Link to home

Where to Begin in Plant Pathology

Rachel Ann Bomberger, CADRE member

We all have to start somewhere. Becoming a plant pathologist, in any iteration, means a journey: but the most confusing, frustrating, and all around hardest thing is starting. Starting can mean different things like when you first become interested, when you start an education, or when your career decisions lead you to plant pathology.. Early career professionals share their stories and advice in hopes of easing any fears of starting the journey to being a plant pathologist. 

Lorena Rangel, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Davis shares her experience going from a confused undergraduate to a niche of plant pathology as a bacteriologist:

I began my undergraduate journey not knowing what I ultimately wanted to do. I knew my particular interests and strengths so I spent my first two years of college getting ‘core’ courses out of the way and working on art and science. It wasn’t until I took an introductory microbiology class that I began to form an idea of what I wanted to do professionally. I was amazed at the vast ecological niches and the potential uses of bacteria that were just now being uncovered. As a senior project for a microbial genetics course we were assigned to write mock grant proposal on an area of interest. I used this to fine-tune my interests and found that biological control was something that really interested me. Concurrently, I worked in the horticulture department and really enjoyed spending time in the greenhouses. At the time I knew this was a work environment that I could envision myself in every day. As graduation was creeping nearer, I knew I wanted to continue my education and specifically focus on the ecology of bacteria on plants. I began to research graduate programs and labs that would encompass these areas. I found the perfect fit for my Master’s of Science (M.S.) at Oregon State University in Corvallis. I knew I wanted to work in Dr. Joyce Loper’s lab at the USDA-ARS where her research program develops biological control strategies for managing plant diseases in agriculture. I sent her my mock grant proposal from my senior project that involved searching for bacterial-derived insect toxins. It was a good thing that I knew what I wanted to work on because at the time I had no idea how the rest of the application process worked! Joyce and the OSU Botany and Plant Pathology office manager, Dianne Simpson, really helped me out with the rest of the process. I was in contact with them for at least six months prior to turning in my application. Don’t be afraid to call (repeatedly if necessary) and ask questions!

I began my master’s work in July 2010. I chose a M.S. path because I was told to consider my job options after graduate school. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to work post-grad school and I didn’t want to be over-qualified for many jobs. I also didn’t know if I would enjoy continuing my education and didn’t want to commit to more time than I could handle. It was important to me that I chose a lab where I felt comfortable working and learning. It is so crucial to work with a professor that you can easily talk to and work with. I definitely made the right choice by joining the Loper lab. Prior to attending Oregon State, I had never taken courses in plant pathology as my focus was strictly in microbiology during undergrad. I didn’t find this to be detrimental to starting my graduate career in this department and although others in my cohort had plant pathology experience, I quickly caught up and was able to get as much out of the course material as the others. There was required coursework here that all students had to take. I took three additional courses in molecular and cellular biology that were recommended to me by Dr. Loper based upon my research and future goals.

After completing my master’s work I now knew that I wanted to continue research and eventually work for industry as a project scientist. I completed my M.S. in August 2012 and decided to continue on to a plant pathology PhD program. I applied to University of California-Davis to work under Dr. Johan Leveau where his research centers on the structure and activity of microbial communities associated with plants. I didn’t really shift my area of research too dramatically- I now realize that between degrees you can change your area of focus and it is not looked down upon. It was probably much easier for me to enter a lab where I was familiar with the work produced but it is not absolutely necessary.

One thing I wish I had known prior to graduate school is about funding opportunities. There are so many fellowships that will completely pay for your education. These are definitely worth applying for and will allow you to have a high chance to attend any university of your choice. I also think it definitely helped that I knew exactly what I wanted to work on during my master’s work. I believe sending my ideas to professors prior to applying and seeing if we had similar interests increased my chances of being accepted into a program. Many paths can be taken to be successful in graduate school. Be sure to know your options and to communicate as much as possible with those you may work under. 

My journey to becoming a plant pathology diagnostician began when I started college hoping to become a physician. During this journey a couple of experiences stand out as having significant impacts on my career:

While pursuing an undergraduate degree with the hopes of applying to medical school, I interned and worked under an evolutionary biology graduate student on the speciation of the California clover complex. This graduate student unintentionally started grooming me to become a scientist rather than a physician by pointing out my skills for research activities. When I decided that I enjoyed plant science more than medical science I applied to graduate school with her help. 

