Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 8pm

MSU Extension plant pathologist receives Fulbright to Australia

MSU Extension Plant Pathologist Mary Burrows has received a Fulbright Fellowship to Adelaide in South Australia to research new methodologies in detecting plant disease and develop connections between Montana and Australian agriculture.

BOZEMAN -- A Montana State University expert on plant diseases has received a Fulbright Fellowship to Australia where she will focus on spore trapping, a new area of research that could benefit Montana growers.

"It's quite an honor," said recipient This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture, plant pathology specialist for MSU Extension, director of the Schutter Diagnostic Lab and head of Montana's Integrated Pest Management Program.

"The Fulbright opportunity is important to refresh my career, learn a new skill set that can be applied widely here in the U.S. and make new connections to benefit several countries," Burrows added.

The "Senior Scholar, All Disciplines" Fulbright will allow her to work at the South Australian Research and Development Institute in Adelaide from January through April 2019, in the midst of a year-long sabbatical that begins this July, Burrows said. She is especially interested in learning more about spore trapping technology and its use in predicting disease.

"This will be particularly important to Montana growers as this may help avert losses from diseases such as stripe rust of wheat and Ascochyta blight of chickpeas," said MSU Barry Jacobsen, professor emeritus of Plant Pathology and a former Fulbright winner himself.

Jacobsen, who received a 2011 Fulbright Fellowship to Chile, serves on the Fulbright Specialist Peer Review Panel. He didn't review Burrows' application since that would be a conflict of interest, but he did describe the qualities that make an outstanding candidate.

"What we look for are applicants that are considered among the highest achievers in their chosen field, those that have demonstrated capacity for leadership, those that have excellent cross-cultural communications skills and that have shown they have inter-cultural adaptability and those who have demonstrated that they have potential to advance knowledge in their chosen field, and finally, those who have the temperament and professionalism to be cultural ambassadors for the United States," Jacobsen said.

"Mary, on all counts, would receive the highest rankings possible in each category.

Jacobsen said Burrows’ record as a scientist and graduate student mentor and colleague are particularly outstanding, in addition to her leadership and networking ability while working with diverse stakeholders in plant and pest diseases -- all the while maintaining a strong publication record. 

Jacobsen added that a small percentage of Fulbright scholar applicants are selected, and that it’s “highly prestigious for MSU to have a faculty member selected.”

"Mary's Fulbright will allow her to focus on a new area of research and extend her networking without the day-to-day multitude of responsibilities a faculty member has," Jacobsen said. "This is not just a chance to recharge the battery, but a unique chance to focus on new things and be exposed to new ideas."

Burrows said the Fulbright will allow her to return to Australia after being away for nearly two decades. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and a Graduate Women in Science Grant, she spent three months in Australia while earning her Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Burrows used her time at Northern Territory University and the Waite Institute to research phytoplasma detection in grapes.

"The experience was life changing, teaching me to appreciate the time spent communicating with others to increase your efficiency and impact rather than working intensely and alone," Burrows said. "In science, the connections you have with people are key to progress."

Excited to return to Australia, this time with her husband and two young daughters, Burrows said the purpose of her Fulbright project is to "learn about established plant disease monitoring systems in Australia, compare different spore trapping technologies for plant pathogens, statistically analyze data to validate disease forecasting models and improve information distribution to farmers in Australia."

Burrows is interested in seeing if it would be feasible to set up spore traps in Montana. She plans to test five major categories of spore traps, initially focusing on the spore that causes Ascochyta blight. Those spores can be released from infected stubble if early spring rains occur.

"A spore trap at its essence is a wind-orienting weather vane and/or suction device that has a solid or liquid material to capture spores," Burrows said. "They can be mounted on UAV's (drones) or other vehicles, and modern spore traps can be triggered by time of day, temperature or relative humidity. All of the devices have their positives and negatives, one of which is the presence of inhibitors such as soil that make identifying pathogen propagules difficult."

The Australian researchers are interested in how MSU communicates with growers, so she expects to share information about such things as AgAlerts and using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, Burrows said.

"In Montana, we have made a great deal of progress in increasing the ability of growers and consultants to recognize and manage plant diseases in the field on pulse and cereal crops," Burrows said. "In a large state with low population, technological innovations are highly leveraged including the use of cell phones for communications and digital diagnostics, emailed and text alerts. AgAlerts are also faxed weekly during the growing season to underserved groups, such as the Hutterites who have limited or no access to email."

Burrows added that she sees a number of parallels between crop production systems in the United States and Australia. Therefore, her Fulbright fellowship will benefit projects in both countries. In addition to serving Montana growers, she said she will eventually be able to use her new knowledge to offer spore trapping workshops at national meetings such as the American Phytopathological Society, the Canadian Phytopathological Society and the International Congress of Plant Pathology.

Evelyn Boswell, for the MSU News Service 04/10/2018

This story is available on the Web at: http://www.montana.edu/news/17623