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Letter from Ruth Dill-Macky, Interim Department Head

Ruth headshot outside

Dear Friends,

A week or so ago our department celebrated our Awards Day. It was a time to recognize the academic achievements and service contributions of our students, staff, and faculty and an acknowledgement that the work we do is both meaningful and impactful. In reading through the nomination materials ahead of our awards day celebration I was reminded of the breadth of the impact of our departments research portfolio and humbled to learn about the many ways individuals contribute to the all the work we do in Plant Pathology.

The end of the academic year is upon us, though spring is coming ever so slowly in Minnesota. I have to admit my patience with winter is wearing somewhat thin now that it is May and I am ready for the change from teaching to field research. My lab is replete with seed, thousands of small packets that have been carefully filled and diligently arranged in planting order, and they now sit ready for the field trials that we hope to get into the ground one day soon. At this time of year, with the leaves just breaking from their buds, it is hard to imagine that in a few short months we will be harvesting the grain from the seeds that lie dormant in those seed packets, and equally hard to imagine that we will be doing so in the heat that generally marks the small grains harvest on campus.

Summer also marks the time that many of us travel to scientific meetings to present our research findings and network with colleagues. Our departmental travel awards provide financial support to our students and aid a number of them to attend professional meetings in 2023. Several of our students will be attending the North Central American Phytopathological Society meetings – it is the 75th anniversary of our division and Purdue University is hosting the meeting in West Lafayette, Indiana June 20-22 – or the Plant Health 2023 meetings being held in Denver Colorado August 12-16. We will be holding an alumni social at the APS meetings in Denver and I hope to see many of you there!


Ruth Dill-Macky 

Professor and Interim Department Head, Plant Pathology

Faculty Updates for 2023


Robert A-Q standing in front of a lake

UMN Plant Pathology is excited to welcome Dr. Robert Alvarez-Quinto as our new Assistant Professor of Virology starting this summer! Robert grew up in a small agricultural town in Ecuador where he spent his weekends grafting fruit trees and monitoring for pests in rice paddies with his dad. Robert became interested in plant virology while studying at ESPOL University. “I found it fascinating that viruses despite being so small and invisible to the naked-eyed were causing that much trouble in our crops,” Robert says.

After graduating with a degree in Agriculture and Biology from ESPOL University, Robert joined a new virology lab (CIBE-ESPOL). Due to a critical need for virology expertise resulting from the emergence of new viral diseases of bananas, maize, papaya, small fruits, and native Andean crops, Robert trained at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT-Colombia) and the USDA Horticultural Crops Research Unit in Corvallis, OR. There, Robert learned to use molecular tools and pioneering techniques for the characterization and management of plant viruses. “I had a great time, I loved it, and I found I was good at it. I was also able to understand the real dimension of our research impact – we were generating knowledge that will benefit growers miles away in Africa, Asia, and South America.” These experiences left Robert motivated to pursue a career in plant virology to positively impact growers’ lives.

From 2017-2021 Robert conducted his PhD studies in the UMN Plant Pathology department under Dr. Ben Lockhart where he characterized new DNA viruses in ornamental crops and worked on international projects with maize lethal necrosis disease (MLND) in Kenya and Ecuador. Most recently, Robert has been conducting postdoctoral studies on viral diseases of small fruits and vegetable crops at Oregon State University. Specifically, he is characterizing emergent viral diseases of blueberries in the Pacific Northwest, identifying potential viral vectors, and developing testing protocols to produce virus-free plants. Additionally, Robert is developing detection protocols for exotic viral pathogens in the genus Torradovirus that have potential to affect US vegetable crops. At UMN, Robert foresees conducting applied research on viral diseases of major Minnesota crops, developing fundamental knowledge for new management methods, and providing researchbased support to regulatory agencies to prevent the entry of new plant viruses. Ultimately, he hopes to improve our ability to respond to new diseases of economically important crops and reduce their impacts on yields. Robert is also excited to design new courses, use the cutting-edge facilities at UMN to enhance the impact of his research, and to teach and mentor students. “One thing that makes me feel very happy is when my students advance in their careers.” Outside of plant virology, Robert enjoys traveling and learning from cultures and languages (currently learning Portuguese), as well as outdoor activities like camping and hiking. Robert says he is “very happy to join the Department of Plant Pathology at UMN and being part of a prestigious group of faculty and research leaders in the region and the world.”

Ashish in potato field spring 2023

Congratulations to Dr. Ashish Ranjan for his recent promotion to a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Molecular Plant Pathology! Although Ashish has been leading an independent research group since 2020, he is excited to take on new teaching responsibilities including Molecular PlantMicrobe Interactions and Current Topics in Molecular Plant Pathology. Ashish will also continue in his mentoring and advising roles and grow his involvement in national, college, and department service roles. Over the past few years Ashish has built an innovative research program focusing on molecular plant-microbe interactions among fungal and bacterial pathogens of soybean and potato. Specifically, his group is examining the mechanisms of plant genetic resistance and identifying key genes and biological pathways for crop improvement. Additionally, they are characterizing pathogen diversity and virulence factors that can be targeted to control diseases such as white mold of soybean, verticillium wilt, and common scab of potato. With support from federal entities, commodity groups, growers, and industrial partners Ashish’s lab is using greenhouse/growthchamber studies as well as on-farm trials to translate labbased knowledge into practical outcomes.