Tip 1)

Find someone who is either in graduate school in a related discipline or has gone to graduate school who can help you with the application process. I had the graduate student I worked for along with a postdoctoral student who taught my Senior Research Thesis course who helped me with the application process. They gave me great insight like: contacting professors beforehand; how to dressing formal enough for interviews to show respect and not being overdressed to the point where I couldn’t have gone out to a research plot; good questions to ask other members in the research group, like was the PI accessible and have previous students had issues finishing on time; down to what to write in the subject line of the first email I sent to contact the professor.

I had never taken a course in plant pathology when I applied to graduate school. I had merely chosen plant pathology as a hybrid of my original ambition to be a physician and combined that with my passion and aptitude for plant sciences. My lack of courses on of the subject made me decide to go for a master’s in science in case I didn’t really like plant pathology. It was an intimidating first quarter of graduate school at Oregon State because it seemed as if my peers where light years ahead of me due to their interests in microbes versus my interest in plants. It took a couple of weeks before I got over the intimidation I was feeling by realizing that my knowledge of plant physiology and evolutionary biology made me stronger in a different way than my peers.

Tip 2)

In my experience if you are unsure as to whether to get a M.S. or a Ph.D., start with a M.S. If you start a master’s program and decide you’d rather pursue a Ph.D., there can be opportunities to switch your program without much delay. If there is no way to switch, you can complete the master’s and then start your Ph.D. program that much more informed and comfortable with graduate school and the application process. Also, if you are unsure about what degree to get, talk to the PIs you are interested in working with to see what they recommend or would like you to get, and see if there is potential to switch from a Master’s to a Ph.D. during your time with them.

Tip 3)

Do not intimidate yourself! Your peers likely feel as uncomfortable as you do the first quarter of graduate school; everyone has had a different journey that lead them to graduate school so everyone comes in with different skill sets. Be friendly and team up with others for help with classes, assignments, and research as this communication can help strengthen the areas you felt weak or behind in. And, the ability to collaborate is useful throughout a career in plant pathology.

When my M.S. work was coming to a close I began that panic of what do due next. I was really interested in diagnostics but other than a two-unit course I didn’t feel like I knew enough on how to break into that field. My university had a plant clinic so I went to go talk with Melody Putnam and Maryna Serdani. They advised me to go work and see if I liked the discipline. They also advised that a Ph.D. in diagnostics isn’t available so getting a Ph.D. without knowing the discipline of diagnostics well enough to determine a research topic could pigeon-hole me into one group of diseases. Their guidance lead me to contacting the only plant pathologist from my home state, Dr. Shouhua Wang, almost a year before I graduated.

Tip 4)

Being a student is more powerful than we think. Being a student puts you in the physical position to contact professors and scientists within your university, and puts the person you are talking to in a guiding versus a judging position. In my experiences, reaching out to distinguished faculty at my university was much easier when they knew I was a student at the university. The same benefit applies for potential employers. I asked my current employer what he recommended I do to best prepare myself for a hypothetical position and this simple question put him in the position of guiding me. This relationship only served to benefit both of us as he got an employee with the experience he wanted and I received good advice. Plus, this relationship has carried over into our working relationship as my boss has been the biggest supporter of my development as a professional and always looks to involve me in anything he thinks will help me further my career. 

Zhian Kamvar, a Ph.D. student from Oregon State University, shares his tips on how to start and survive graduate education.

For undergraduates:

You might be wondering which degree is best for you: a Master’s or Ph. D. There are many long rants available on the internet as to the philosophy behind the two, but basically, a Master’s degree takes about 2-3 years and will give you the tools to be able to critically analyze and answer a question. A Ph. D. will do the same and will also give you the tools to ask the question (which can be difficult), but it takes at least 4 years to complete. It’s also important to realize that it is not absolutely necessary to go directly to graduate school from undergraduate. Time taken off to take a job inside or outside of plant pathology/agriculture can give you an outsider’s perspective and may allow you to find your true passion (even if it isn’t what you originally thought it was). If and when you do decide to apply to a Master’s or Ph. D. program, keep these things in mind:

    1. Always contact the professors you are interested in working with beforehand.
    2. Consider graduate programs that have some mechanism of funding their graduate students (through research assistantships or teaching assistantships).
    3. Apply for grants such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.
    4. Be passionate.
    5. Don’t give up. If you are rejected from schools the first time you apply, don’t get discouraged, but figure out what went wrong and apply the next year.
    6. Make sure that your style of learning matches with your potential advisor’s (often called a P.I. or Primary Investigator) style of mentoring (this is especially true for Ph. D. students).

For graduate students:

Prepare to feel a bit lost all the time, but know that you are not alone.