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Meeting the Needs for Leaders in Agricultural Biosecurity


We believe that higher education needs to take a new tact in order to ensure the security of US Agriculture. Clearly, our future security will depend on the deployment of broadly trained scientists and policy-makers. In recognition of this need, the Penn State Department of Plant Pathology has strategically targeted invasive organism research and aerobiology as areas of significant resource investments. In support of these needs, we propose a unique Graduate Fellowship program intended to produce this next generation of scientists.


This interdisciplinary program has four major component areas, aerobiology, fungal biology, bioinformatics, and pathosystems management, and will expose students to every aspect of plant disease monitoring, detection and control, from the field to the laboratory, and from molecules to the whole organism. Because only two of the four areas were funded in proposal 2005-02345, we will choose the areas based on our recruiting success, inclusive of diversity objectives. Since there is a strong international component to agricultural biosecurity, the recruitment and training of under-represented groups is imperative. In addition, training will dovetail with current and pending NSF-, NRI-, ARS-, and APHIS-supported research activities monitoring pathogen movement and maintaining databases of major invasive plant disease threats, including soybean rust and Phytophthora spp. The program will go beyond a narrow, thesis-directed curriculum to produce broadly trained scientists capable of leading the national agenda in pathosystem management and policy-making. Key opportunities for Fellows include interaction and research collaboration with frontline institutions involved in managing major emerging disease threats and annual symposia involving researchers currently involved in impending plant disease threats. We expect to train a new breed of educators/scientists who understand the complex nature of plant disease epidemics and host-parasite interactions. As the nature of research problems has become more complex, the need for interdisciplinary education that stimulates and supports collaborative work spanning traditional scientific boundaries has significantly increased. Enhancing interdisciplinary problem-solving skills and emphasizing the importance of collaboration is critical to preparing the next generation of plant heath professionals and crisis management planners. Given the nearly impossible task of educating generalists who can do it all, an alternative approach is to help students learn to work effectively with other specialists toward a common goal. The ability to work with a diverse group of specialists has become an essential skill for a successful career in industry, and is no less important in academia and government.

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NON-TECHNICAL SUMMARY: Disruption of US agriculture by the intentional release of pathogens would be catastrophic to the US/global economies and stability. The focus of this initiative is to raise human capital for agricultural biosecurity.


APPROACH: We plan to start the program with a meeting with the College Administration, for it will be imperative to line up their support for the Fellows. We hope to gain their trust and appreciation for the task that lay ahead. Next, we will launch a nation-wide recruiting campaign with a goal of reaching a solid majority of the plant scientists in-training. We also will focus on under-represented groups and majors such as information science that may produce graduates that fit our program. Funds will be budgeted for student visits and faculty travel to sites with high potential. We will recruit for approximately six months, with a selection deadline of February 2006. Depending on the project chosen by the Fellow, they will be trained either under the Department of Plant Pathology Graduate Program or Intercollege Program in Ecology. Students engaged in molecular work may participate in the Institute of Molecular Evolutionary Genetics, which is not a graduate program but an umbrella group of researchers. Since this is a multidisciplinary program, integrating the fields of molecular genetics and mycology, meteorology/aerobiology, and field plant pathology, each Fellow will be co-advised by two of the PIs, cross-cutting these disciplines. All four of the PIs will serve as members of the examination and dissertation committees for each of the Fellows, with an additional outside member chosen as appropriate. The progress of each student will be evaluated through weekly joint lab meetings that will involve other personnel from the PIs labs. Fellows will lead the meetings in rotation along with other students and post-docs, on average once every 2-3 months, making a presentation on their progress and receiving input not only from the PIs but also from the entire laboratory group. Fellows will also make seminar presentations as required by their individual graduate program. An oral candidacy exam, comprehensive exam and defense will be administered in accordance with the appropriate graduate degree. The student committees will meet annually to discuss their progress. This will occur in addition to frequent (twice monthly) informal meetings between the Fellows and their co-advisors. In addition to discussing the Fellows progress in the pursuit of their degrees, their future plans and employment opportunities will be discussed. Each student will be actively mentored with respect to issues of job placement and how to succeed in the profession. Students will also be given excellent opportunities to interact with government and academic scientists engaged in the area of plant biosecurity, including scientists at the USDA Foreign Disease-Weed Research Science Research Unit at Ft. Detrick, MD, USDA-APHIS in Beltsville, MD, and the PA Department of Agriculture (PDA) in Harrisburg, PA. Scientists from these institutions frequently give seminars at Penn State and will continue to do so, and the PIs are currently collaborating with scientists at these institutions in accordance with their USDA/NRI and USDA/APHIS grants on Phytophthora and soybean rust. Dana Berner and Reid Frederick from Ft. Detrick and Seong-Hwan Kim from PDA are Adjunct Faculty in the Department.

Kang, Seogchan; Christ, Barbara
Pennsylvania State University
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