Ashish and his group have developed and maintained disease nurseries for Verticillium wilt and common scab of potato that they are currently using for screening potato varieties to identify resistance. Ashish says that these varieties can become important sources for national and local breeding efforts to improve disease resistance. Further, they have also initiated a project to isolate and characterize pathogenic Streptomyces and Verticillium species from Minnesota potato fields in order to identify new races or species of these pathogens. Ashish’s lab has also identified and is currently in the process of determining the function of key genes in the phenylpropanoid pathway in soybean that contributes to resistance against white mold disease. Ashish is also excited about other projects such as studying the role of extracellular vesicles (exosomes) in plant-microbe interactions and exploring the role that soil health plays in sustainable crop production and disease management. When asked what drew him to this work, Ashish says that he developed an interest in finding solutions to crop diseases when he visited his grandparents’ farms as a child. “That was the precursor that drew me to my current professional career decision,” says Ashish.

Moving forward, Ashish will continue to address important disease concerns of local Minnesota soybean and potato growers with translational outcomes both locally and globally. Ashish says that he is fortunate to be a part of one of the best plant pathology departments and humbled to receive the support of students, staff, and faculty in his ongoing efforts.

PPSO Spring Updates

Grad students Spring 2023 on front stairs


What is PPSO? The Plant Pathology Student Organization (PPSO) has a highly bonded structure dedicated to facilitating peer professional development and personal support. The group has monthly general meetings and social gatherings every other week. Just recently, PPSO established a journal club serving Plant Pathology graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. In the first few months of the journal club, various labs have hosted peer-to-peer discussions focusing on tools for data management, and improving our scientific communication skills by practicing writing more detailed methods sections and disseminating our findings to a broader audience.

PPSO students represent the graduate program and the department at the university and college levels. José E. Solórzano is the representative at The Graduate Student Board of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS). Andrew Mann is by José E. Solórzano PPSO Spring Update the current Plant Pathology representative for the university-level Council of Graduate Students (COGS).

This semester, Plant Pathology co-sponsored a COGS International Student Town Hall event that brought together international students from across the University to socialize and discuss the current graduate worker unionization efforts. Additionally, with the help of the COGS Representative Community Connection Grant, PPSO will hold its first Robigalia festival on April 25th to celebrate springtime in Minnesota and the plant pathology discipline’s ties to this historical event.

PPSO students also participated in seminar swaps with other universities. Graduate student Nick Rajtar presented a seminar at the University of WisconsinMadison and José E. Solórzano presented at The Ohio State University. Outreach activities PPSO students are involved in annually: 

  • Undergraduate recruitment
  • FFA State Convention
  • Lessons for K-12 students
  • Host visiting students

Retirements: Nevin Young & Jim Kurle

Jim Kurle and Nevin Young


Nevin Young retired from the Department of Plant Pathology in September 2022 after a distinguished 33-year career. He joined the department in August 1989, bringing a molecular focus to plant disease research. One of Nevin’s most significant contributions to disease control was the development of molecular markers tagging Rhg1, a gene conferring resistance to the cyst nematode (SCN) in soybean. These markers have been widely used for marker-assisted selection of SCN resistance in both public and private soybean breeding programs. The development of resistant soybean cultivars with Rhg1 and their wide deployment have greatly reduced the impact of the cyst nematode throughout the US, though at a cost of reduced genetic diversity among resistance sources, as Nevin always likes to point out.

Nevin is also internationally recognized for his genomics research on the model legume (Medicago truncatula). He led a worldwide consortium of scientists who developed a reference genome sequence, one of the first, for this model legume species, ultimately leading to ground-breaking studies in basic biology, especially in the area of symbiosis. Over his career, Nevin published 340 scientific papers, many of high impact, earning him a Google Scholar h-index of 77 with 25,000 total citations. He was an invited keynote speaker at many conferences held in different countries, attesting to his international stature in legume genomics and related research areas. For his pioneering work in genomics, Nevin was feted with the title of Distinguished McKnight University Professor in 2004.

In addition to his research accomplishments, Nevin also contributed greatly to the education of many students at the university through courses he taught and the many graduate students and postdocs he mentored. He taught eight different courses—from a large college-wide undergraduate class on biotechnology to a freshman seminar on the genomics of non-humans to advanced graduate courses on plant genomics—ultimately reaching thousands of students with his engaging style of dialogue-based teaching. Nevin was advisor to 13 graduate students: 9 for the doctoral degree and 4 for a master’s degree. He also mentored dozens of postdoctoral researchers, visiting scientists, and undergraduate scholars in his laboratory.

When asked about what he misses most since retiring from the university, Nevin said teaching and having classroom interactions with students, especially freshmen and first year grad students. And Nevin has not been a stranger to the department since his retirement. He comes in several times each week and enjoys catching up with colleagues at weekly Wednesday coffees. In retirement, he also enjoys coffee and lunch with friends and colleagues that have no set agendas. He also enjoys playing mahjong, bowling, hiking and bocce ball in his free time. Nevin now has a new office on the third floor of Stakman, so we hope to continue to see him many times in the future.

