Guest Blog from Khumbuzile Bophela

Destiny colliding with passion – Khumbuzile visits @psuPPEM @Penn State @Buckhout_Bull

I spent three months on a research visit to Pennsylvania State University, USA, from May to August 2017. The costs of my visit were paid through a combination of grants, namely, IMG_4875the NRF travel grant, NRF incentive funding of my primary advisor at the University of Pretoria and the funding allocated for the bilateral agreement between the University of Pretoria and the department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Pennsylvania State University. The research I undertook at the PPEM department was as follows.

According to literature, it is unclear if Pseudomonas syringae pathovars in genomospecies 1 (Phylogenetic group 2) are distinct or if they have the same host range and are thus synonymous. During my visit to Penn State University, I undertook a number of host range tests using the pathotypes in genomospecies 1 to help clarify the pathovar classification used for this group. Preliminary results suggest that there is a potential new pathotype of P. syringae genomospecies 1 causing wart symptoms on pumpkin in Mount Vernon, western WA. This is a first report of the new pathovar in Washington State and a first report of the wart symptom as a symptom of pumpkin fruits in the US.

Concurrently, I spent time working to understand the biology of Pseudomonas viridiflava, genomospecies 6. Pseudomonas viridiflava is a distinct clade in the P. syringae species complex and one of the few formerly described genomospecies in this complex. P. viridiflava undergoes spontaneous phase variation, in that we typically observe two colony morphology types on synthetic media. The two colony variants are namely, “non-mucoid,” which is translucent, flat with matt surfaces and “mucoid,” which is opaque, convex with a shiny surface. Observations from a separate study showed that the “non-mucoid” colony variants of P. viridiflava were non-pathogenic on beans and kiwifruit seedlings and were antibiotic resistant. In contrast, the “mucoid” colony variants were pathogenic on the above-mentioned hosts but lacked the antibiotic resistance. There appeared to be an inverse correlation between the pathogenicity of colony phase variant and antibiotic resistance.

During my visit, I undertook three professional development courses, namely, “How to be my own best Mentor,” Crucial Conversations, both presented by Dr. Carolee Bull, img_5761.jpgDepartment head of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology and host advisor at Penn State, and the “2017 PSU Bootcamp on reproducible research”, a week long workshop organized by the Computation, Bioinformatics and Statistics Predoctoral Training Program at Penn State. Furthermore, I gave a poster presentation titled: “Pseudomonas viridiflava: a potential emerging pathogen associated with bacterial canker of plum trees in the Western Cape, South Africa,” at the American Phytopathological Society annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas.

Overall, my visit to Penn State and State College was enriching for both my personal growth and my professional development. I got the privilege of staying in one of the img_5597.jpghousing co-ops in State College, named the”, a home for change-makers. I had an opportunity to engage with students and early career professionals in different career paths to mine. It was an amazing and fulfilling experience to be part of a home that strives on the value of selflessly serving its community to bring about a positive change. I definitely recommend paying a visit when in State College; it is a life-changing living experience.

Moreover, the staff and students at the Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology (PPEM) department were very welcoming and I instantly felt at home. As a member of IMG_5781the Bull Penn lab, I was constantly motivated and intellectually stimulated; the atmosphere in the lab was conducive for learning and fast paced. I got the opportunity to learn different lab techniques I was not exposed to or had limited exposure at my home institution, such as performing rep-PCR and medium scale host inoculation trials from start to finish. I had the privilege of having the said skills reinforced as I had to do the multiple times. My expectations were certainly exceeded and it was encouraging to learn that my presence also made a positive impact to the department. I certainly plan on returning to the PPEM department in future to pursue post-doctoral training.


APS & Oregon State Friends

The American Phytopathological Society (APS) Foundation is pleased to announce a special fundraising challenge for the Larry Wallace Moore Student Travel Award [].

Jean-Philippe and I will match dollar for dollar any donation to the APS Larry W. Moore fund (and even match OSU graduate student donations 2:1) up to $3500 by December 28th, 2017.

We are asking our APS friends & OSU alumni, faculty, staff, and students and others to help bring the fund to $15,000. This will ensure a $500 travel award each year given to a student attending APS and with it annual recognition of Larry’s contributions to our department and plant pathology. Currently, the fund is at $8,070.47 and the award is given every 2-3 years.

