Letter from the Department Head of Plant Pathology: May 2020

May 13, 2020

Dear Friends:

To say that Spring Semester 2020 has been like no other is an understatement! No doubt, every single one of us has been impacted by the global pandemic. For the department, this has meant delivering courses online, rethinking research protocols, curtailing travel and working remotely. Throughout it all, our department has been resilient and creative. I am overwhelmed by the “can do” attitude of our students, staff, and faculty. We will get through this and we will remain a strong and dynamic department. Here are a few highlights from the past several months:

Online teaching and learning. When we walked out of our classrooms on March 6, all of us (students AND instructors) were looking forward to Spring Break the following week. Little did we know that we would return on March 18 to a very different world! By then, our university made the strategic decision to move all instruction online, recognizing the need to protect the health of everyone at the U. We took to Zoom (remote conferencing platform) and leveraged the U’s Canvas platform for distribution of course materials. So, how did it go? Honestly, I’ve been surprised and impressed! For sure there were a few hiccups, but students and faculty rose to the occasion and many of our classes proceeded unhindered. Perhaps the most challenging aspect has been lab classes. Professor Ruth Dill-Macky, Professor Bob Blanchette and Instructional Support Specialist Todd Burnes had the honors of delivering lab materials online. They used videos, photos, and remote demonstrations to emphasize key concepts. Recently Ruth shared an unsolicited email from one of the students enrolled in “Introductory Plant Pathology” this semester, which I think sums up these efforts nicely:

“Thank you for the amazing semester. Your class has definitely been the best course I have probably ever taken. Even the transition to online was perfect. Your passion for the topic of plant pathology really did rub off on me.”

As we continue to refine and improve our online education, student feedback is a critical part of the process. To what degree we will be required to teach online this fall is unknown, but Professor Jim Kurle and Instructional Support Specialist Becca Hall are being proactive, converting the popular “Plants Get Sick, Too!” for online delivery this fall.

Adapting research strategies. Our research has been impacted by the pandemic too. Most labs have been shuttered. But our college has been proactive in finding effective strategies to allow some students, staff and faculty to be on campus for limited periods of time to pursue critical activities such as maintaining microbial cultures or greenhouse plants. Importantly, these strategies have allowed most labs to prepare for field research and we expect the field season to proceed without a hitch. Social distancing, appropriate hygiene, and protective gear are critical to keeping researchers safe. Later this month we will learn how our college will implement Project Sunrise, a U-wide effort to bring more researchers into labs in a safe manner. This will be a gradual process (a “sunrise”), with waves of researchers returning to campus.

Remote seminars, graduate defenses and graduation. Our Monday seminar series remains a galvanizing force in the department. With thanks to our Science & Outreach Committee, chaired by USDA scientist and Adjunct Professor Jim Kolmer, our seminars moved online. Thanks too to Communications Coordinator Grant Czadzeck who has stepped in as a technical expert to support seminar delivery. Our seminar series wrapped up this past Monday and was a rousing success. Graduate defense seminars have also moved online. Congratulations to Alissa Geske, Melissa Lim, Pratibha Sharma and Deepak Haarith, who each successfully defended an M.S. or Ph.D. degree remotely! And on May 16 the U will celebrate graduating students in our first ever online graduation. It promises to be an adventure and, I hope, a fitting way to celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates.

Maintaining community. Our department is all about the people. Keeping a strong sense of community during this period is a top priority and a shared opportunity. In addition to moving our seminars online, we have moved our weekly coffee online. We meet each Wednesday morning for quick updates from the administrative team before breaking into smaller groups for discussion and sharing. It has been fun to see people in their “native” environment; I’ve met many children, cats, dogs and houseplants in recent weeks! While I look forward to seeing everyone in person soon, I have truly enjoyed getting to know my colleagues in a more personal way. Yoga Instructor Rebecca Curland (who is also a staff scientist in the Dill-Macky lab) has moved her popular weekly yoga class online. Students, staff and faculty from several departments join in! During this period, we have also had employee transitions. After more than three decades in the department, we will soon say “farewell” to Todd Burnes. Todd has played critical roles in maintaining and delivering our lab classes. He has been our departmental safety officer. And he has contributed over the years to forest health research in the Blanchette lab. Todd will be missed and we wish him the very best in retirement! We have been fortunate to welcome Becca Hall as Instructional Support Specialist & Outreach Coordinator. Becca, who is currently finishing her M.S. degree with Professors Dean Malvick and Kathryn Bushley, will assume the teaching roles that Todd held, with expanded capacity to coordinate departmental outreach. We also welcomed Grace Anderson, who recently transitioned from a research staff position with Professor Jim Kurle to the role of Research Support Specialist & Plant Disease Clinic Diagnostician. This role is a partnership between the department proper and the Plant Disease Clinic and will provide enhanced space management and safety capacity while providing the Clinic with additional skilled support in the busy season. Finally, we welcomed Kelsey Hyland. Kelsey recently joined the Dill-Macky lab as a staff researcher. (I have only met Kelsey online so far, but I hope to meet face-to-face soon!)

I remain grateful for each and every one of you. Thank you for your continuous support of our department!

Jim Bradeen

Professor and Department Head

Department of Plant Pathology