Jim Kurle, associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, retired in December 2023 after 23 years as a faculty member. However, Jim’s first association with the department goes back much further. After completing an enlistment in the Navy, he returned to college and completed a BA degree in Biology at Dartmouth College. In 1975 he began his research career as a technician at the Plant Pathology Research Farm in Rosemount. Jim then went on to obtain a BS degree in the Agronomy Department and in 1978 began work on Kent Crookston’s project where he developed a career-long interest in the influence of cropping systems on plant diseases and disease management. In 1992 he won a competitive grant that funded his own PhD research under the tutelage of Frank Pfleger in the Plant Pathology Department. The topic of his dissertation was the effect of soybean and corn cropping and management practices on arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal species composition and populations. After completing his PhD, Jim worked from 1996- 98 as a postdoctoral researcher on disease management of soybean under Craig Grau at the University of Wisconsin. In late 1999, Jim returned to Minnesota as an assistant professor focusing on diseases of soybean in the Plant Pathology Department. Emphasizing soybean diseases and disease management practices, Jim’s research evaluated the effects of crop management practices such as tillage, plant populations, crop sequence, and row spacing on plant disease. His research experiences in agriculture straddled an era of rapid and radical technological and economic change which profoundly influenced the occurrence of soybean diseases. For instance, over his career soybean row widths decreased from 40 to as little 7.5 inches which was accompanied by doubled planting rates, no-till production facilitated by the introduction of herbicide resistant soybean rendering the crop highly uniform, and monoculture or duoculture cropping systems of soybean only or corn and soybeans, respectively. Severe white mold was a frequent consequence when environmental conditions were favorable and brown stem rot reappeared as a yield limiting problem. To address these management interactions, much of his research was conducted in field settings on complex and environmentally labile pathosystems such as white mold and sudden death syndrome of soybean. In addition to biotic diseases, Jim also investigated the influence of abiotic factors, such as light intensity and light quality, on plant disease resistance particularly in variety evaluation and on plant development in soybean. During his career, Jim published over 130 articles in refereed journals, bulletins, and trade publications based on research usually conducted in collaboration with multiple cooperators.

Jim also became a dedicated instructor who during his tenure in the department taught many courses on the role of cultural practices in disease management, including “Management and Control of Field Crop Diseases,” “Pests and Crop Protection,” “Introduction to Diseases of Field Crops,” “Plant Disease Management,” and “Toward Conquest of Disease.” His liberal education course, “Plants Get Sick Too,” garnered strong enrollments for the department and using plant pathology introduced biological, ecological, and agricultural concepts to many students in diverse disciplines ranging from the liberal arts, to design, architecture, engineering, and basic sciences. Several students from this class went on to become graduate students in plant pathology, while others followed up with programs or careers in agriculture as a result of an interest originating in Jim’s class. Jim was an innovative instructor who, for instance, in collaboration with faculty and grad students from the Design Department developed a software program to assist students in learning about plant diseases. This GPS-based program guided students to various plant disease examples on campus using their personal electronic devices and provided them with pertinent information on the causal organisms, their biology, and control.

During the pandemic he utilized the internet and dedicated software to reach students in outstate and off campus locations maintaining enrollment in his class. In addition, Jim advised or coadvised ten graduate students and five postdoctoral researchers emphasizing applied disease management. Jim felt that an equally important contribution to education was his mentoring of more than 20 undergraduates as laboratory trainees or on undergraduate research projects. Their research frequently contributed to graduate research efforts and their laboratory work experience led to graduate education in agricultural or biological sciences.

The contributions of Jim’s experience and expertise contributed to the productivity of the North Central regional committee on soybean diseases and multistate collaborations. He also was a key member of several departmental and college committees including the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee particularly during the reorganization of the Applied Plant Science program where he sought to introduce a broader ecologically based perspective as a basis for “pest” management.

Jim says he really misses the camaraderie and interaction with the department members, the opportunity to interact with farmers and other researchers on their projects and concerns, and his own activities in the field, laboratory, and greenhouses. However, he is keeping busy with international travels (Sweden and Denmark), reading, drawing, singing in the Swedish Men’s Choir, and genealogical and ethnic research. He’s also encouraging an interest in biology and, who knows, perhaps plant pathology in a grandson.

Recent Defenses and Graduations

Eric Otto (PhD)

Advised by: Robert Blanchette Defense Passed: September 2022

Isaac Schmitt (MS)

Advised by: Dean Malvick Defense Passed: April 2023

Rae Page (PhD)

Advised by: Brian Steffenson Defense Passed: May 2023

Sita Paudel (MS)

Advised by: Brett Arenz, Neil Olszewski Defense Passed: May 2023

Yeidymar Sierra Moya (MS)

Advised by: Deborah Samac Defense Passed: May 2023

Nicholas Greatens (PhD)

Advised by: Pablo Olivera Firpo, Yue Jin Defense Passed: May 2023

A Long-Awaited Upgrade for the Plant Disease Clinic (PDC)

Remodeled PDC viewed from front entry


As the 2022 growing season ended, PDC staff scrambled to move out of 105 Stakman Hall. This space dates to the early 1940’s, when it was the department’s original teaching lab. Capital improvement funds shone on the PDC and staff were scheduled to say goodbye to large chalkboards, asbestos bench tops, and other outdated, noncode items. By early December, the PDC was re-situated into 118 Christensen Lab. Before the asbestos abatement started, PDC staff could peek in at the demolition and removal of all that was. Then room 105 was sealed up for abatement. By mid-January, we could again peek in and see the beginnings of our upgraded and color-coordinated space. Fresh paint on walls, ceilings, cabinets, etc. Then came shiny, black resin countertops, a modern eyewash, a new floor, deionized water, and fancy lights (LED motion, detected).