Dr. Moore was incredibly generous with his time and was exceptionally kind to me as I indexwas finishing my dissertation. He reviewed my dissertation and gave me productive criticism of my work, while on vacation because I was on a tight deadline. I now know what that meant to him and how rare that is. Larry also encouraged (read pushed) me to join the Electronic Technology Advisory Committee of APS though I had no background in this area. It was one of the best pieces of advice I received about service because this committee was largely responsible for the APS having a website and electronic journals earlier than most scientific societies.

If you would like to donate to this special fund by credit card please follow the link below, which will bring you directly to Larry’s page on the APS website.

If you prefer to donate by check: print and complete the form (follow the link above) and write in the Larry W. Moore Fundraising Challenge. Enclose your completed form with your donation and mail to APS Foundation, 3340 Pilot Knob Road, St. Paul, MN 55121 U.S.A.

The APS Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and your contribution is tax deductible. Please consult with your tax advisor for specific tax advice.

Thank you for your consideration of this special ‘Challenge’.

APS Networking 101

At this year’s APS meeting, I was asked to give a flash presentation on networking to first time attendees at the meeting. I also shared these with one of our graduate student attendees. In hopes that they might be useful for your next meeting, I want to share some of the ideas here and will add the post to our facebook page where you can add to the ideas.

I plan my best networking well in advance of the meetings. It is essential that I look through the program and abstracts in advance for work related to my favorite research topics. For example, at the APS meeting this year I met Wenling Deng from Tiawan because of her paper on Xanthomonas campestris pv. vitians. It turns out that we have a lot of research interests in common and she is a good friend one of our faculty members so she might come to visit us in Pennsylvania. If you can plan in advance to meet with people, you will be sure to not miss the opportunity. Searching the attendee list will be even more important for the international congress next year because this may be your chance to meet international researchers in your field.

Another thing to do well in advance of the meeting is to plan to take a workshop or go on a field trip. This is a great investment because you will get to know a small group of people relatively well during the course of the workshop or field trip. Some of my most important contacts were made sitting on a bus with someone I didn’t know. The small group is much less intimidating than a room full of scientists at a social.

Attend the first-timers orientation the first time you go to the meeting and go again if you feel like it is a good way for you to start the meeting. If you have been around the block, you can help some of the new members find their way. Often we think about networking with people that can benefit our careers and it can be as or more important to network with people who are not as far along in their careers.

There are many types of sessions at the APS meeting that are great for networking. At other scientific meetings these have different names. The key is to find some of these to attend in order to feel connected to others and the meeting. As an introvert, these sessions can bring you into a smaller group where you can contribute as you are comfortable or hang out and listen. For APS the most interactive sessions include: Idea Cafes (round table discussions on a given topic), 1:1 Conversations with experts, Poster Huddles (4 or 5 posters presented to a small group), and Phytoviews (a panel leading a facilitated conversations on a particular topic). Visiting with individual presenters at their posters an ideal way to network with those in your field or people you have met at the meeting.

Committee meetings are a good way to hear and contribute to the impact of your discipline on the meeting and the field. Some committees like the APS Committee on Diversity and Equality is very interactive with lots of discussion and ways to impact change. Other committees are transactional and are mainly concerned with sessions for the next meeting, requests from APS leadership, and election of the committee vice chair.

Socials are great places to network. I met Maria Jimenez-Gasco at an APS social (like the Diversity and Equality Social Pictured here from this year’s meeting). Through that contact, I was invited to visit PPEM and later invited to apply for Diversity soicalmy current job. You never know where the contacts you make will lead! Although, meeting socials seem like the ideal place to network,  they can be intimidating to many of us. Here are my top tips for networking at socials and other events at the meeting.

Don’t run with the pack – Often people choose which session to attend based on what who else from their group is going. Going on a field trip by yourself is the best way to get to know lots of new people. If going with a friend, don’t sit together. When you walk into a room, sit near someone new.

Join another pack – Meetings are a great way to bond with your team and a great way to get to know other teams. If you know someone from another university, hang out with them one evening. I saw our graduate students join with another pack for at least part of the APS meeting this year.

When you are introduced, be curious about those you have met If you have a difficult time knowing what to say when you meet someone new, remember that most people come to the meetings to find a place they can talk about their work without having to apologize. Asking about their research and career path is one way to keep others talking when you don’t want to have to carry the conversation.

Find someone who is sitting alone – This is something that I do in our department as well as at other meetings. In addition to sitting next to someone I haven’t met yet, I often scan the room and choose to sit next to someone who doesn’t appear to be with others or interacting with others yet. Even if they don’t want to interact much, sitting next to someone who is alone in a crowded room can be a gesture of goodwill that may get you a new and good colleague.

