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Beloved horticulturist helps develop chile grown in space

From an early age, Frank Matta ’68 ’74 knew he had a future in horticulture. As an undergraduate biology student at NMSU, he was eager to understand how plants are cultivated and managed. His curiosity and hard work in the classroom marked the beginning of a lifelong career in agricultural science. 

“I like biology and when I started working with plants, fruits and vegetables, I got hooked and said ‘well, this is the route I want to take,’ so I continued,” he says.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in biology, Matta chose to pursue a master’s degree in horticulture at NMSU. During this time, he also worked as a graduate research assistant under the supervision of Roy Nakayama ’48, one of New Mexico’s leading chile research scientists. Together, Matta and Nakayama developed a hybrid chile pepper called the NuMex Española Improved, which was released in 1984. The chile pepper was grown aboard the International Space Station in 2021 as part of NASA’s Plant Habitat-04 experiment.

In 1974, Matta was hired as a full-time staff member at Texas A&M University while in pursuit of a doctorate degree in horticulture. After graduating in 1977, he returned to NMSU where he worked as an Extension horticulturist and superintendent of the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde for eight years. During this time, Matta managed 200 acres of university-owned land where agronomic crops, fruits and vegetables were grown for research purposes. 

“I worked a lot with grapes, apples and of course, chile,” he says. “We also introduced cut flowers called statice flowers that we grew in the field to make floral arrangements.”

In 1986, Matta re-located to Mississippi State University where he began working as an associate professor and Extension horticulturist. A year later, he became a full-time professor, and traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, every summer to teach graduate-level courses at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonbur. Matta continued teaching overseas for 17 years.  

Near the end of his career at MSU, Matta was appointed interim department head for the university’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. He remained in this position until his retirement in 2016. Throughout his 32-year-long career at MSU, Matta became a beloved mentor to the many graduate students he advised.

“I was an adviser to about 68 students,” he says. “Fifty percent were international and 50% were domestic graduate students who I worked with mostly on theses and dissertations. It was very rewarding.” 

Upon retirement, Matta was appointed emeritus professor. He continued offering his services and expertise to MSU for several years. 

As an NMSU graduate research assistant, Frank Matta (pictured) worked with Roy Nakayama to develop a hybrid chile pepper called the NuMex Española Improved. The chile was grown on the International Space Station in 2021.