PDC in the 1950s with students at lab tables

By late March, the upgrades and installs were done enough for staff to move back. No longer is there duct tape on the office furniture and asbestos in the benchtops. There are motorized, sit-stand desks and chairs with a space age look. Newly added is a welcoming customer reception area. Advances in lighting technology improve appearance and energy efficiency. For improved safety, there is an up-tocode eyewash.

Long-time clients give big smiles and compliments when they walk in. The feeling of a run-down space is gone. Lab staff enjoys the design updates. The space is a more inviting, professional, and healthy place to go to work every day. The improved form and function reflect the Department of Plant Pathology’s investment on the PDC.

Plant Disease Clinic staff are Dr. Brett Arenz, Jennifer Flynn, and Grace Anderson. For those who do not know, the Plant Disease Clinic is a multidisciplinary diagnostic lab that tests for fungal, bacterial, viral, and other plant health conditions. Our customers include businesses, non-commercial agencies, the general public, and UMN clients. We accept most plant samples from the continental US. While any plant can be submitted to the Clinic, oaks, garlic, pine spruce are currently dominant.

In addition to handling over 2000 samples in 2022, staff had a few other hats to wear. Brett is teaching faculty and the current director of graduate studies for the department. Grace is part of the department’s administrative team, including being the department safety officer. Grace has been a Hennepin County Extension Master Gardener for over 36 years. On behalf of the Plant Disease Clinic, Grace did several outreach events last year. Grace, a grandmother in her own family, takes joy and pride in being the “Grandma” of the Plant Pathology Department and PDC. Jennifer is also known in the PDC as the “chief cook and bottle washer.” Jennifer serves on the National Plant Diagnostic Network Regulatory Relations Committee and was the committee chair for 2022. She is also part of a multi-state oak wilt working group.

To learn more about the PDC, and how to submit a sample, visit

My Plant Path: Sita Paudel

Sita Paudel stands outside the Plant Path department

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am Sita Paudel, currently a graduate student in the department. I am studying DNA viruses (Plant-pararetrovirus) infecting ornamental crops. I was born in an agricultural country in Nepal. I love to do yoga, meditation, and read books.

How did you get involved with plant pathology as a discipline?

I grew up in a rural village where farming is the main occupation. Farming is the primary source of income for my family. I have always been involved in farming to help my family. We have always encountered many challenges, especially crop disease infection. I can remember one moment of my childhood in that year whole village potato farms were infected with potato blight disease. We had lost 70% of our yield. But, at that moment, I had no idea about it. After that moment, my curiosity about the pathogen increased, and I decided to study that field further. Luckily, I got a scholarship for undergraduate study in Agricultural Science at Tribhuwan University, Nepal. Every semester, we must make a herbarium of weeds, insects, disease infected plants. I was curious about how we can identify the pathogen, how this works, and how we can manage such a tiny cause. I decided to get more detailed information about pathogens and broaden my knowledge. Then this curiosity persisted and led me to the University of Minnesota (UMN) as a graduate student in the Plant Pathology Department (PLPA).

Tell me about a specific moment in your life that made you decide to pursue a career in Plant Pathology?

In the final year of my undergraduate degree, I assisted in a pathology lab at my university. I was involved in surveys of local farms and collecting disease infected samples. At that moment, I learned how such a tiny pathogen could destroy millions of farmers’ investments and lead them to bankruptcy. Then, that incident was the motivation for me to stay in this field and help as much as I can to those people who are doing god’s job as farming.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your career so far, and what led to that moment?

Before joining the Department of Plant Pathology at UMN as a graduate student, I had a basic theoretical knowledge of viruses but never got the opportunity of hands-on experiments. After joining the virology lab, I isolated the viruses from symptomatic leaves and observed them under Transmission Electron Microscopy. Direct visualization of tiny particles motivates me to do further study. Apart from that, I learned basic experimental skills, research designs, and critical thinking abilities while working with renowned virologists Dr. Benham Lockhart, Dr. Neil Olszewski, Dr. Dimitre Mollov, and Dr. Robert Alvarez-Quinto. I am graduating with a master’s degree, and was interviewed for further study; the experts in these fields’ appreciation for my skills feels good. This is a joyous moment for me.

What do you enjoy most about the department of plant pathology?

The most beautiful aspect of the department is a culture of supporting and caring foreach other. Every department interaction and social program, especially Coffee Hour, energizes and motivates me to work. As an international student, I am away from home; however, entering the department gives me the feeling of the family away from my family. I will miss this best work environment when I leave UMN.

Can you describe how being part of this department has helped your mission as a scientist?

This department is one of the best departments I have ever experienced and heard of. I feel so lucky and blessed to be a part of the department in my life. In the second semester of MS, my advisor, Dr. Benham Lockhart, had to retire unexpectedly. At that moment, I was overwhelmed by stress and anxiety because I was the only person in the lab. But this situation lasted only a short time. I got support from the department in all aspects from faculty, administrative staff, and fellow students, which was beyond my imagination. This situation leads me to get an opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary lab; Dr. Neil Olszewski’s lab, Plant and Microbial Biology, and Dr. Dimitre Mollov’s lab, USDA-ARS, Oregon. The support and guidance from Dr. Brett Arenz and Dr. Neil Olszewski are invaluable and couldn’t be explained in words. I could not stay without remembering Dr. Robert Alvarez-Quinto, a humble and helpful person who has guided me from my first day of the lab to now in every moment of my MS journey. All this exposure and support turned out to help me be independent and more confident in my work. So, I am thankful to everyone, especially for their help in that critical situation.