Volunteer for something – The APS foundation is a wonderful organization and you can volunteer to work at the foundation booth. You will meet people as they come by to donate to help bring students to the meeting and other worthwhile causes.

Hang out with a long time APS member – Those who have been around the block a few times generally have larger networks than newer meeting goers. You are likely to be introduced to the people that the senior members visit with if you are hanging out near them.

Make sure to introduce yourself again – although I have been around APS for over 30 years, I introduce myself again and again. We all have difficulty remembering each other from year to year or putting faces with names on papers we read. In not assuming that others know who I am, I invite them to give me their name again and remind me of where they are from. This prevents me from having a long conversation with someone whose name I can’t remember after the conversation.

Introduce the people you have just met to those from your department – As mentioned earlier, sharing something you know with others is helpful and is often remembered.

Now it is time for us to help our newest graduate students to network. I hope you will join us for a potluck this coming Friday after 6 pm to welcome them to PPEM. We will have the games out if you want to bring your families!

Have a great 2017-2018 academic year.


Penn State Values: Integrity

Often in this section of our weekly memo, I discuss things that I have been thinking about and need to concentrate on for myself and the department. For the past few months, I have been thinking about Penn State Values and what they mean to us as a department in our daily lives. In particular, I have been thinking about how I can more fully embody them and promote them as a standard for everyone in the department. I believe that all members of our department strive to manifest the Penn State Values although we are human and sometimes fall short. Bench marking our adherence to these standards and hold ourselves accountable for these values is the first step.

In the coming months, we will be having some activities to help us explore Penn State Values. These workshops coupled to evaluations and climate surveys should help us to identify the areas where we need help in fully upholding and demonstrating these values. Our department will be stronger when everyone engages in these activities and shares their experiences of the times that we succeed and the places that we fall short. Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to review the Penn State Values to begin to prime the pump.

According to the Penn State Values, “INTEGRITY: We act with integrity and honesty in accordance with the highest academic, professional, and ethical standards.” The author So-Young Kang says that we often misunderstand the meaning of integrity and she describes integrity as integrating the various parts of ourselves into one complete person. She defines three myths that keep us from increasing our application the principle of integrity:

1) Integrity = just being honest
2) Balanced and compartmentalized life = life of integrity
3) Being in integrity = natural, effortless, just ‘part of who you are’

There are other ways of understanding integrity. I had a colleague who used to talk about being out of integrity with someone when someone reacted in a way that made the other person feel less comfortable in our workplace. This colleague always did the hard thing of going to talk to the person afterward, to bring himself back into integrity with them. This is not effortless and some people avoid having the conversations that would bring them back into integrity. Sometimes you are out of integrity with someone and they don’t want to have this conversation with you or be back in integrity with you right away. Patience is sometimes required.

Below are examples of integrity adapted from the Penn State Values page.

  • Maintaining confidentiality when dealing with issues that require discretion.
  • Reporting things that happen in a fair and accurate way.
  • Conducting research in accordance with federal and PSU regulations on ethical research.
  • Appropriate credit given for work.
  • Academic integrity and Honor Codes.
  • Employee Assistance Program provides confidential services for help in our private and professional lives.
  • Following through with investigating breaches of integrity to demonstrate that we value integrity.
  • Full engagement with PSU SARI training.
  • You@PSU performance review process placing greater emphasis on integrity and other values to meet personal goals.
  • Bringing forward the concerns of students around times when we fail to manifest the Penn State Values.
  • Not exaggerating our descriptions of situations.
  • Using copyright for software and other resources appropriately.
  • Informing, educating, and holding students, staff, and faculty accountable to the professional ethical standards of their chosen major fields.
  • Increased transparency of budgets and the budget process in our unit.

I am certain that we all have room for improvement and I would like for each of us to take the time to think about where we might make progress. We can start by asking ourselves: what functions could I do with more integrity; with whom am I currently out of integrity and what would I need to do to get back into integrity with them; and what am I not doing with as much integrity as I should because it is hard.

Here is hoping that you are able to integrate all the parts of yourself this week.


Stand Up

This weekend I had the opportunity to participate in an uplifting event. I attended the 10th Annual Stand Up Award Ceremony held by the Rock Ethics Institute to honor and promote Ethical Leadership. I was invited to speak on behalf of Hayly Hoch ( a student award winner who is dedicated to sustainable agriculture and bringing an understanding of food systems to all Penn State students. She was one of the dedicated students that helped to get the Penn State Student Farm in the ground (as opposed to off the ground). PPEM faculty had a chance to visit this valuable resource last week. As an interloper in Hayly’s story, I was delighted to meet her family and mentors and see how her trajectory brought her to this outcome. It is her authenticity above all else that drives her to lead in this area.

