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Surviving Your First Year in State Government

Rachel Ann Bomberger, CADRE member

There are many places to have a career as a plant pathologist outside of university, private industry, or federal government. One of the entities worth considering is the state government. However, as with all places of employment, there can be a learning curve as an early career professional.

Nancy Osterbauer, the Plant Health Program Manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture Market Access and Certification Program Area answered questions about her experience working for the state government.

What do you think are the challenges and benefits of working for the state government versus private industry, university, or federal?

As a state pathologist, you have essentially a two-fold mission: to serve and to protect.  On the one hand, you are trying to help your growers sell their products interstate and internationally. This means meeting the regulatory requirements of the importing state or country. That can translate into a lot of applied research, from developing new diagnostic assays, to conducting statistically valid surveys to show your state or county or field is free of a particular pathogen, to designing and testing a new mitigation measure to prevent human spread of a plant pathogen on a particular agricultural commodity. On the other hand, you are also trying to protect your growers and natural resources from non-native, invasive plant pathogens or from native pathogens that have gotten out of control. This may mean working with growers and others on effective diagnostic and mitigation measures, working with lawyers on quarantines and other regulations, and working with other state and federal regulatory agencies on response plans. Throughout all of it, you have to maintain open communication with your growers and other affected stakeholders.  In short, as a state plant pathologist, you wear a lot of different hats. 

That is actually the biggest challenge with working for the state—you have to wear many different hats. As a researcher, the overwhelming majority of research you do is going to be applied: it must be something of direct benefit to the growers you serve and protect.  Also, the funding can be a challenge, not because there is a lack of it, but because it can come from so many different sources (including state taxpayers). An even bigger challenge is writing and interpreting regulations such as quarantines. Universities simply don’t provide that kind of training to their graduate students, so the learning curve can feel pretty steep at first. Finally, communication: communication is so central to everything that you do as a state plant pathologist, whether it be verbal or written. Again, this is a skill that historically has not been taught well to graduate students in plant pathology and it is imperative to their future success.

A couple of final items: state plant pathologists have to be generalists. While we do have a bacteriologist, a virologist, a mycologist, and a nematologist in our program, none of us are specialists. There are simply too many different critters we are dealing with on a daily basis for any of us to concentrate solely on one pathogen group. For example, our lab is helping our Pesticides/Fertilizer Program right now by identifying different beneficial microorganisms in biofertilizers, which has little to do with plant pathology but a lot to do with bacteria and fungi. You never know what you might be asked to work on and that can make the job a lot of fun. And last, there is no such thing as tenure, there is no “publish or perish”, and there is no mandatory requirement for bringing in X amount of outside funding. There is, however, a lot of pressure to do it right. Anything you decide can have a tremendous impact on growers and agricultural and natural resources: your decisions can affect individuals or the entire state. So, if you mess up, you’ll hear about it.

Why did you choose the state, or why do you choose to stay employed by the state?

This was my first “real” job out of graduate school. I choose to stay in the position because I feel like I make a real difference for the growers of our state, either through the work that my staff and I do directly with them or through collaborative efforts with other state and federal agencies, and with Oregon State University.

Is there cooperation between your lab and any other plant pathology labs in your state?

I collaborate whenever possible with the Extension Service, with individual researchers at Oregon State University and USDA-ARS in Corvallis, and with pathologists at other state and federal agencies. Depending upon the pathogen being tackled, that cooperation can be key to developing a successful program to help our growers. 

What is the main role/function of your lab?

At heart, it is a diagnostic lab. We do explore mitigation options for various pathogens, but that is primarily field work with the related diagnostics being done in the lab.

Does that change based on federal or university focuses or do you function independently?

We have historically received federal grants that sometimes affect the research projects done by the lab. These grants are usually related to developing mitigation measures to protect growers and their crops from specific pathogens. However, we do diagnostic work on a daily/hourly/minute-by-minute basis, so that basic function of the laboratory never changes.

Any advice for those of us looking at working and surviving our first years working for state government?

Be prepared to feel like you’re swimming upstream for a while. As I mentioned before, our universities’ graduate programs typically do not provide a lot training on communication and budget management to graduate students and provide virtually no training on law, legal authorities, and how to deal with regulations. The absolute biggest thing to remember when you first head down this path is, there are no stupid questions. I can tell you from experience that it is so much better to ask the question rather than to make an assumption or, worse, to make a mistake. That said, if the real reason you went into plant pathology was to help farmers and/or to protect our natural resources, this just might be the perfect job for you.

Sarah Navarro, M.S., an early career professional, of the Oregon Department of Agriculture shares her experience of her first year working for a state agency.

Working for the state of Oregon provides both benefits and challenges, which makes the job very interesting and never stagnant.  I have been a Plant Health Specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture in the Plant Health Program since December 2013. I chose to pursue a career with the state first because of the diversity of the work: I have opportunities to conduct field and lab work as well as analysis and reporting on the plant disease surveys I conduct. Additionally, employment stability, a competitive salary, and health benefits are other positive outcomes to working for state government. 

The Plant Health program in the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is responsible for protecting the state’s agricultural industries from damage caused by plant pathogens. This is accomplished through field inspections, laboratory testing, and specialized statewide surveys for exotic plant pathogens. Our program has collaborative agreements with USDA Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service, Oregon State University, and the Washington and California Departments of Agriculture. Through these partnerships, the ODA is able to reach and assist more people with their plant pest problems across the state. We function independently of any university or the federal government. However, both the federal government does provide the ODA with some of the funds required to complete our program mission. The reminder of our funding sources comes from the state government budget as well as fee based services provided by the Plant Health program.

I have greatly enjoyed my experience working for the ODA and see myself staying in this position for some years to come. My main duty as a Plant Health Specialist is to survey ornamental nurseries throughout the state for the presence of the plant pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum. I perform the laboratory diagnostics to detect P. ramorum in the samples taken from nurseries. In addition, to these typically duties of a plant pathologist, I develop site-specific recommendations to nursery managers based on pathogen ecology and economical limitations of the nursery in order to mitigate disease impacts.  All of these job duties make my work very diversified and satisfying: not only do I get to use my plant pathology knowledge and skills on a daily basis, I get to share my expertise with other who can benefit from it directly. 

I have worked for a private biopesticide company in the past as well as seasonally for the federal government.  With the private company, I was doing the same tasks day in and day out with no diversity in the work or the chance to interact with customers. While working for the federal government can pay higher salaries, securing a permanent position is very difficult these days, which lead me to look for employment with the state.  The best advice I could give for people thinking about working for the state is to talk to people directly about their own experiences! Also, when you do get a job with the state, do not be afraid to ask lots and lots of questions, everyone wants you to succeed but most have been employed by the state for so long they forget what information is useful for new people!