Can you tell us about your plans for the future?

I want to be a good researcher in the field of virology. I am passionate about the identification and characterization of new viruses. I want to continue to work in this field and contribute to the virology community.

My Plant Path: Rebecca Curland

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I work as a Research Scientist in the Small Grains Pathology lab. My main research focus since I arrived in the department in 2010 has been bacterial leaf streak (BLS) of wheat and barley. I am also currently working on Fusarium crown rot of wheat, and during the field season assist with studies on Fusarium head blight of wheat and barley and loose smut of oat. Previous projects during my time here at UMN include studies on Goss’s wilt of corn and bacterial soft rot pathogens of potato.

I work in the evenings and weekends as a yoga instructor and have led lunch break yoga classes for the department for the last 10 years. I have many personal passions that I pursue (when I can find time…) including foraging for edible and medicinal plants and fungi, gardening, crafting herbal medicines and body products, botanical illustration, and studying yoga philosophy and texts.

How did you get involved with plant pathology as a discipline?

My M.S. studies at University of Wisconsin - La Crosse focused on mycology and I graduated thinking that I might work in ecology or forest pathology. I cast a wide net when applying for jobs out of graduate school and ended up getting hired by Carol Ishimaru as a Research Scientist in her bacteriology lab in the Plant Pathology Department. That was 13 years ago! I guess you could say I became an accidental phytobacteriologist; everything I know about bacterial plant pathogens I learned on the job working with Carol. I’ve been fortunate to continue my career in the Plant Pathology department in Ruth Dill-Macky’s lab since Carol retired in 2018, which has allowed me to continue to focus on BLS of wheat and barley, and also to return to my mycological roots by working on fungal pathogens of small grains.

Tell me about a specific moment in your life that made you decide to pursue a career in Plant Pathology?

There wasn’t a moment that led me to Plant Pathology specifically. As I explained in the previous question, my career in Plant Pathology was circumstantial and not premeditated. I grew up spending lots of time outside and in the garden with my mother. When I moved to La Crosse for my undergraduate program, I fell into a lifelong love affair with plants as I explored the driftless region and began to learn to identify the flora and fungi in that area. I would read field guides to local plants and fungi cover to cover like a novel every night before bed and spend my free time wandering the forests, bluffs, marshes and prairies practicing plant and fungal identification. I took every single botany, plant identification, and mycology course that was offered at UWL. My advisor, Tom Volk, would tease me that I had more elective credits than any other student he had seen in his program. Tom was instrumental in my academic journey as a biologist. He inspired curiosity and joy in his students and I have vivid memories of foraging for edible plants and mushrooms with him on the weekends and throughout the summers in La Crosse. I knew early on in my education that I wanted to work with plants, fungi, and microbes. Plant Pathology ended up being a convergence of my interests and continues to challenge me as I learn and develop new skills through my research and collaborative projects.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your career so far, and what led to that moment?

In 2022, my colleague Jonathan Jacobs and I started a scientific conference focused on bacterial leaf streak (BLS) of wheat and barley. I had envisioned this meeting for many years, spurred by the desire to unite BLS researchers in an effort to foster collaboration. I wanted a container within which to share and discuss the BLS research that was independently happening at various institutions around the world.

Our first meeting was held at UMN in February 2022. At that time we were still working with the challenges of COVID protocols amidst a world where folks were just beginning to gather in-person again. The meeting was met with positive enthusiasm from attendees and full of dynamic conversation and renewed inspiration for our work. For most of us, it was the first meeting we had attended since the pandemic hit and people were grateful to be able to relate in-person again. In March 2023, the conference was held at NDSU with a growing number of attendees, including some international colleagues. The BLS research community is committed to continuing to develop the BLS conference with plans to bring it to The Ohio State University in 2024. I am really proud to have cocreate something that is serving the BLS research community that is growing beyond Jonathan and my initial vision. Stepping into a leadership role outside of the University was intimidating, and something that I have rarely seen modeled in academia by folks who have positions akin to mine. I hope it can inspire others to take a leap to create opportunities for communication and collaboration.

What do you enjoy most about the department of plant pathology?

I think that our department has a lovely culture that promotes acceptance, connection, and celebration of its members. I appreciate the relationships I have formed with other members of the department in all positions: research and administrative staff, faculty, postdocs and graduate students. Folks are open to sharing ideas and helping each other freely. I feel supported in my role professionally and as part of a community of people who are all passionate about science and our contributions to the world.

Can you tell us about your plans for the future?

In my professional life, I am excited to continue my work on BLS. In particular, we are asking some important questions about epidemiology and transmission of the pathogen. I am hoping that my work in collaboration with others can help us understand how the pathogen spreads and continues to inform how we approach management of this disease.

On a personal level, my husband and I recently purchased 18 acres of land in northern WI near the south shore of Lake Superior. We are working to build an off-grid cabin, and eventually a 4-season home on our parcel. It’s a ton of work and physical labor, but motivating and deeply rewarding to have a long term project to focus on that fulfills our dream of living in the woods some day. Plus, the mushroom hunting up there is out of this world!

Lab Update: Spotlight on Chanda Lab


Chanda Lab standing on a bridge. Left to right: Zahra, Ashok, Jeff, Sam, James, Austin

The sugarbeet pathology lab, led by Ashok Chanda and located at the Northwest Research & Outreach Center in the heart of the Red River Valley, has been playing a key role in developing practical disease management recommendations while advancing the understanding of basic biology of major sugarbeet pathogens that affect the profitability of sugarbeet production in MN and ND.

