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2023 Fellow: Alison Robertson​

Alison E. Robertson was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, and received her B.S. degree (1991) in plant pathology from the University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, and her M.S. degree (1999) in plant pathology from the University of Zimbabwe while working as an extension plant pathologist at the Tobacco Research Board in Harare. She completed her Ph.D. studies at Clemson University in 2003. Dr. Robertson joined Iowa State University (ISU) faculty as an assistant professor in 2004, was promoted to associate professor in 2010 and professor in 2017.

Dr. Robertson leads a creative, research-based extension program that has made outstanding contributions that have earned national and international recognition. The objectives of her extension program are to increase awareness of the effect of disease on yield and grain quality of corn and soybean, to enhance understanding of the disease triangle, to improve disease diagnosis skills, and to encourage the use of effective and sustainable disease management practices.

Dr. Robertson's efforts have yielded impressive benefits for corn and soybean farmers in Iowa and nationally. Her work to understand the aggressiveness and fungicide sensitivity of Pythium species causing damping-off of corn and soybean led to changes in management recommendations, such as use of seed treatments and growing resistant varieties to reduce the risk of losses. An intensive extension and outreach program based on her new recommendations was tracked from 2012 to 2014 and revealed that 82% of respondents saved 1 to 5 bushels per acre by following her recommendations – an annual savings exceeding $10 million for the state of Iowa alone. Pythium diseases of corn and soybean are widespread and Dr. Robertson's recommendations reach a wide national audience, so the total annual savings from this advancement are likely to be much larger.

Dr. Robertson's outstanding teaching ability is evident at the ISU Field Extension and Education Laboratory, a large, indoor/outdoor classroom where educational events are held. Each growing season, multiple and varied short courses, clinics, and workshops are conducted there, with diverse audiences including agronomists, field scouts, plant breeders, farmers, and undergraduate and graduate students. Alison is among the most frequently requested speakers for these events and often receives the highest scores in program evaluations.

A hallmark of Dr. Robertson's extension teaching is active learning to engage clientele. Alison provides groups of students diseased plant material plus copies of the APS Press's farmer's guides to corn and soybean diseases to use to work through the diagnosis as a group and to report back to all other students. She also uses a game-based learning platform called Kahoot to conduct pre-tests before beginning to teach to identify misconceptions students may have regarding crop disease diagnosis and management.

Dr. Robertson's creativity in extension recently has expanded into training the next generation of extension professionals. Alison currently leads a group of faculty and staff in developing a graduate course for the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to prepare and recruit students for a career in extension, teaching students about the history and philosophy of extension, how to measure impact, the various means of delivering information, etc.

Dr. Robertson has noteworthy extension efforts in the diagnosis of new pathogens and diseases of Iowa's 24 million acres of corn and soybeans. She played a key role in organizing and implementing Iowa response to soybean rust in the mid 2000s, training nearly 1,000 Iowa agribusiness professionals to properly diagnose soybean rust and differentiate it from other, common foliar soybean diseases in the field. This unique public-private partnership was highlighted in an article authored by Dr. Robertson in the Journal of Extension. In 2016, Dr. Robertson worked with the ISU Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic (PIDC) to first diagnose tar spot of corn in Iowa, and then she immediately wrote extension materials with ISU PIDC personnel to compare and contrast tar spot symptoms and signs with common and southern rust symptoms and signs. When reports of another unusual corn leaf disease with streak symptoms also were received in 2016, Dr. Robertson worked alongside state department of agriculture personnel to confirm the disease as bacterial leaf streak. Dr. Robertson then helped coordinate a statewide survey for the new disease and collaborated to make positive identifications of the disease from the survey samples. She also led development of a national, multipage extension pamphlet, co-authored by colleagues in Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas, describing the new leaf streak disease and comparing it to look-alike diseases and disorders.

Dr. Robertson has co-authored and co-edited two national extension publications, APS Press's “A Farmer's Guide to Corn Diseases" and “A Farmer's Guide to Soybean Diseases", which she uses in her extension programs (as previously mentioned). She has given hundreds of oral presentations and uses social media to reach farmers and agribusiness professionals. Currently, she has nearly 3,700 followers on Twitter, with approximately 85 percent from the US, 5 percent from Canada and 10 percent from across the world. In the last 12 months, her informative and instructional tweets were seen over 562,000 times. Collectively, her extension outputs (minus tweets) have reached more than a million stakeholders in Iowa and nationally.

Dr. Robertson is universally regarded as an exemplary extension specialist among agribusiness professionals in Iowa and is considered a leader among her national peers. She received the APS Syngenta award in 2014, the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Outstanding Achievement in Extension Award in 2017, and the Iowa State University Award for Outstanding Achievement in Extension in 2018. Dr. Alison Robertson is an outstanding extension plant pathologist. She uses traditional communication avenues as well as social media to deliver research-based information on identification and management of corn and soybean diseases to her clientele.