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Jean B. Ristaino
Jean Beagle Ristaino had spent more than 30 years studying Phytophthora diseases of global importance. Ristaino is passionate about international agricultural research and is actively engaged on many fronts to alleviate crop losses due to plant diseases and improve global food security. She is also dedicated to helping mentor and increase the capacity for developing country scientists to pursue research in plant pathology. She has worked with students, scientists and policymakers to improve the capacity of science in the developing world and empower women in agriculture research.
Ristaino is the granddaughter of Italian American immigrants and was born in the nation’s Capital. Her grandfather, born in a farming community in Sicily, was the founder of the National Fruit Company in DC and immigrated as a child as part of the wave of late 19th century Italian immigrants that landed at Ellis Island NY. Her parents were native Washingtonians, earned college degrees in business, and worked for the IRS. Jean grew up in suburban Maryland surrounded by a loving extended family. She developed interests in the natural world as a child when traveling to visit national parks. Although at first she aspired to become a park ranger, an undergraduate research opportunity at the USDA in Beltsville sparked her interests in plant pathology.
She earned an undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences in 1975 and an MS degree in Plant Pathology from the University of Maryland in 1982 studying
. After two years as a research scientist in the Soilborne Disease Laboratory at USDA Beltsville, she went to the University of California Davis and earned a PhD in 1987. Ristaino joined the faculty of the Department of Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University in 1987, was promoted with tenure to Associate Professor in 1993 and Professor in 1998, and was named a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in 2012. Her husband Gary is a SAS IT manager at NCSU, and a retired US Army Ranger where he worked in Special Forces units. Her children Joseph an artist, videographer and musician and Sarah, a vocal performer, have both traveled with their mother to the developing world.
Ristaino has dedicated her research career to Phytophthora diseases of global importance. She works on one of the most notorious plant diseases, late blight caused by
, which is a continued threat to global food security. She first “discovered” herbaria while working at the USDA in Beltsville near Amy Rossman's lab. Ristaino’s lab was the first to use historic herbarium collections from global 19th century late blight outbreaks to study the population genetics of the pathogen. Her lab has addressed questions on the center of origin and the source of 19th century
outbreaks. She has used next generation sequencing to track migrations of
. She and colleagues have sequenced entire genomes from more than seventy 19th century and modern samples and compared their genomes to those of recent global isolates finding a suite of infection-related genes different from modern strains. Her recent microsatellite-based genotyping work has documented an Andean source of 19th century US late blight outbreaks and that the same clonal lineage caused disease in both New and old World populations of the pathogen. Ristaino’s team developed a platform of tools for surveillance of recent P. infestans outbreaks including a disease alert and forecasting system, PCR and isothermal tools that are now deployed with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Kenya and Uganda to detect the pathogen and genotype strains. Her lab helped describe the new hybrid species,
, found in Ecuador and Peru that shares an ancestral haplotype with the famine-era lineage of
. She has developed morphological and molecular diagnostic tools including a Lucid key for identification and has conducted Phytophthora diagnostics workshops on four continents to improve capacity in the developing world to identify and manage Phytophthora diseases. She developed a “Global Phytophthora Diagnostics Network” social media site, shared cultures and deployed technologies for conducting rapid and accurate diagnostic assays.
Ristaino has a passion for providing students with international experiences. Students at NC State University have learned about tropical agriculture and plant pathology through many study abroad tours to Costa Rica. The trips have been part of her graduate course in tropical plant pathology. Students visit operations producing bananas, coffee, pineapples, sugarcane, root crops, ornamental plants and cacao. On each visit, they were joined by some of Ristaino’s former students on the ground at the Universidad de Costa Rica. She has also led an NSF International Research Experience for Students (IRES) in Tropical Plant Pathology that promotes discovery research in the tropics. The “Global Plant Health Scholars” conduct research projects with mentors in Costa Rica.
Ristaino was named by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) as a Jefferson Science Fellow in 2012 and served as science advisor in the Bureau for Food Security at USAID Washington. She helped launch the Borlaug Higher Education Agriculture Research Development Program (BHEARD), served on the Interagency Working Group on Plant Genomics, served as a technical point of contact on emerging plant diseases and organized an exit briefing of the Jefferson Science Fellows at the NAS. She led a discussion of USAID’s Feed the Future research portfolio for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle WA, has participated in a Gates ARC meetings and mentored PEARL grant writers. She has also served on the NAS USAID Partnership for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) Science panel and helped expand the partnership programs of PEER beyond NSF to USDA NIFA and other government agencies. Her efforts to provide solutions to the coffee rust outbreaks in Central America that occurred during her tenure at USAID are noteworthy. Ristaino’s international research and capacity building contributions are multifaceted and far-reaching in several countries in Asia (Bangladesh, China, India and Taiwan), Central America (Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala), South America (Brazil, Chile and Ecuador) and Africa (Kenya and Uganda).
In 2014, Ristaino led a Rockefeller Foundation funded Bellagio conference in Italy on ‘Emerging Infectious Plant Diseases of Africa in the Context of Ecosystem Services’ where African and US participants met to develop a strategy to mitigate impacts of emerging plant diseases in Sub Saharan Africa. Underlying her international efforts are the goals of improving science competencies and empowerment of women in agricultural research in developing countries. A major outcome of the conference was to structure research priorities and subsequently joint grant proposals submitted by US and African scientists have been funded to deploy technologies to manage emerging plant diseases. A significant outcome of her global work has been the formation of a new cluster on “Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security “at NC State that hosted a symposium in March 2016. As its Director, Ristaino is leading efforts to hire a cluster of faculty that will develop new basic knowledge to understand the fundamental basis of emerging infectious diseases caused by plant pathogens – including the development of tools – enabling a more rapid response to contain and limit potential damage by emerging threats.
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