Disease Diagnosis

Our lab is the primary contact for the crop consultants, agriculturists, and growers for sugarbeet disease diagnosis in Minnesota and North Dakota. In a typical year, 80-100 samples are submitted during the growing season. Every year is different in terms of weather patterns which affect the prevailing diseases in the growers’ fields. Rhizoctonia crown and root rot, Aphanomyces root rot, Cercospora leaf spot are the major diseases affecting sugarbeet production in the region. In 2023, we found very low levels of Alternaria and Stemphylium leaf spots in some fields. Accurate disease diagnosis is critical for sugarbeet growers because for example, Aphanomyces can persist in the soil for up to 10 years and lack of awareness about this pathogen’s presence in a field can result in significant loss to the growers. Fusarium yellows is another disease that is gradually increasing in our growing area. Below is a brief summary of some ongoing research projects from our lab.

Cercospora Leaf Spot

Our growers consistently rank Cercospora as the top foliar disease affecting sugarbeet production. Currently, Austin Lien, PhD candidate (coadvised by Dr. Brett Arenz) and Researcher 3 in my program, is working on how various tank-mix partners affect the Cercospora leaf spot management and the overall impact on the molecular basis of DMI fungicide resistance to Cercospora beticola. The field component of this study has revealed some interesting synergy of tank-mix partners when combined with certain fungicides. Now, Austin is extracting DNA from about 400 unique C. beticola isolates to further characterize the genomic regions associated with fungicide resistance. Our lab is collaborating with Drs. Melvin Bolton and Nathan Wyatt at USDA-ARS, Fargo on this GWAS (Genome Wide Association Study) part of this project. The other interesting research project that Austin is currently working on is to develop a 96-well plate-based assay for assessing fungicide sensitivity. This procedure will cut down the current assay time from 2 weeks to 4 days and will save a lot of lab consumables and be more efficient in determining fungicide sensitivity.

Aphanomyces Root Rot

Once every 2- 3 years we will have a wet growing season which is favorable for development of Aphanomyces diseases in the field, which can kill beets from seedling stage all the way to harvest. Our lab is working on identifying new active ingredients that are effective against Aphanomyces that can be applied as seed treatments or post-emergence applications. Our lab also released the first reference genome sequence for Aphanomyces cochlioides (led by Jake Botkin, MS ‘22) in collaboration with the Hirsch lab. We also developed a highly specific and sensitive DNA-based assay that detects Aphanomyces in soil and plant tissues (collaborative project with Dr. Frank Martin, USDA-ARS, Salinas, CA). On the pathogen side, Samantha Rude, PhD candidate (co-advised by Dr. Cory Hirsch) is currently assessing the genetic diversity of 50 isolates collected from MN and ND over the past several years using whole genome sequencing. Samantha is utilizing the reference genome and will use comparative genomics to unravel the genetic diversity, presence/ absence of virulence factors among this isolate collection. She is also optimizing the disease screening assays under controlled environmental conditions to screen sugarbeet lines for resistance to Aphanomyces diseases. This is a collaborative research with Dr. Kevin Dorn, USDA-ARS, Ft. Collins, CO. The ultimate goal for this research is to identify genes conferring resistance to Aphanomyces.

Rhizoctonia Crown and Root Rot

Sugarbeets are often rotated with wheat, soybeans and corn once every 3-4 years. While wheat or other small grains can’t serve as a host for Rhizoctonia, both soybean and corn can serve as a good host and by the time sugarbeets are grown, the high levels of Rhizoctonia can impact yield and quality of the sugarbeets. Root rot not only affects yield but also postharvest storage of beets and causes significant losses to the factories which can reduce grower payments. Since 2014 several seed treatments have been labeled for use in sugarbeet for Rhizoctonia as a result of numerous field and growth camber studies conducted by our lab for evaluating efficacy and safety of these fungicides. Now 100% of the seed sold in MN and ND is treated with a fungicide that has efficacy for Rhizoctonia. These seed treatments have significantly improved stand establishments and we typically don’t see any seedling dampingoff during the first few weeks after planting. Another significant contribution from our lab is determining the timing of the post-emergence application of fungicides which is when the beets are between 4- and 8-leaf growth stages. More and more growers are also using in-furrow fungicides for successfully managing Rhizoctonia in fields with severe Rhizoctonia history based on our field research.

Chanda lab beet poster with symptom images at a conference

Extension program

In my role as an Extension Sugarbeet Pathologist, my goal is to disseminate these sciencebased disease management recommendations to the stakeholders so that they remain profitable and able to farm for the next several generations. We present our research results at the annual research reporting session (held annually at Fargo, ND), publish technical reports, field day and plot tours, radio and magazine interviews, display booth at the international sugarbeet institute, do one-onone consultations and attend roundtable discussions held by the Ag. Staff and crop consultants.

Future research

We now have a small collection of Fusarium, Alternaria and Stemphylium isolates from MN and ND. We are actively seeking collaborators and research funding to advance our knowledge on these emerging disease issues in MN and ND. I am very grateful to my team including summer students and staff that help with various research projects

PLPA Awards Day 2023

Four-panel image with dining in borlaug commons, grad student group photo, and Travel Award winners

Thank you to everyone who attended the 2023 PLPA Awards! This exceptionally warm April day saw students, faculty, staff, and postdocs gather for a catered meal, traditional awards ceremony hosted by Professor Ruth Dill-Macky, and post-awards cake.

