My Plant Path: Aurora 2016

Plant pathology is often regarded as a discovery field. How did our graduate students become interested in solving plant health and disease issues? Find out how an interest in science often leads to a passion for plant pathology.

Garrett Beier 

Plant Pathology Ph.D. Student

Plant Pathology Graduate Student Garrett BeierGarrett grew up working for his family’s greenhouse, which means he spent a lot of time around plants. And he wouldn’t believe it at the time--instead thinking he might ditch the whole plant thing to have a career in architecture--but those days working for his family’s greenhouse were what led him down the path to plant pathology. When Garrett first arrived at the University of Minnesota, he explored a few different majors, but eventually found his home as a horticultural science student. Here he discovered an introductory plant pathology course, was fascinated by plant disease problems and began to see them as a puzzle--a puzzle he seriously wanted to put together by working with the pathogen, environment and host plant as his pieces. Long story short, he’s still working on solving that puzzle, except now he’s a Ph.D. student in plant pathology and the puzzle is Dutch elm disease. While this has been a disease that has decimated elm trees in Minnesota since the 1960s, Garrett’s research focuses on identifying which elm tree cultivars are resistant to the disease and investigating the anatomical characteristics and physiological responses of resistant trees to understand what allows them to resist the disease. Through this research, Garrett hopes there can be more trees resistant to Dutch elm disease available to plant, in order to make sure elm trees remain an important part of diverse urban forests. Remember that same kid who once didn’t think he’d work with plants? Well, in the future he wants to become a professor working on woody plant diseases and educating others about plant pathology with the hope that he can help the next generation find their plant path too.

Feng Li 

Plant Pathology Ph.D. Student

Plant Pathology Graduate Student Feng LiFeng Li was quite young when she decided she wanted to help prevent losses from plant diseases. Having watched her aunts struggle to protect their crops from diseases as farmers in China generated an ambition within her to help. True to that desire, Feng attended China Agricultural University in Beijing where she studied plant protection, and a research experience with wheat stripe rust fueled her interest to study cereal rust diseases. Knowing America had incredible agricultural programs, Feng then set her sights on college in the U.S. Drawn to the Department of Plant Pathology’s storied past and long line of highly influential scientists, she decided to follow in the footsteps of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and began studying wheat stem rust here at the University of Minnesota. Working with Melania Figueroa, Feng is discovering ways to increase our knowledge about wheat stem rust and natural forms of stem rust resistance in order to strengthen wheat and barley breeding programs. With direct help from the Vaala-Henry Endowment in support of the Norman E. Borlaug Fellowship in International Agriculture and the Stakman-Borlaug Center (SBC) for Sustainable Plant Health and a MnDRIVE fellowship, she has been able to advance her research while developing key professional skills. Feng also secured funding for an internship experience abroad at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Canberra, Australia working with some of the world’s top stem rust scientists. These experiences have inspired Feng, and now she has her eyes set on earning a Ph.D. in the department. In the future, Feng hopes to apply the training she received to a career in research, where she can improve stem rust resistance, help wheat and barley growers in developing countries and reduce hunger throughout the world. That original ambition to help her aunts is manifesting itself into reality, and for Feng that’s merely just the beginning.

Matthew Martin 

Plant Pathology M.S. Student

Plant Pathology Graduate Student Matthew MartinEveryone says they want to solve world hunger, but not everyone actually gets to take a crack at it, or even know what that entails or where to begin. But for Matthew Martin, an important part of solving world hunger lies in a plant’s genetic resistance to disease. So Matthew is identifying the sources of barley leaf rust resistance so breeders can use this information to create plants that can resist this complex disease. But he didn’t start with the ambition to solve world hunger or study genetic resistance. He grew into it. His foundation started off with a keen interest in plants, a major in plant science and a job working in a greenhouse. That turned into an internship at The University of California, Riverside working in plant pathology. For three months he fully experienced plant pathology as he worked on characterizing the molecules that cause root rot in soybeans, and by the end he knew what his path would be. He realized that this is his meaningful way to impact world hunger. Now driven to find a way to work with plant pathology, he looked for an opportunity to continue working in the field and found it in a job working for Brian Steffenson's Lab at the University of Minnesota. It was here he began his work on barley leaf rust resistance. Considering that around the world most of the leaf rust resistance genes that scientists are aware of have been defeated by the pathogen, Matthew’s challenge is to find naturally occurring resistance that lasts longer than five years, so breeders can incorporate this into creating barley varieties that will perform well in their fields. Because solving world hunger isn’t an on-off switch, it’s an ever-changing process; a process that Matthew hopes to impact for years to come.