But plant breeding lets you build new plants. I get to spend all day, every day, being an inventor," he said.