A complete list of 2023 Awards Winners:

Stienstra and Meronuck Travel Awards (to support student participation in professional scientific meetings): Molly Veregge, Jose Solórzano, Jay Kim

MF Kernkamp Fellowship: Davy DeKrey

Fred I Frosheiser Scholarship: Pranaya Kaki

Dr John Dueck Memorial Scholarship: Andrew Mann

Dr Carl and Johanna Eide Scholarship: Nick Rajtar

P&A Personnel Award of Excellence: Annie Harvieux

Civil Service Personnel Award of Excellence: Beheshteh Zargaran

P&A Research and Administrative Staff Professional Development Fund Award: Becca Hall (for attending Plant Health 2023)

Outstanding Graduate Student Mentor: Becca Hall 

New CDL staff joins Department of Plant Pathology


Milton Drott Headshot

Dr. Milton Drott joined the Department of Plant Pathology as an Adjunct Assistant Professor in May of 2022. Milton is a Research Plant Pathologist at the USDA-ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory.

Milton grew up outside of Philadelphia. As a child, he enjoyed walking through the woods with his grandfather where he learned about the different plants. While he retained an interest in plants, Milton focused his undergrad degree to study human diseases and got a BA in Biology from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. However, one summer research experience showed Milton that he could merge his interests in plants and disease in the context of Plant Pathology. This led him to pursue a PhD degree in Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology at Cornell University. After graduation, Milton spent three years working with Dr. Nancy Keller at the University of Wisconsin, Madison looking at the evolution of fungal toxins. His research was focused on how fungal traits, particularly toxic secondary metabolites, have evolved and function in ways that help us understand the pathogenesis of these organisms.

As a Research Plant Pathologist at the Cereal Disease Lab, Milton’s research will focus on understanding how natural variation in Fusarium populations can inform disease and mycotoxin control efforts. His particular interest is in understanding fungal pathogenesis in a larger evolutionary context using publicly available Big -omics data. Milton’s motivation to join the Cereal Disease Laboratory was its strong reputation for translating basic science into agricultural solutions. He is excited to leverage the resources and collaborations of this institution to achieve similar results with his work.

In addition to science, Milton enjoys swimming and gardening.

Dr. Matthew Moscou joined the Departent of Plant Pathology Cereal Disease Lab, where he now works as a Research Plant Pathologist. Matthew started with the CDL in September 2022, and officially joined the faculty in January 2023.

Born in Whittier, California and raised in Moreno Valley, Matthew’s education includes a bachelor’s degree in Pure Mathematics and Physics at UC-Riverside. This was followed by a PhD in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at Iowa State. He identifies strongly as a problem-solver and scientist. “I have always been passionate for science, mainly because our job is to problem solve. I look forward to helping anyone who has a great problem where I might be able to help out to get the solution.”

“Cereal rusts remain one of the major threats to enhancing the yield potential of cereals. In particular, the ability of wheat stem rust to cause complete crop loss due to lodging underscores the need for constant vigilance,” Matthew told Aurora Sporealis. “New approaches at developing disease resistance such as R gene stacks are an exciting opportunity to shift the balance in our ability to ensure food security.”

Matthew states that one of his major motivations for joining the CDL was the ability to continue the research he started while working as a group leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory. His plan is to continue developing new approaches at identifying new sources of disease resistance to cereal rusts and other diseases, identify the ligands and effectors that are recognized from plant pathogens, surveillance of pathogen populations, and develop next generation crops.”

When asked why he chose the CDL as the place to continue this research, he shared, “The research environment at the CDL and University of Minnesota is excellent, both in terms of colleagues and facilities. This was the major draw for me to come to Minnesota.”

Outside of work, Matthew lives a full life. He and his wife have three children; Elizabeth (13 years old), Juliet (11 years old), and James (5 years old); and participate actively in their lives and extracurriculars. Additionally, Matthew is an avid gardener, baker, and foodie, with an interest in delving into canning and fermenting in the near future.

Senegal Mourns the Passing of Moussa Seck, Architect of Agriculture Policy


Moussa Seck on the farm

Professor Moussa Seck, a native of Senegal and notable alumnus of the University of Minnesota Department of Plant Pathology, passed in June 2022 in Dakar, Senegal. Born in Diourbel, Senegal on June 16, 1954, Seck was a scientist with a passion and a vision to improve the quality of lives not only in Senegal but in all of Africa, and to promote unity among the African countries. Wise, softspoken, and highly respected, Seck was known widely as “Professor” in many areas of life due to his leadership, commitment to education and spreading of information, and deep knowledge of science.

Seck received his Bachelor of Science degree in Plant Pathology from the Institut Agronomique et Veterinaire Hassan II University, Morocco in 1981. The University of Minnesota had been involved with Morocco since 1969 was in partnership with the Institut in a program funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide advanced training to agricultural and veterinary science educators and researchers in Morocco. Drs. James Burleigh and Benham Lockhart, faculty from the University of Minnesota Department of Plant Pathology, were assigned to the Morocco program at the time. A cereal pathologist, Dr. Burleigh, referred Seck to the University of Minnesota Department of Plant Pathology for further education.

