Nearly two months before the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Diagnostic and Research Laboratory opened in June, Maine’s new plant pathologist, Alicyn Smart, moved in.
No matter that she and undergraduate lab assistant Abigayl Novak were the sole occupants in the 28,000-square-foot facility still under construction. Smart was elated to set up her lab with high-end technology, including a biosafety cabinet and an incubator for bacteria to prevent contamination. Both can expand plant diagnostic capabilities to aid farmers, nursery growers, homeowners and others in the state.
“The new lab has given us the opportunity to increase the tests we can perform, (and) provided space for our new equipment and the ability to save pathogens to use as controls when doing molecular testing, which we have never been able to do before,” says Smart. “Adding molecular testing is a real game changer; we can become certified to test regulated pathogens from across the country and perform research that is needed.”
In addition to plant pathogen identification to aid in management recommendations, the new and improved Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab directed by Smart now has the capacity to use DNA analysis to identify pathogens, which offers a new level of specificity, down to the species or strain.
And this summer for the first time, the lab launched a statewide survey to better understand the incidence of a strawberry disease.
“We serve all the people of Maine, so I work one-on-one with farmers. I also work with Master Gardener Volunteers, I give a lot of talks through the winter during the down time when we’re not receiving as many samples. I generally give about five talks a month, interacting with all different folks that want to know more about plant diseases and how to manage them better,” says Smart.
Smart is no stranger to the state or UMaine. Or working in the nation’s newest plant diagnostic labs.
The Foxborough, Massachusetts native attended Norfolk Agricultural High School, where she was a member of Future Farmers of America and managed the school’s greenhouse. Smart earned a bachelor’s degree in landscape horticulture from Unity College in 2011. During her time there, she interned under Bruce Watt, UMaine Extension plant disease diagnostician and plant pathologist.
The summer before her final undergraduate year and into the fall semester, Smart worked for six months as an assistant in UMaine Extension’s Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab, which has provided free services on plant samples, including disease identification, and nutritional and cultural problem assessment, since 1989.
During her doctoral work in plant medicine at the University of Florida, Smart received a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture National Needs Fellowship to support her graduate work and immersed herself in the world of plant diagnostics. She interned at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and worked at the University of Florida Plant Diagnostic Center — the newest plant diagnostic lab in the country at the time — as an assistant diagnostician.
Smart returned to Maine in August 2015 to be the executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau. In July 2017, following Watt’s retirement, she was selected from about 40 candidates in a national search for UMaine Extension’s next plant pathologist.
Smart says the position is her dream job and credits Watt with introducing her to a field that is now her passion.
Where did your interest in plants begin?
In my first year of high school, I took a botany course. The teacher told me I had a knack for plant science and I should consider changing my major from animal science.
What drew you to Maine for college and a career?
The atmosphere. I really enjoyed the change from suburban Massachusetts. There is so much undeveloped land in Maine and it was a breath of fresh air. Also, there are not many places that can beat how bright the stars are here.
Let’s talk about the breadth of experience your academic career provided — from undergraduate work in Maine to graduate work in Florida. How did it provide the foundation for your professional work?
It’s provided a great foundation. I know Maine well from my undergraduate work, but can now look at things differently from my experience in Florida, which is ranked second in agricultural production. My graduate degree also encompassed soil fertility, entomology and related subjects. This is helpful when trying to diagnose an issue because it’s not always a pathogen causing the symptom.
How did the UMaine internship influence your career choice? What take-home messages did you learn that continue to resonate with you today?
The internship at the UMaine Extension Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab was instrumental. I realized how much I enjoyed plant pathology and I knew I wanted to be a diagnostician like Dr. Watt and, inevitably, in Maine. Dr. Watt was passionate about the work he did. He is known nationally for his microscopy work. His microscopy photographs were used in courses I was enrolled in at the University of Florida. He taught me that if you are passionate about something, you can become one of the best in your field if you foster that passion.
Why did you look forward to returning to Maine at this stage in your career?
I was — and still — am excited to bring new technology into the lab that can take diagnostics to the next level. By incorporating this technology, we will have more refined answers for difficult-to-diagnose pathogens and perhaps identify pathogens that we don’t currently know are here. There are pathogens we still don’t know the full life cycle of or how wide a host range some pathogens have. Knowing the answers to these questions can help nurseries, the landscape industry and anyone else in the agriculture field. I have more than a career’s worth of work to help answer as many questions as I can to help Maine agriculture.
What have you focused on in the lab in your first months as a UMaine Extension plant pathologist?
I have integrated new techniques for bacterial testing to improve the identification of pathogenic bacteria while reducing the turnaround time in reaching a diagnosis. This is important for growers who need to know the steps to take to limit the spread of a disease.
What are the biggest challenges in plant pathology in Maine for homeowners and farmers?
Sanitation is the biggest challenge. Both homeowners and farmers like to reuse material, such as seedling trays from year to year, but many don’t realize they should be sterilized before reusing them. My job is to help them identify how the pathogen I diagnosed came to be an issue so they don’t struggle with it next season. Most of the time, it is a sanitation or cultural practice that could have been prevented, which provides the opportunity to help them understand pathology better to reduce the financial impact a disease often causes.
What does the future hold for the field in general and for Maine in particular?
Many people are building greenhouses and hoop houses to extend the growing season in Maine. But a longer growing season also extends the life cycle of plant pathogens. High humidity in a greenhouse enhances pathogen growth and reproduction, so we could see more disease pressure during times we have not seen it in the past. This makes early detection important for the management of pathogens.
What should homeowners, gardeners and other members of the public know about plant pathology?
That they are the best ones at identifying something looking a little off in their field or landscape and that they don’t need to know everything about plant pathology to figure out what the issue is, that we are here to help with any questions they may have.
Do you have a favorite plant pathogen?
Every plant pathologist has a favorite pathogen or two. Mine is Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium transmitted by a leaf hopper insect. It has a wide host range and is very close to being unculturable, making it difficult to work with.
What was your aha moment, when you knew this was your field?
When I learned my first plant pathogen, fire blight. I thought it was so cool that a honeybee could pick up bacteria cells from an infected apple tree and carry them to a noninfected tree and cause disease.
Have people ever noted that you are, indeed, Dr. Smart?
Ha! Yes, but usually they say it the Maine way: Dr. Smaht.