Each of the awardees have done something significant for Penn State and other communities. Each faced opposition or difficulties in achieving their goals and persevered. In speaking about Hayly, I said I had witnessed her resilience. Although many of their ideas had been rejected, they moved forward with positive energy to find ways to make their projects work. They didn’t dwell on these losses but plotted what could be successful. I keep this in mind and use it as inspiration when the wind has been taken out of my sails by disappointments that inevitably come when we reach to become more than we currently are.

One thing that I truly appreciate about our department is that our students, staff, and faculty Stand Up for what they are passionate about. Some take a nuanced approach of asking questions out of genuine curiosity and others give fiery commentary. Regardless, it is clear that the reasons that members of our department Stand Up is because we care about the people and the program and we remain truly invested in the greater good. We are at our best when we give space to listen to each other and are open to the idea that our perspectives can change when given quality information and sound logic about alternatives.

If you would like a little inspiration to help you Stand Up, watch this video about the former award winners:

Thank you all for serving as my inspiration, you keep me standing!

Forensics in PPEM

Forensic PPEM might give you images of someone studying the microbiology of a crime scene. But this week I am thinking about several oratory experiences available to members of the department last week. The term forensics comes from the Latin word forensis which means ‘in open court, public’ and can be applied to presentations that are then challenged and defended in a collegial fashion.

Professor Brenda Wingfield joined the department last week for a sabbatical visit and offered to facilitate a research data breakfast club. She kicked off the club meetings by C80L1y0WAAAhigG.jpg_largepresenting her work on a conundrum she is facing in research on the genetics of mating type loci in her fungi of favor from the genus Ceratocystis. She explained that the research data club is an opportunity for someone to present raw data or early in a project in order to have friendly challenges about the approach and meaning of the results. She at FABI they meet before 8 AM and use this to improve their students’ abilities to defend their work and to make it better. The meeting was a success as a virologist, Dr. Rosa, looked at this problem from a different angle and provided some excellent ideas that may help solve the puzzle. We hope to see you at this week’s event. Please arrive by 9:30 AM to gather breakfast items and be ready for the speaker by 9:45 AM.

We saw an additional case of this during this week’s Microbiome Meeting. Where a documentarian presented their proposal for studying a complex microbiome problem. The scientists in the room where challenged to accept the process by which the artist was exploring knowledge. The artist was challenged with the knowledge held by the scientists and was supported to take the next step to make her work more scientifically rigorous. What came out of this was the idea for a grant.

This kind of challenge and improve approach was also mentioned in the brown bag lunch at which faculty, graduate students, and staff discussed successful strategies to grant success. One student shared that it was the challenges that he received by showing his proposal to several people in sequence that helped him to dig deep and write a successful grant. A faculty member shared that it was the comments back from a grant being rejected several times that helped make it better and finally get funded.

This congenial challenge and support approach is not new to our department. Our first written History authored by Dr. Tammen describes how this was done in the past. “This series of courses was to be “topped off” with a rigorous “challenge and defend” course on the advanced principles and concepts of plant pathology. This course was offered by Dick Nelson, one of the key leaders of our faculty in the development of our graduate program. He taught this course in the evenings in his home located just a few blocks from campus. The students were assigned premises for out-of-class study; after a week of preparation, they met for open discussion. They were told to come prepared to either attack or to defend the premise, but didn’t know which until Nelson made the assignment on the spot. The students considered the course to be a rigorous and challenging, but outstanding, experience. It prepared them well for their comprehensive exams and, equally important, for active participation in professional forums. In time, this course became a part of the lore of the graduate experience in plant pathology at Penn State by all who experienced it.

Over and over again, I have seen the faculty in the department use the principles that are used in forensics in dealing with contentious issues. It is refreshing to watch as individuals disagree about approaches and outcomes using data and precedent without getting personal. A few times when I have seen someone step over that line, I have heard them apologize for getting so passionate. Minds can be changed and common ground found if we are all open to the process of collegial debate. With the goal of getting better at this myself, I am trying to adopt and use the techniques I see in those members of the faculty who are the best at this. It seems as though they hold curiosity as the main driver in these conversations rather than getting their way.

In these times where our political landscape is filled with personal attacks and lack of or distortion of data, it feels really good to be in a place where we focus on the issues rather than the personal. I hope you will continue to encourage healthy and collegial debate in our research and our programs.

Here’s to a challenging week.