Margery Daughtrey’s view of plants differs from most plant-lovers; you might say it is microscopic. Plants have always interested her, especially wildflowers, but plant diseases captivate her. Daughtrey is a plant pathologist who fights against the diseases that can be so devastating to ornamental crops and that so often economically impact the horticulture industry.
Love Of The Microscope Leads To A Lifelong Study Of Plant Diseases
At a young age, the diseases on plants in her aunt’s backyard captured Daughtrey’s attention. She would later discover a love for the microscope while studying individual flower parts in school. But it wasn’t until college that she began to combine her love of plants and her love of the microscope to study the interactions between fungi and plants.
“I enjoy studying the plants’ interactions with these creatures that cause diseases, and they can be found everywhere,” Daughtrey says. “I have always thought that animal people have a disadvantage because they can’t just walk in the woods and find what they are interested in studying — their animals hide: plants don’t.”
Daughtrey graduated with honors from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., earning a Bachelor’s degree in biology. As part of her undergrad work, she worked on a tissue culture honors project studying the plant pathogen Exobasidium japonicum, which is a fungus that causes gall on azaleas. She had the opportunity to work on this project with Martin C. Mathes and Bradner W. Coursen, two professors whose influence would shape her future career. Daughtrey attended graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, studying plant pathology. From there, she went straight to her job at Cornell University where she now works with ornamental plant diseases as a Senior Extension Associate. It’s a job she says she felt fortunate to find because, then, as now, most of the plant pathology jobs dealt with food crops.
Daughtrey says she has always been interested in writing. She has co-authored several books, such as Diseases of Herbaceous Perennials, The Compendium of Flowering Potted Plant Diseases and The Ball Field Guide to Greenhouse Plant Diseases, and she has written many papers and articles. She served as the editor-in-chief for the American Phytopathological Society (APS) for several years and continues to stay involved with the organization.
“It is important to me to get really great illustrations of problems right there with information about what you can do about it,” Daughtrey says. “I love photography, and I think it is an important way to communicate about plants and their diseases, because if they are too abstract, people can’t comprehend them.”
Another reason Daughtrey says she stays involved with APS is because it facilitates communication between plant pathologists. Anything that keeps that networking going, she says, allows plant pathologists to get answers to people faster, because they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time a problem arises with a plant disease.
Daughtrey also travels the country sharing her research with others in the field, and giving presentations that help growers better understand the ins and outs of the plant diseases that affect their crops. As for her own research, she says she is determined to fight back against Boxwood Blight and Impatiens Downy Mildew.
New diseases excite Daughtrey because she says it is fascinating to work on a new problem instead of one that hundreds of people have studied, like black spot of rose, where it would be hard to find anything new about it.
“It takes some initiative to go into the frontier of a new problem, and get it to the point where people can make good decisions about how to manage and avoid the disease,” she says. “I like the challenge.”
As a plant pathologist, Daughtrey says she would like to see a real shoring up of the clean stock philosophy and see more efforts made to make sure plants are virus-, fungus- and bacterium-free before their release to the trade. With the speed that plants are brought to market now, she says that all the hurry can sometimes work against having the potential problems worked out before plants are introduced.
Her wish dates back to her training in the ‘70s when the flower industry still had vivid memories of bacterial blight and rust diseases destroying geranium crop profits. She says it became essential for geraniums, carnations and mums to have a clean-stock production system so growers could grow with high confidence.
“I would like to be able to do clean-stock production with all of the plants that we now grow from cuttings, now that we have shifted so much to cutting production to bring things to the market sooner,” she says. “On the grower side, I would like to see more follow-through on sanitation.”
Some plant people think about having a purple-striped pansy in the future, Daughtrey says, while she thinks about having them robust and healthy, with white roots, not black.
Federal Government Jobs A Strong Employment Area For Plant Pathology
Because keeping plants healthy is a full-time job in the greenhouse industry, Daughtrey says opportunities abound for women and men in plant pathology.
“The only thing you can’t do is think like a plant pathologist and work for a grower,” she says. “It slows you down too much if you are watching a fungus grow across the surface of a leaf when you should be loading a cart.”
With funds getting tighter at universities, Daughtrey says it will be harder for people to become professors, but she remains optimistic that opportunities in research, Extension and teaching will be there in the future. Federal government jobs in research are strong right now, she says, along with diagnostician jobs at both university and private labs. And more international agriculture jobs working with ornamentals are opening up. There is always a need for Extension educators and other possibilities, include breeding companies and chemical and biological control companies.
One new field that Daughtrey says might hold exciting new opportunities for plant pathology students is plant genetics.
“We may see some genetic engineering to develop plants having a natural ability to tolerate disease or resist it,” she says. “That is going to be determined by public opinion and legal discussions and the technology itself, but I would not be surprised if the future has some of that approach — particularly in ornamentals, where people aren’t eating the engineered plant material.”
Networking Early And Often Opens Doors
Daughtrey’s advice to both men and women who want to position themselves well for long and fulfilling careers in horticulture is to start networking early in their career and make a habit of it throughout their careers. Networking, she says, is a tool that creates opportunities and leads to growth and development. Essentially, what it comes down to is jumping in and not being too shy about connecting with as many people as possible.
“I think the main thing is to be out and circulating, because if you are known in some fashion, even if it is as a rookie who is eager to work and learn, it is a really good impression to set,” she says. “Those connections can open doors.”
Networking might include things like attending Cultivate, regional meetings or Extension conferences and simply getting to know other people who are working in the different facets of horticulture and getting a sense for what they are doing. Even if you have to create a small travel budget to attend meetings, Daughtrey says it is a good investment in yourself and your career.
One of the networking opportunities Daughtrey says she enjoys each year is the annual get-together of the Chicks in Horticulture group on Long Island, N.Y., which, despite the name, also welcomes roosters. The gathering is a way for women in horticulture to network and support each other. The group gets together over brunch to socialize and listen to a motivational speaker.
“It is neat because you have the people organizing the conference that are role models to others,” Daughtrey says. “The speaker is also a role model, and you always get some inspiration. Everyone has the chance to introduce themselves and talk briefly about an experience that led them into horticulture.”
Connect People With Plants To Promote A Love For Horticulture
Events like Chicks in Horticulture bring people together who connect with plants, something Daughtrey says she would like to see more of in the world.
“I think we in the horticulture industry miss a lot of opportunities to inspire the public,” she says. “We need to give people more chances to see, touch and feel plants to help them join us in our love of horticulture. Develop the public’s love for plants and our industry will thrive.”