Heads Letter Aurora Fall 2020

Writing this “Head’s Letter” for this issue of the Aurora Sporealis has been a challenge.  What do you say in the midst of a global pandemic, political unrest, and push for real change to address systemic racism?  But stepping back and considering the 113 year history of our great department, it occurred to me that this department--and the students, staff and faculty who have been part of it, have seen many difficult periods including two World Wars, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, civil rights battles, the 1918 flu pandemic, the AIDS crisis, 9-11, and many, many more global and national challenges.  Through all of this, our department has continued to adapt and to deliver on our mission.  We have pushed the boundaries of our science, trained generations of scholars, practitioners and leaders, and provided solutions to real-world plant health challenges--even in times of strife.  I take solace in that fact and I am confident we will emerge from our current challenges a bit battered but stronger and better than ever.  With this perspective, I would like to highlight some of the ways our work in the past several months has changed and how it has remained the same.

New Research. Despite changes to our work schedules imposed by the pandemic and institutional safety responses, our research continues! In this issue you will learn about the exciting work of Professor Bob Blanchette, Staff Researcher Ben Held and Graduate Student Liam Genter.  Recent publications from their group detail novel fungi growing in a novel location: subterranean mines and caves in Minnesota’s Iron Range.  You will also hear from newly minted alumnus Deepak Haarith (Ph.D. 2020), who describes his research on biocontrol of nematodes, a collaboration with Professor Kathryn Bushley and Professor Senyu Chen.  Professor Dean Malvick shares research from his group on Goss’ wilt of corn and white mold of soybean, highlighting contributions of alumnus Blake Webster (M.S. 2016), Research Scientist Rebecca Curland, Emeritus Professor Carol Ishimaru and others. USDA Forest Service Researcher and Adjunct Professor Jenny Juzwik (Ph.D. 1983) shares perspectives on conducting research during the pandemic and the flexibility and adaptability of our USDA-ARS colleagues.  Finally, you’ll also read about Plant Health 2020, the annual research conference of the American Phytopathological Society.  This year’s meeting was entirely online.  Check out our detailed rundown of the many meeting contributions of departmental alumni and current members.

New Students, Staff, and Faculty. Even in this period, we’ve been fortunate to welcome new members to our department!  This past fall we welcomed new graduate students Austin Lien, Samantha Rude and Isaac SchmittKelsey Hyland joined Professor Ruth Dill-Macky’s group and Andrew Mann joined Professor Linda Kinkel’s group, both as research scientists.  Kevin Propst is working this semester with Professor Cory Hirsch in a staff researcher position and will transition to a graduate student in January of 2021. This past August, we welcomed Assistant Professor Devanshi Khokhani and you will read all about her in this issue.  On November 2 we welcomed Research Assistant Professor Ashish Ranjan; you will read more about him in the spring/summer 2021 edition.  The USDA-ARS research unit led by Adjunct Professor Deb Samac conducted a successful online search for a soil microbiologist and the department conducted an online interview for an assistant professor of fungal biology with an emphasis on soil-borne plant pathogens.  Look for updates to both positions in future departmental communications.

New Professional Development Opportunities. Finally, I want to highlight the many professional development opportunities the department has facilitated in recent months.  Our weekly seminar series carries on!  With thanks to our Science & Outreach Committee chaired by USDA-ARS scientist and Adjunct Professor Jim Kolmer (M.S. 1982), our weekly seminar series is online--and participation has rarely been stronger!  We’ve used the seminar series to provide departmental training related to racial justice and managing emotional well being, in addition to a wide array of plant pathology research topics.  Given the migration of Plant Health 2020 (the annual meeting of the American Phytopathological Society) to online delivery, the cost of attendance was significantly reduced.  This allowed our department, with the generosity of donors, to provide free meeting registration to all of our graduate students.  And speaking of donor generosity, our recent Give to the Max Day campaign (November 19) raised more than $3,000 to support our new Research & Administrative Staff Professional Development Fund.  That is more than twice our initial target!  This new fund supports our hardworking staff, allowing their continued growth as professionals.  We love our staff and this new fund is a great way for us to say “Thank You” for making a difference.  (And thanks to all who have donated!)

I hope you enjoy this issue of the Aurora Sporealis.  Times are different, but we continue to adapt and deliver on our mission.  It is and always has been the people that make this department great and it is times like this that we see plainly how creative, passionate and dedicated our people are.  Thanks to all who make this department truly special. 

Happy reading!