Alumni Spotlight: Jim Kolmer

June 1, 2018

Plant Pathology Adjunct Professor Jim KolmerJim Kolmer
M.S. 1982

Advisor: Jim Groth

Current employer/organization & position: Plant Pathologist with the USDA-ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory and Adjunct Professor with the University of Minnesota Department of Plant Pathology

Tell us about your current research or work involvements and their impacts.

I am involved with research on the population genetics and biology of the wheat leaf rust pathogen, Puccinia triticina in the U.S. and worldwide. I have also conducted genetic studies in wheat to determine which leaf rust resistance genes condition the most effective resistance to the current P. triticina population in the U.S., and I have also characterized and mapped new genes for leaf rust resistance in wheat.

What's your passion? What do you love about your work and your field?

I am fascinated by the interplay between host populations and their pathogen populations. The long-term questions I have explored in my research have centered on the evolution of pathogen populations: how related are the current populations in different worldwide regions; how are races and molecular genotypes of pathogens moving across and between different worldwide regions; how did the current populations of pathogens diverge from earlier common ancestral populations, and how did the evolution of the host population affect the evolution of these past and current pathogen populations? With the advances in DNA sequencing technology, it is now possible to address these questions, with a power that was unimaginable only a decade ago.

Why did you get involved with Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota? Tell us about your path to Plant Pathology.

When at home in Ames, IA during my summers as an undergraduate at St. Johns University in Collegeville MN, I worked in Bob Nyvall's lab at Iowa State University. Bob was an extension plant pathologist, working on soybeans and corn. It was in Bob's lab that I became familiar with working with fungi, and first learned about plant pathology. 

I also learned how to wheel-hoe soybean plots in 95% humidity in 90 F degree temperatures, and that corn fields in Iowa are really a miserable place to work in during the hot weather. Maybe that's why I have worked on wheat for the past 30 years. 

Bob Nyvall was a Minnesota native and had completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota. He strongly encouraged me to consider graduate school there.

What's great about the Department of Plant Pathology?

I really appreciate the long history of the Department of Plant Pathology, especially the early work on wheat stem rust that was conducted by the department in cooperation with the USDA from 1917 to the 1950s. The department has always had an international reputation, as scientists from all over the world have studied here. As a result, the department has always been able to recruit excellent faculty in many different research areas.

What was your favorite moment from your time in the department?

It would have to be when I first started getting results from my M.S. thesis research on virulence in the bean rust fungus. That was my first inkling that I could conduct research that could eventually be published and have some significance to it.

I also remember the cookie baking contest at a Thursday night seminar. I still can't believe that I lost to Bob Bowden!

Who was someone in the department who inspired you/made an impact on your career and why/how?

Jim Groth had a huge impact on my career. He really should be credited along with Alan Roelfs for being among the very first to apply principles of population genetics and biology to plant pathogen populations. I was also greatly influenced by Kurt Leonard when I was his Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University. His work on fitness in plant pathogen populations is classic. You can see both Jim and Kurt's impact on my career in any number of my publications.

How did your education at the U of M help prepare you for what you are doing today?

I received a very good background in genetics of plant pathogens and also disease resistance in crops. These two areas have always been the main focus of my research career.

What advice do you have for current students (and future alumni)?

Don't get stuck in a rut. In today's research one needs to continually keep abreast of new technological developments and be constantly adapting your research to take advantage of these. I also found it very beneficial to stay true to my long-term goals in structuring and thinking about my research. Of course I have been fortunate to have employment opportunities that allowed me to do this. Also be willing to explore opportunities in different research environs.