New Penn State Tree Fruit Pathologist

Kari Peter of Penn State University Extension

Editor’s note: Kari Peter is a new assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology and tree fruit pathologist with Penn State Extension. Peter will serve tree fruit growers in Pennsylvania and Maryland through the Mid-Atlantic Fruit Consortium, a collaboration that enables Penn State, the University of Maryland, and West Virginia University to share resources and expertise.

1. How did you get started in tree fruit pathology?

The road leading me to tree fruit pathology has not been a straight one. I studied entomology during college and my graduate work focused on insect transmitted plant viruses. After earning my Ph.D., I worked as a postdoc (postdoctoral scholar) at Penn State studying how aphids transmit viruses. At the end of my appointment, I wanted to broaden my plant pathology foundation and study fungi. I pursued another postdoc researching postharvest diseases caused by fungi on apple and pear at the USDA-Agricultual Research Station in Beltsville, MD. The job was more than I could have ever hoped, as so many doors and opportunities have opened for me, my current job being one of them. 

2. What interests you about tree fruit?

Throughout my whole life, I have always been a passionate consumer of tree fruit. A fond childhood memory was buying fruit at the local orchards. This continued during graduate school at Cornell, as I looked forward to the fall harvest every year and buying apples at the Cornell orchards. My passion for tree fruit contributes to my passion for studying tree fruit diseases. I am also excited to be able to utilize my versatile background for tackling tree fruit issues. In addition, I thoroughly enjoy interacting with growers. I’m a “people person,” but I also love being in the lab. This tree fruit pathology position has turned out to be my dream job since I can experience the best of both worlds. Not mention, I have a good supply of fruit to consume during the season!

3. What are some of the biggest challenges to growers in the Mid-Atlantic region?

There are several plant disease challenges growers are facing. Resistance to pesticides is a huge deal. The public often hears about the issues in the medical field about resistant pathogens. Plant pathogens are no different. Another challenge for growers is dealing with the effects of a shifting climate. Typically, certain tree fruit diseases seen in the Southeastern U.S. have not been a problem in the Mid-Atlantic because we usually don’t experience long stretches of very hot, very humid weather, which are favorable conditions for certain fruit rots. However, for the last several summers, the Mid-Atlantic has experienced typical Southeastern U.S. summers: long stretches of very hot, very humid weather. As a result, we have seen particular fruit rots be an issue late in the season, which is problematic for fresh market producers immediately at harvest and during long-term storage. Many apples are going into cold storages unknowingly infected with fungal spores; one doesn’t know until the storages are opened a few months later there was a problem.

4. What are some short-term research goals that you have? What are some long-term research goals?

One of my short-term goals is to develop a rapid assay for evaluating pesticide resistance for fungal and bacterial samples collected in the field. The current method to evaluate pesticide resistance is laborious, expensive, and time consuming. The medical field utilizes a rapid assay for determining resistance to drugs, and the plant pathology community is adapting the method. I’m hoping to include a few more pathogens most problematic for the Mid-Atlantic region. One of my long-term research goals is to develop a model(s) for predicting apple postharvest diseases in storage. To a limited extent, this has been addressed on the West Coast; however, no information exists for the East Coast.

5. Being in Extension, you’ll likely do both research and work with growers. Both are valuable and necessary. Do you think of yourself more as a researcher or a hands-on advisor?

By nature, I like to help people and being an advisor comes naturally. However, to be a good advisor, you need good analytical skills to solve problems effectively, which is at the heart of being a researcher. For me personally, you can’t be one role (an advisor) without the other role (a researcher).  In other words, I see myself as both roles equally.

6. How has your master gardener experience helped you in working with experienced growers?

I am very enthusiastic about communicating science. The majority of my Master Gardener volunteer hours have been spent communicating plant disease and insect issues to the home gardener, in newsletters and presentations. It has been an invaluable inexperience because I’ve been able to hone the ability to digest a complex issue in such a way for anyone to understand. I believe these experiences have helped me in working with experienced growers because it is my responsibility to translate the research and extend it clearly to growers, so they are able to make the best disease management decisions for their business.

7. How do you think your experience as a mentor to students at Springfield Central High School (in Springfield, MA) will help with gauging interest and communicating with the next wave in the industry?

My professional organization, the American Phytopathological Society, is one of the partners for the program Plantingscience.org. This is a free online program which connects scientists with teachers and students from all over the world to participate in “hands on, inquiry based science.” Getting students engaged in science is important and I knew being a volunteer scientist mentor was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Using different plant-themed projects, students learn what it means to be a scientist: they ask a question and follow the scientific method to answer their question. In the process they learn about science and the scientific process. As a volunteer scientist mentor, I am assigned teams and communicate with my teams using the website’s platform and guide them throughout the process of their project. One semester, I had students from Springfield Central High School. I believe this experience, as well as others I have had with high school and undergraduate students during my work experiences, has helped me be a universal communicator of science, regardless of age and background. I have learned not only how to judge the tenor of my audience, but connect with them, also.

8. Are you planning on using any social media to connect with growers?

Social media is ideal for Extension and connecting with growers. I have a lot of territory to cover since my Extension appointment covers both Pennsylvania and Maryland. Twitter, Facebook, blogging, YouTube, etc. are great technologies that allow a very big audience to be reached often and quickly, especially when plant diseases are an issue.

9. If you could have dinner with one well-known person, who is either alive today or from the pages of history, who would it be? Why?

I’ve always admired Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a strong, brilliant woman who was quite forward thinking. I think it would be a lot of fun to spend time picking her brain. Before I started graduate school, I came across one of her sayings, which set the tone for how I live my life: “One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” 

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