Alison E. Robertson was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, and received her B.S. degree (1991) in plant pathology from the University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, and her M.S. degree (1999) in plant pathology from the University of Zimbabwe while working as an extension plant pathologist at the Tobacco Research Board in Harare. She completed her Ph.D. research at Clemson University in 2003. Robertson joined the Iowa State University (ISU) faculty in 2004. In nine years, she has emerged as a leader with extension and research programs that are of critical importance to growers and to the sustainability of corn and soybean production in the North Central Region.
Robertson has tackled several economically important diseases in her research program and has displayed impressive responsiveness to current and emergent corn and soybean disease issues. Beginning with a three-year, comprehensive survey of soybean diseases in Iowa, Robertson established a much needed baseline for understanding soybean diseases in Iowa. She has established leadership in oomycete-incited diseases, which present some of the most challenging and under-investigated disease problems facing soybean growers. Robertson’s lab has made significant advances in characterizing the diversity of pathogenic Phytophthora populations in soils in the North Central Region using microsatellite tools for genetic fingerprinting Phytophthora species—critical information needed by crop breeders. Through peer-reviewed research, backed by her vigorous extension program, Robertson has been recognized, regionally and nationally, as a leading expert on oomycetes.
In 2009, after devastating hail storms in Iowa generated concerns about the risk of mycotoxin contamination in hail-damaged corn, Robertson quickly organized a program to identify mycotoxins and to document the impact of hail on ear rot diseases. The results, published in Agronomy Journal and presented at the Midwest AOAC Conference, were among the first to quantify the impact of hail damage on the risk of ear rots and associated mycotoxin contamination, which has consequences for marketing grain.
Within recent years, Robertson has initiated research to understand the ecology of epiphytic survival and host invasion by Clavibacter michiganensis subsp. nebraskensis, the causal agent of Goss’s wilt of corn, a disease that has re-emerged as a significant production threat. This fundamental information is being coupled with investigations into the effects of Goss’s wilt on grain quality, seedborne infection, and seed transmission.
Her stellar research contributions notwithstanding, Robertson is—heart and soul—an extension specialist. She thrives on interacting with growers, whether at meetings or when troubleshooting disease problems in the field. Her prodigious extension publication output testifies that she is a prolific and in-demand source of unbiased disease management information. Robertson is regularly invited by the agrochemical and seed industry to conduct extension workshops on corn and soybean disease diagnosis and management, and she has coordinated and taught more than 170 crop disease training sessions for extension and agribusiness professionals through ISU extension programs. She has educated thousands of producers and agronomists on disease management practices. Robertson also trained more than 1,000 individuals on soybean rust identification for the ISU Rust Fast Track System, a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership.
Robertson has assumed leadership as a spokesperson on one of the most controversial issues facing growers: the economic advisability of applying fungicide sprays to field crops. Many corn and soybean producers now use foliar fungicides, and there are many questions regarding the most efficient strategy for fungicide use. Robertson and colleagues have tackled these questions with extensive fungicide field trials across the Corn Belt and provide annual updates through extension programming and national conferences, including the ASTA Corn & Sorghum Research Conference. Although her findings have been controversial to some, Robertson has not hesitated to take positions (backed by data) that have been unpopular with the crop protection chemical industry. She has been fearless in advocating and producing science-based information to enable growers to make informed, cost-effective decisions. Nevertheless, through her exceptional diplomatic skills, she has maintained excellent, mutually respectful relationships with all stakeholders involved. Consequently, for people on all sides of this difficult issue, Robertson has become the go-to source for clear-headed information. In 2011, for her efforts in foliar fungicide education, Robertson was awarded the ISU Extension and Outreach Award for Achievement by an Individual.
Robertson’s productive research and extension efforts have resulted in 23 refereed publications, 4 book chapters, 260 extension publications, and 21 popular articles. Four of the curricula publications, developed in collaboration with the ISU Crop Advisor Institute, have received certificate of excellence awards from the American Society of Agronomy.
Robertson has compiled an enviable record of grantmanship, with more than 20 grants (over $2.3 million) from USDA-NIFA, commodity groups, and agrichemical companies. This funding has enabled her to train four post-doctoral scientists, two Ph.D. students, and nine M.S. students. By all accounts, she is an excellent mentor, who supports the professional development of her students and encourages student participation in national and division meetings. Robertson also serves as a senior editor for Plant Disease and as a member of the APS Extension Committee.
Many of Robertson’s research and extension efforts involve close coordination with other scientists at ISU and throughout the United States, which is no surprise given Robertson’s facility in forming durable, productive collaborations. She is a genuine pleasure to work with and always fulfills her commitments in a timely manner. Robertson served as the chair of the Corn Pathology Working Group. She is the extension network coordinator for two current multistate AFRI-NIFA grants and actively collaborates with plant pathologists in more than 15 states.
Alison Robertson has clearly demonstrated an outstanding ability to identify and solve key research needs and to deliver new, critical information to growers, industry stakeholders, and colleagues. Within just nine years, she has made significant contributions to advance disease management in corn and soybean production in the United States.