July: 20 Years in the Life of a Plant Disease Diagnostician

July 1, 2018 marks my 20th anniversary as director of the UW-Madison/Extension Plant Disease Diagnostics Clinic.  It really seems just like yesterday that I started at the clinic.  I remember being so excited about being asked to interview for the position, but terrified that I wouldn’t be hired because my diagnostic background was very limited.  I felt better after I gave my interview seminar and Tom German (a virologist in my department) commented how he didn’t see how I could have given a better talk.  Craig Grau (the department field and forage drop Extension specialist and my boss at the time) was also incredibly supportive, and Jennifer Parke (my previous boss in the department) wrote me (from what I was told) a “perfect” letter of recommendation.

Eventually the stars aligned, I was hired, and I was off to the plant disease diagnostic races on July 1, 1998.  I had only two weeks of overlap with Sr. Mary Francis Heimann (my predecessor in the clinic) and I tried to sop up as much of her knowledge as I could in that short period of time.  After that, it was sink or swim.  In particular, I was forced to learn a lot about ornamental diseases (the bulk of my samples even to this day) very quickly.  Everyone in my department, and also Phil Pellitteri (the UW-Madison/Extension insect diagnostician in the UW-Madison Department of Entomology), was very supportive as I consulted with folks about plants, diseases and insect pests that I was unfamiliar with.  I have learned a lot with everyone I have interacted with over the past 20 years and continue to do so even now.

The PDDC’s physical facilities have evolved over the years as well.  My original clinic space was a small lab and office on the second floor in Russell Labs.  I remember one day when so many samples arrived that I had to leave them in a pile on the floor because there wasn’t enough counter space to organize them.  And then there was the 8 ft. Douglas fir that I had to drag into the hall for several days so I could work in the lab and then haul it back into the lab each night so the custodial staff wouldn’t haul it to the dumpster.  Eventually, I moved to the clinic’s current location in Rm. 183 Russell Labs, about three times the size of my original space.  With the arrival of soybean rust into the US in 2004, I added clean space in the basement of Russell Labs so I could pursue the molecular diagnostics needed to detect the pathogen.  I added a new office just a few years ago and now have about four times my original space.  With renovations, I and my staff have created an efficient and productive work space.

And speaking of staff, I have had the best over the years.  The first addition to the clinic was Lynn Williamson, a returning adult undergraduate, who worked for several years as a student hourly in the PDDC.  As my funding became more stable (with increased clinic revenues and federal funding through the National Plant Diagnostic Network), Ann Joy (who I had worked with previously in the department) joined the clinic as the Assistant Diagnostician, providing general support and initiating our foray into molecular diagnostics.  With Ann’s retirement, Sean Toporek joined the clinic as her successor and expanded the PDDC’s molecular diagnostics over his roughly two year tenure.  With Sean’s decision to pursue graduate school (his MS at the time and now his PhD), Sue Lueloff joined the clinic and our molecular diagnostic program has exploded.  Over the years, an army of dedicated undergraduates have worked (and kept me young) in the lab culminating this year with John Lake (my student hourly) and Stephanie Salgado (a Memorial High School intern hired through the TOPS/AVID program).  Ann Joy continues her presence in the clinic doing data entry and Dixie Lang recently joined the group to provide her magical IT expertise and clinic website (https://pddc.wisc.edu/) and social media (@UWPDDC on Facebook and Twitter) support.  Everyone I have worked with over the years including new Plant Pathology faculty and PJ Liesch (Phil Pellitteri’s successor in the Insect Diagnostic Lab), continue to help me learn and do my job.

Clinic activities have expanded over the years.  In addition to diagnosing plant diseases (on average about 1500 samples per year), the clinic provides outreach on plant diseases throughout the state and also nationwide.  I routinely give disease talks (a record 104 in 2017) particularly providing support for home gardeners and professionals in the horticulture arena.  I am particularly grateful to county UW-Extension agents/educators (like Lisa Johnson of Dane County UW-Extension and Diana Alfuth of Pierce County UW-Extension) who have been willing to collaborate with me to provide programming.  I’ve had the pleasure of doing television (on the late Shelley Ryan’s “Wisconsin Gardener”) and radio (on Larry Meiller’s “Garden Talk”) under the moniker “Dr. Death” (a nickname that I acquired at Garden Expo years ago and that makes me smile every time I hear it).  I am also pleased to have been involved in the development of the “University of Wisconsin Garden Facts/Farm Facts/Pest Alert” fact sheet series (https://pddc.wisc.edu/fact-sheet-listing-all/).  I continue to enjoy instructional activities at the UW-Madison including helping Bryan Jensen with his “IPM Scout School” course and conducting my summer “Plant Disease Diagnostics Practicum” course.

It’s been a great 20 years at the PDDC and I don’t see myself retiring anytime soon.  I still have too much I would like to do.  Diagnostics, my outreach activities and my fact sheet work still call.  In addition, I am currently working on plans for an outdoor plant disease laboratory (in collaboration with James Steiner of the UW-Madison Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture) that I would like to see to completion.  And it has always been my goal, time permitting, to have a more active research program in my department documenting new pathogens (new hosts for Verticillium anyone?).  I am excited as I enter my third decade in the PDDC and look forward to whatever challenges come my way.

As always, if you have questions about plant diseases and their management, or PDDC activities and services, feel free to contact me at (608) 262-2863 or pddc@wisc.edu.