Beheshteh Zargaran: Plant Path Meets Homeopath

In this Staff Spotlight, Annie interviews Dill-Macky Lab Manager Beheshteh Zargaran about her compelling science career, which spans three disciplines and two countries.

AH: Tell me about your role as Lab Manager and a Researcher in the Dill-Macky Lab.

BZ: In one sentence, it is just overall management of the Small Grains Pathology Lab, which includes a lot of different things. There are some responsibilities that I need to do routinely, like FHB Inoculum production for the field and for the greenhouse. Or, isolation of Fungi from plant tissues, and generating single spore isolates and identifying them and storing them. Maintaining our isolate collection. Monitoring and tracking project balances and financial reports monthly. Managing safety training for all lab staff Monitoring and managing the supply inventory. Doing some greenhouse experiments. 

Besides these, I try to support the other staff or our graduate students, with their research projects in any way I can. 

AH: Your former career experience is in Veterinary Medicine and Homeopathic Medicine. Tell me about how you chose those fields of study, and what interested you about working in them.

BZ: When I graduated from high school in my home country, Iran, I wanted to go to medical school or veterinary school. I got accepted into the Veterinary program at the university that I had applied to. While I was at school, I read a short article about homeopathy and found it very interesting. After I graduated from vet school, I moved to the capital of Iran, Tehran, and I found out there is a class—it wasn’t a formal academy or college for homeopathy, it was just one class—where an Iraninan homeopath who studied homeopathy in Germany had a homeopathic training class for physicians and veterinarians I attended that class, and it was very fascinating. It was all about natural healing. I ordered books and homeopathic remedies from England.

Then I opened the first Veterinary Clinic in Iran that also offered homeopathic treatments to animals if the owners asked for and wanted it. So, it was a regular pet clinic, but we also offered homeopathic treatment. I found two other vets from that class that joined me—it was my clinic but they were working there, too, the three of us. 

Our homeopathic services weren't just limited to pets. At that time there was avian influenza, the bird flu, in the chicken farms in Iran. It’s a very contagious disease and the farmers can lose, like, half of the farm overnight. Some of them somehow found out about the homeopathic method, that there is another way of treatment, and reached out to us, so we went and tried to help. Also, there were some dairy cattle farms that were dealing with mastitis for some of the cows and they were so resistant to antibiotics because they had been used a lot, so they asked us to try homeopathic remedies and we treated them. 

I gradually started giving remedies to people because that’s how I learned homeopathy, to treat people, but I also got a book for animals because there are also veterinarians who use homeopathic remedies in other countries. So I got the book, and I started applying the remedies on animals and people. 

AH: How did your career bring you out of Veterinary and into Plant Pathology?

BZ: We moved to the United States in 2002 and we came to Minnesota. At that time I wasn’t looking for a job because I was pregnant with my daughter, but my husband was, and one of our friends we met here, Dariush Donesh, was a research associate in Nevin Young’s lab. He knew that in the summer, projects usually need help here, and he told Ruth [Dill-Macky] that someone is looking for a job, so my husband came and they interviewed him, and he started working here just for the summer. Then he stayed for one year, working with Ruth only for six months and then the next six months with Ruth and Jim Kurle. Then, he left because he wanted to pursue another career.

I met Ruth at the time at the gatherings they had, and she knew about me and my background. After my husband left Ruth's lab, the same person, Dariush Donesh, told Ruth that now Beheshteh is looking for a job. Ruth was looking for someone for her lab, she contacted me, and I happily accepted to work here. At that time neither Ruth nor I thought this was a career for me. We thought this was just a job that I’d start out in. I had no idea I would stay here for more than 18 years! 

AH: How did this job become “a keeper” for you?

BZ: You know, when you start working in a new job, with new people in a new country, probably the first thing is the impression you get from the new people you’re working with. And it was lovely! It was so good. My husband also had a good experience working here.

My friends asked me, “Are you having any issues because you are a minority, or from the Middle East?” And I was like, “No, I don't even feel like I’m any different!” 

You see people from everywhere here, you walk down the hallway and see people from different countries. Post-docs, graduate students . . . 

AH: It’s very cool!

BH: Yes. The people in the lab; they were really good, and trying to help. Ruth is a wonderful person. The job wasn’t hard. I’d worked with animals and I’d worked in a lab before, and it was more complicated—the media for animal pathogens or the tests we did for animal diseases were more complicated, so it wasn’t really a hard job. I had no idea about plant pathogens but I knew all the basic science. I had a lot of mycology credits and bacteriology, so it wasn’t challenging in that way. 

The other  good thing about this job is that I’m doing something different every day. I’m not doing the same thing every day and I like it. Getting to identify the isolates, the pathogens, that is something I really like.

