Students support fusarium research in strategic partnership with Penn State

Matt Black
October 16, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Two graduate students from South Africa recently had the opportunity to expand their research, develop a mentorship network and increase multicultural fluency as a result of a strategic partnership between the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria.

The partnership is designed to increase research, teaching and extension impact and growth opportunities for both organizations and thereby increase food security and environmental stewardship; to develop a mentorship network that explores and defines best practices in mentorship to educate future generations of researchers and educators at both institutions and their partners; and to increase multicultural fluency.

Jane Ramaswe and Benedicta Swalarsk-Parry, graduate students in the University of Pretoria’s Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology, arrived at Penn State in July. Opportunities extended beyond academics during their visit, including a trip to New York City, the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg and Alan Seeger Natural Area in Huntingdon County.

In August, Ramaswe and Swalarsk-Parry attended “Crucial Conversations,” a communication workshop led by Carolee Bull, professor and head of the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology.

“The workshop has equipped me with the skills and techniques that will be useful in my career and workplace in general,” said Ramaswe.

Ramaswe’s research examines whether pine seedling root exudates elicit a chemotropic response from infection by Fusarium circinatum, a fungal plant pathogen. While at Penn State, she was advised by David Geiser, director of the Fusarium Research Center and professor of mycology.

“Working with Professor Geiser is just so amazing; I feel like I have made it already as a researcher,” Ramaswe said. “He is always keen to listen and learn from a different perspective. He is so knowledgeable around his professional field and beyond — it is a privilege to have been working under his supervision.”

She noted that she learned new laboratory techniques, presentation methods and ways of thinking.

“Students in the Geiser lab are very warm and welcoming,” she added. “Being here, I have seen how hard work can take you far, how to keep connected to people and how to keep yourself open for better opportunities. I enjoyed the diversity of Penn State and the culture.”

Swalarsk-Parry’s research focuses on the identification of genes involved in growth and virulence of Fusarium circinatum. Her work in the Geiser lab was aimed at developing a CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system for Fusarium circinatum. This is her second visit to Penn State.

“The knowledge and skills I have acquired during my stay here will undoubtedly assist me in completing my Ph.D. and furthering my research career,” said Swalarsk-Parry.

“My experience in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology has been fun, exciting and worthwhile, all thanks to the staff and students who are always willing to share their research work and experiences and to take you on a tour around Pennsylvania and other parts of the country,” she said. “I have now gained an amazing academic family and network of research colleagues here.”

Both students participated in Plant Disease Diagnosis (PPATH 502), an annual diagnostic course taught by Gary Moorman, professor emeritus of plant pathology.

“Benedicta and Jane were both excellent mentors to the undergraduates doing projects in my lab, offering help and advice, and providing their unique perspectives,” said Geiser. “They did a terrific job supporting my project on Fusarium oxysporum phylogenomics — I don’t know what I would have done without them the last few months helping to generate data.”

Last Updated October 17, 2019