Seck came to Minnesota with his family and began his master’s degree in 1983, working with advisors Drs. Alan Roelfs and Paul Teng. His thesis was titled “Modeling the effect of leaf rust (Puccinia recondita Tritici) on wheat yield, as affected by leaf position and host resistance.” In 1985, he was awarded his master’s degree and in 1986 the Seck family returned to Senegal.

Professor Moussa Seck lived by the foundational understanding that only when people have enough food to eat are they free to devote time and attention to non-agriculture pursuits such as education, healthcare, and other activities to move out of poverty. He also understood the magnitude of challenges to achieving the goal of adequate food for all, not the least of which was irrigation and mechanization of farms. One of his early projects was construction of such a farm of 12,000 acres in northern Senegal, and it became the model farm for proposed agribusiness centers.

The vision held by Seck was not limited to Senegal, and he went on to develop Agraria Africa, a model of harmonized agriculture for all African countries. He believed that with farming and business practices like those initiated in Senegal, the continent could produce a variety of crops year-round, thus lifting it out of poverty and famine.

For 18 years, Seck managed a University of Minnesota student exchange program for those interested in studying in Senegal.He also trained hundreds of students from countries all over the world, many of whom are currently active in national and international agribusiness.

Seck was a valued leader. As Chairman of the Pan-African Agribusiness and Agro-industry Consortium, he led efforts to create policies that promote private sector investment in local agribusiness. He was Vice President of the Institute for Pan African Strategies, PeaceSecurity-Governance, a Dakarbased think-tank. In January 2023, the Institute celebrated its 10th anniversary, featuring a halfday tribute to Professor Moussa Seck and a public commitment to continue his work.

In the words of Dr. Paul Teng: “Moussa is an example of a plant pathology graduate who, after graduation, expanded his interests and expertise beyond just plant pathology… Moussa left a legacy with impact on African development that was far beyond just plant pathology.”

I first met Moussa in 1983 while I was working on a project with Drs. Paul Teng and Sagar Krupa. Moussa and his wife Awa had a young son, Badou, who was the exact same age as my son. Celebrating our boys’ second birthday together at our home in St. Paul began a friendship between our families that continues today. As my first friends from an African country, the relationships enriched and expanded my perspective on not only farming and agribusiness in a developing country, but also regarding the potential impact of individuals who are educated, wise, compassionate, can communicate effectively, and hold a vision.

Professor Moussa Seck is survived by his wife Awa Faye Seck, daughter Myriam Seck, sons Badou Jim Junior Seck and Youness Dialaw Seck, and several grandchildren. Awa earned a Master of Science in Forestry from the University of Minnesota. She retired in 2019 from the Vice Presidency of the Africa Region of the Energy Unit of the World Bank Group, Senegal Office. Awa lives in Dakar, near her children and their families. Badou, who always helped manage the farm, has taken over its operation. Myriam and Youness are both agribusiness professionals.


Paul Manion laughing

Paul D. Manion (1940- 2023)

Paul D. Manion, 82, of Cazenovia, passed away Thursday, March 2, 2023 at Upstate University Hospital. He was born March 30, 1940 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Donald and Beunna Manion. Paul was a graduate of Hopkins High School in Hopkins, Minnesota and furthered his education at the University of Minnesota where he earned his Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate degrees in Forestry. Paul was a professor of Forest Pathology at S.U.N.Y. ESF for 36 years until his retirement in 2002. Upon his retirement he volunteered at CAVAC as a driver, dispatcher and EMT. Paul enjoyed everything about wood, from planting to cutting, sawmilling, fine woodworking, and firewood. However, family ski trips were also special. Two weeks before his death, he skied in Vermont with his two sons, and two grandchildren. In Paul’s words: life was good! He is survived by his two sons, William P. (Dr. Lynne) Manion, P.E. of Hampden, Maine and Edward T. (Alison) Manion of Westminster, Massachusetts; a very close family friend, Beth Ryan, who took care of Paul and Nancy like a daughter, his brother Jan David “JD” Manion of Gainesville, Florida; four grandchildren, Dr. Bradie N. (Andrew) Bishop M.D., Dacie J. (Chris Gilman) Manion, P.E., Wilder and Quinn; four great grandchildren, Rosie Lynne, Maxwell, Sylvie and James. Paul was predeceased by his loving wife, Nancy in 2020.

Kristen Cooper headshot

Kristen Cooper (1984-2023)

Kristen A. Cooper, age 39 of St. Paul, MN, passed away on Wednesday April 6, 2023, at her parents’ home in Menomonie.

Kristen was born in Minnesota but grew up in Menomonie. She was the daughter of Mike and Ceceilia Cooper. Kristen graduated from Menomonie High School in 2002. Kristen pursued a Bachelor Degree in Marine Biology from Texas A & M and a Masters Degree in Library Science from St. Catherines. Kristen worked her dream job as a Librarian with the University of Minnesota.

During college she volunteered her time at Moody Garden Aquarium working with Sting Rays and sharks. Kristen also volunteered at the Gabbert Raptor Center in St. Paul, MN. Kristen enjoyed traveling, scrapbooking, card making and spending time with her family and friends.

Kristen is survived by her parents, Mike and Ceceilia, her brother, Greg (Sarah) Cooper, a nephew, Franklin, several aunts, uncles and cousins. She is preceded in death by her grandparents, Frank and Nellie Cooper and Herman and Nora Kraby.

The family wishes to thank the many family, co-workers, friends and Pastor George Schrader, who have supported the family during his difficult journey and St. Croix Hospice for the wonderful care and support they provided.