I did actually interview for some jobs at the veterinary school here and I got an offer. They were looking for a person with a DVM but they didn’t need a license because it was working in the lab and not working with live animals. It was just a perfect job for me but with the schedule, with everything else, I just could not accept that job. As I said, the people I was working with, the kind of job and the flexibility of hours at that time that I needed because of my young kids. Now my kids are grown up and I can leave the house whenever I want! But I’m still here. Ruth has always been easy to talk to and I can tell her, “this is the issue,” and we can figure out a way. 

AH: Do you find yourself using skills from your veterinary and homeopathic training in plant pathology?

BZ: With my veterinary background, yes, as I said, of course! I had the basic knowledge of science, more than I needed for here. What I had been doing was much more complicated. And in the university that I studied all our textbooks were in English so I had no issue reading the scientific papers here. It was easy.

With homeopathy, no, it’s not really related. When I started working here, I went to school again for homeopathy and that’s the other reason I stayed and needed the flexible hours.

After I learned more about homeopathy, and I started learning more about the plant diseases here, I really really wanted to apply the remedies on plant diseases to see how it works. There are agro-homeopaths working with plants and trees, and there are books for people who, for their own garden, use the remedies. I even looked to see if there are any scientific articles at universities. Only in South Africa, Pakistan and Mexico there has been some research on homeopathic remedies on plant diseases. 

So this is my dream, that I’d like to do before I die: try the remedies on the diseases that we are working on here. I talked to Ruth, I don’t know how many years ago, about that and she said if I wanted to try in the greenhouse and we have extra space, that would be fine to do on my own time and material. I started once, but life has been very busy and I wasn’t able to do it the way I wanted, but I’ve done some research and this is my dream, whether I’m working here or not. 

AH: What is a normal day like for you in the Dill-Macky lab?

BZ: We don’t have a normal day! That is one of the things I love about this job. Depending on the season and the weather, we do different things. I always have a to-do list on my calendar and every day it is different from the previous day. 

Right now the big thing is FHB inoculum production. We are planning to make 200 liters of macroconidial inoculum. We already sent 150 kg of colonized-corn inoculum to Crookston, so that part is almost done, but we just started making the liquid inoculum. There are always other things I have to do, but that is our main focus right now.

AH: In the summer, how much time do you spend in the field? 

BZ: It depends on how much help they need—I always say, let me know if you need help. Mainly I help with FHB rating, which has been a big project, so at the time of FHB rating I am in the field a couple days per week, depending on how big the project is, and then I usually help with the harvesting. I can’t say exactly how many days per week but in July it’s maybe 2-3 days per week, and in August maybe a week. May and June, if they need help they can tell me.

AH: You sound like the kind of co-worker who is ready to step in and pitch in some help. 

BZ: Here teamwork is very important, and as a Lab Manager it’s important that I coordinate many things but I also need to contribute and help when I’m needed. It’s another way to bring everyone together and teach undergrads how to do teamwork.

AH: Sounds like a good work environment.

BZ: Yes, it is and that’s what I’m trying to maintain in our lab: everybody should feel good, happy, and welcomed when they come to the lab. I know how much it affects your work, your efficiency, and even your health.

As a homeopathic practitioner, I know that when you are happy and feel good mentally and emotionally, it affects your physical health too and can work better and contribute more.

AH: Are you working on anything related to your homeopathic practice outside work right now?

BZ: I am a homeopathic practitioner, so I have my own patients and I see them in the evenings and on weekends. I also teach in the Northwestern Academy of Homeopathy which is where I studied homeopathy in the United States. That school, which is in Minnesota, is the best school of homeopathy in North America. That’s the other thing I love about this job—I can take off those Fridays that I need to teach at school as long as priorities are being met here.

AH: If there is one misunderstanding about small grain pathology you could correct for the general public what would it be?

BZ: They have no idea how what we do here impacts their day to day life. When they eat a piece of bread in the morning or having oatmeal for breakfast or drinking beer in the evening, they don’t know how much science is behind it.

During the pandemic I was preparing oat smut inoculum in my garage. My neighbors asked me what I was doing and they were very surprised when I explained to them about what we are doing here. 

AH: Bread is so taken for granted and seen as mundane.

BZ: I think what people do here is bringing food to peoples' tables. Not everyone (maybe not in this country but in other countries) can afford meat, but they can afford bread so providing adequate and healthy wheat is very important. 

AH: What advice would you give someone who is interested in a career in plant pathology, or in natural sciences more broadly?

BZ: For any career, when people choose, they need to be interested, if they want to do that for the rest of their life. But for this one, you really REALLY should be interested and have passion because it’s a labor of love more than anything else. The reward you get is the impact you have on people’s lives directly or indirectly.