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Kitty Frances Cardwell

Kitty Frances Cardwell was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1953, and grew up in Georgetown, Texas. She got a B.A. degree in botanical sciences with a minor in chemistry from the University of Texas, Austin, in 1976. From 1976 to 1977, she attended graduate school at Texas A&M. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua from 1977 to 1978, serving as an extension plant pathologist with the Instituto Bienestar Agropecuario, a USAID-financed agricultural project for small-scale farmers. Because of the revolution, the Peace Corps relocated her to Colombia in 1978 to work as a research and extension plant pathologist on chemical controls of rice blast and sorghum anthracnose with the Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario.

During her Peace Corps travels, Dr. Cardwell met and married a Colombian farmer and from 1980 to 1985 was the phytosanitary manager of a 500-ha farm of upland rice. She was active in the farm community, the rice cooperative, and in assisting other farmers with disease diagnosis and control. She became a pivotal leader during an epidemic of hoja blanca, advising on vector control and crop management and finally serving as spokesperson for the Rice Federation.

In 1985, Dr. Cardwell returned to Texas A&M to complete her doctorate and worked with Professor R. A. Frederiksen on the population biology of Colletotrichum graminicola. She received a grant to assess virulence patterns on differential sorghum nurseries in Texas, Georgia, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. She developed an innovative statistical approach to minimize error in pathogen population assessment caused by host genotype–environment interactions that was reported in Biometrics.

In 1989, Dr. Cardwell became a plant pathologist and program leader for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria and worked on Striga gesneriodes across sub-Saharan West Africa. Dr. Cardwell was asked to develop and take the lead in IITA’s multi-disciplinary Striga working group.

In 1991, Dr. Cardwell began focusing on a serious downy mildew problem on maize caused by Peronosclerospora sorghi in seven states of Nigeria and spreading rapidly westward toward Benin Republic. She organized funding with the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank, and Ciba-Geigy for research and extension efforts, including disease screening and management strategies. Together with IITA and National Agricultural Research Maize Breeders, resistant cultivars were improved and deployed. A strategy to deploy mobile chemical seedtreatment equipment was developed. However, the loss of the chemical product in a maritime accident caused funding to be withdrawn. The Wall Street Journal’s report of this incident stimulated the World Bank to help with the distribution of downy mildew-resistant seed. A public awareness campaign on the cause and control of downy mildew was launched and reached 600,000 small-scale farms, and over a five-year period, the disease decreased from a chronic, endemic problem to a rare occurrence. The disease front was stopped 65 km from the Benin frontier. For this work, Dr. Cardwell was conferred an honorary fellowship of the Maize Association of Nigeria.

In 1993, Dr. Cardwell received funding from the German government to open a new laboratory in the IITA Centre for Biological Control in Benin dedicated to studies on mycotoxigenic fungi. From 1993 to 2001, she led a large multinational research program on Aspergillus flavus and Fusarium verticillioides. They discovered that a common African strain of A. flavus produces both B and G toxins, whereas new-world strains produce only B toxins. This information is being used to develop biocontrol options for A. flavus in West Africa in conjunction with Peter Cotty at the USDA-ARS in New Orleans. Based on agroecological data on the prevalence of A. flavus and aflatoxin collected across sub-Saharan Africa, Dr. Cardwell devised a research initiative to study the impact of aflatoxin on child health. A recent article in the British Journal of Medicine describes the severe effects of aflatoxin on child health and development. This study is ongoing with the Leeds School of Medicine and the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine, with the support of the German Bundesministerium fuer wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit, Ministry of Agricultural Cooperation. This work explains the higher morbidity and mortality in Africa before the age of five compared with the rest of the world and leads the way to meaningful remediation of the impact of foodborne mycotoxins on the physical and economic well-being of millions of Africans. Dr. Cardwell engaged Rotary International in a public awareness campaign to teach people how to avoid the adverse effects of aflatoxin exposure. This effort is expected to change policy-level decision making, as well as the food-handling behavior and cropmanagement perceptions of millions of farmers in Ghana, Togo, and Benin.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Dr. Cardwell’s contribution in Africa was graduate student training of numerous African and international scientists to meet the challenges of African agriculture. One aspect of this effort was the discovery of the interaction of F. verticillioides with Lepidopteran stem borers of maize, causing contamination with fumonisin and other toxins produced by this fungus. It was discovered that F. verticillioides is not only vectored by insects, but actively attracts them to the infected plants. This line of research has led to numerous publications and a legacy of collaboration across Africa.

Dr. Cardwell presently serves as the National Program Leader for Plant Pathology with the USDA-CSREES. She runs competitive grants programs on methyl bromide alternatives and citrus tristeza and is developing the National Plant Pest and Disease Diagnostic Network for homeland security. Dr. Cardwell recently was granted an embassy science fellowship, which in partnership with the State Department, took her to Costa Rica to work with the government of that country on understanding the U.S. guidelines and regulations concerning genetically modified crops and foods. Her diplomacy skills resulted in a very positive interaction with the Costa Rican technical ministries and advancement in understanding of the science-based thinking of the U.S. regulatory agencies.

Dr. Cardwell is a long-standing member of the APS Office of International Programs (OIP), for which she chairs the Education Committee and writes the OIP newsletter.