Link to home

2023 Fellow: Maria Finckh​

Maria Finckh was born in Germany. She studied three years Biology at Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany until 1986 and earned her Ph.D. in Botany and Plant Pathology working with Chris Mundt at Oregon State University in 1991. Following post-doctoral research with Drs. Paul Teng, Chris Mundt, and Rebecca Nelson at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, she continued as a consultant for the IRRI Integrated Pest Management Research Network and the FAO Intercountry Programme for Integrated Pest Control in Rice in South and Southeast Asia. She subsequently spent three years at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich, Switzerland), and one year at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Copenhagen, Denmark. In 1999, she returned to Germany, to lead the Ecological Plant Protection group as a Professor in the Faculty of Organic Agricultural Sciences at the University of Kassel in Witzenhausen.

Over the course of her career, Maria has developed a unique and visionary research program on cross-disciplinary approaches to agroecological plant health management. Her research focuses on organic farming but takes a holistic, systems approach centered on diversity that is relevant for all farming systems. Maria's early work on `evolutionary breeding', which prioritizes diversity in breeding populations, helped bring this concept to the forefront for an entire generation of plant pathologists. This concept focuses on maintaining genetic diversity or variability for traits related to resilience against stresses (including plant diseases) and adaptability, but uniformity for technical traits (quality, maturity). It facilitates ongoing evolution of breeding populations in response to environmental conditions and enables reliance on large plant population sizes in breeding, while providing a mechanism to increase the diversity and stability of a crop in a specific environment using natural selection. Maria's ongoing work with evolutionary breeding and composite crosses continues to document the longer-term contributions of this concept to crop stability and resilience in the face of global climate change. This work reflects her core commitment to diversity as a precious resource to be preserved in agroecosystems.

A second, highly impactful body of Maria's work has been on long-term field trials with reduced tillage in organic farming. Her field plots take a profoundly holistic approach to plant health, and characterize effects of reduced tillage on weeds, soil and aerially dispersed plant pathogens and diseases, insects, soil health, soil quality, soil water-holding capacity, and soil microbiome characteristics. Through active work with the grower communities, Maria has built an impressive field program that integrates regenerative agriculture based on minimum till, continuous low-level compost application and/or mulch application, methods for enhancing natural enemies of plant pests, and plant species mixtures. Her work documents the core principles of agroecological plant health management via complex, long-term, and highly data-intensive field experiments. Such investment is essential to moving the field forward. While it is easy to `believe in biodiversity', Maria's rich publication record documents that she has made the investments and taken the risks necessary to generate the high-value data needed to document how diversity and sustainable management practices impact agroecosystems. Such work is rare and will have a long-term impact on understanding and management.

Beyond these core areas, Maria has contributed to non-traditional research to address important practical questions, including for example, the use of appropriate sampling methods and statistics to distinguish fraud from pesticide drift in organic farming systems (a critical issue for growers). Maria has also contributed thoughtful publications integrating concepts from `One Health' to plant pathology, and is not afraid to push our discipline through provocative papers which challenge us to think differently. Though at her core Maria thinks like an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, her passion is solving real-world challenges for farmers. Everything that Maria has done over her career, including work in both developing and developed countries, reflects this passion.

Beyond her research life, Maria has been a highly-productive teacher and advisor. She has advised 22 Ph.D. students from 15 different countries (with 7 additional Ph.D. students currently in her program), more than 40 M.Sc. students, and advised or co-advised more than 100 B.Sc. research projects. This is coupled with a demanding course load as part of the small faculty at the University of Kassel/Witzenhausen. Maria also led creation of a joint University of Kassel-University of Gottingen M.Sc. program in International Organic Agriculture. While teaching is the norm for most academic appointments, Maria's education footprint is notably impressive.

Finally, beyond her roles in research and teaching, Maria has played significant service roles throughout her career. At the University of Kassel, she has served as Department Head and Department Dean, as well as a member of the University Senate. She has served in the Steering Committee of the Federation of German Scientists, and on the National Scientific Advisory Board on Biodiversity and Genetic Resources for the Federal Government of Germany, as well as on the Advisory Board of the French National Initiative on Organic Agriculture. Maria has been engaged in diverse national and international projects as an advocate for holistic, organic, and diversity-centered research, and is a global leader in the field . A long-time member of and contributor to APS, Maria was the lead editor of the APS Press book “Plant Disease and Their Management in Organic Agriculture", which has provided an outstanding resource to our community, and has become a central resource in courses in organic agriculture.

Maria's impressive career accomplishments reflect the ethics and commitments of a scientist who follows the beat of her own drum, to outstanding effect. Her passions for biodiversity and sustainable agriculture, and her fearlessness in taking on the complex big-picture and long-term research needed to advance agroecological plant health management, have raised the bar for our field. Maria's career demonstrates how fundamental science can drive the innovative insights and practical solutions needed as the world's growers adapt to climate change. Maria's accomplishments as a visionary scientist, coupled with her deep commitment to educating the next generation of scientists, and her rich contributions to scientific service, make her most deserving of recognition with the APS Fellow Award.