Helene R. Dillard
Helene R. Dillard was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area. She received her bachelor degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1977, and then traveled eastward to the UC Davis campus where she received a masters degree in soil science and a Ph.D. degree in plant pathology in 1979 and 1984, respectively. She then made a more distant move eastward in 1984 to join the faculty of the Department of Plant Pathology at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY. Dillard was assigned research and extension responsibilities for vegetable crops. She was promoted to associate professor in 1990 and to professor in 1998.
A wide variety of vegetable disease problems exist throughoutNew York State, which provided Dillard with ample opportunity to explore and address many important needs of the agricultural community. Early in her job at Cornell, Dillard needed to determine which of these were most important from a research and grower perspective. Her excellent mentoring at UC Davis by Drs. Ray Grogan and Denny Hall allowed her to maintain diversity in her program, yet focus on critical and productive research and extension topics. Throughout her career, she made wise and carefully informed choices that have clearly benefited New York agriculture, Cornell University, and plant pathology in general.
Her work has always been directed toward the identification, biology, and management of foliar diseases in vegetables. She specialized in several major fungal genera, including Sclerotinia, Botrytis, Colletotrichum, Puccinia, and Alternaria. Working with P. sorghi on sweet corn, she and her colleagues established that the alternate host did not serve as an overwintering reservoir, identified the impact of this rust on yield components, and developed action thresholds that allowed growers to determine the proper timing of control measures. S. sclerotiorum is a major disease on cabbage and snap beans in New York. Dillard found that the host range included plant species of common weeds such as velvet leaf and ragweed, but more importantly, there was considerable variation in the pathosystems to the extent that management strategies had to be tailored to specific pathogen/ host populations. With fewer chemical control options available to growers, it became imperative that management strategies for white mold were matched to the local conditions. Dillard also provided substantive information on the management of tomato diseases using approved organic methods and explored biological control of S. sclerotiorum.
Her enthusiasm for extension work is infectious. She assisted and trained county and specialist extension educators on the finer points of vegetable diseases and their management. Dillard was quickly embraced by growers and the vegetable industry. Her ability to impart useful knowledge was equaled by her warm personality and humor. This excellence in extension work was recognized by the New York Association of Agricultural Agents in 1991 and The American Phytopathological Society in 1992. This work was also setting the foundation for her future roles at Cornell.
While maintaining her activities in research and extension in vegetables, Dillard was nominated to participate in the National Extension Leadership Development (NELD) Program in 1997. In the same year, she also began a 4-year term as chair of the Geneva department. Her leadership skills were quickly recognized and in 2001, she was asked to oversee all agricultural extension programs at Cornell as associate director of Cooperative Extension. A little more than a year later, she was promoted to the position of director of Cornell Extension with accompanying titles of associate dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Human Ecology. In this position, she now oversees 1,700 employees with an approximate annual system budget of $120,000,000.
Dillard’s leadership as director has been transformational. Within the university, she has greatly strengthened the relationship with central university functions resulting in increased awareness of Cornell Cooperative Extension university-wide. She has become a part of central university decision making, is regularly invited to university trustee meetings, and is a part of trustee committees. Dillard has also engineered greatly improved relationships with stakeholder groups throughout New York State by regular involvement with representative commodity groups and agricultural agencies and councils. The implementation of a comprehensive involvement strategy to bring stakeholders to the decision making processes has focused program and resources on areas of greatest need.
Yet throughout her administrative rise, Dillard has remained a plant pathologist. Getting into the field to assess disease brings her back to her roots. Impossible as it seems, she finds time on a weekly basis to leave her Ithaca-based director’s role and travel to Geneva where she maintains her department office and laboratory. Within the last year, she has studied the vulnerability of snap beans to soybean rust as well as drafted a Section 18 emergency exemption request for fungicides that control soybean rust on snap and dry beans in New York. She continues work on the long-range dispersal of maize rust and has identified a new russet disease on snap bean caused by Plectosporium tabacinum. Finally, she is involved with a team of researchers addressing a recent outbreak of virus diseases of snap beans.
Dillard has a deep regard for her chosen profession and her plant pathologist colleagues. She has served the Society as a member of various regional and national committees, section editor for Fungicide and Nematicide Reports, ad hoc reviewer for Plant Disease and Phytopathology, and councilor-at-large. She has also served on panels for the USDA/NRI programs and the National Research Council. Dillard is committed to insuring diversity within science, academe, and plant pathology, and has been actively involved in outreach to universities such as Spellman, Howard, and Southern. Dillard is a true ambassador representing the best qualities of a scientist and leader, whether her audience is a 4-H club, a national conference, or an assessment team in an underdeveloped county.
Dillard’s many and valuable contributions span the field from research to extension to education. Her service to her department, her stakeholders, the Cooperative Extension Service, her college and university, and her professional society represents a truly remarkable career for anyone 20 years her senior.