From NASA to terra firma, with plants

Joan Allen. Photo courtesy of Pamm Cooper.

Joan Allen started at UConn in 2005 by working with plants that were out of this world. These days, her job is more down-to-earth. Throughout her time here, she continues to enjoy the variety. “I learn something new all the time,” Allen said.

When she first came to the College as a research assistant, Allen studied plant physiology at hypergravity using centrifuges at a NASA research facility. These experiments duplicated earlier ones done in outer space. Currently, as an assistant extension educator, Allen diagnoses earthly insect and plant disease problems for home gardeners and people who work in agriculture.

Her base of operations in this world is a diagnostic lab at PSLA’s Home and Garden Education Center. Much of Allen’s time in the lab is spent examining plant samples brought to the Center and lab by UConn integrated pest management (IPM) personnel. The IPM team obtains the samples as part of their work in advising commercial vegetable and fruit growers, greenhouse and nursery operators and Christmas tree growers. In addition, professional clients and homeowners submit samples directly to the lab in person and via postal mail.

Since fall 2013, the lab receives digital photo samples for disease diagnosis or plant or insect identification from users of a free iOS app called “Plant Diagnostic Sample Submission.” The lab got 50 requests from app users in the first year of operation. Allen said that people like the unique feature of the app that involves a professional diagnostician. Most of the other apps available require the user to answer a series of generic questions in order to figure out their plant’s problem on their own.

The diagnostic lab is a busy place where the amount of samples received doubled between 2010 and 2013. Allen attributes part of the increase to her promotion of the lab when she participates in educational programs and speaks to grower groups. According to the latest statistics from 2013, clients submitted 600 plant samples that year. 72 percent of the samples were for home garden or home pest problems.

Assisting with identification and diagnosis are Home & Garden Education Center staff members, Carol Quish, a program aid, and Pamm Cooper, a public service specialist. In addition, Allen draws on the expertise of plant science and landscape architecture faculty, such as John Inguagiato for turfgrass pathology and Rosa Raudales for greenhouse plant problems. Both are assistant professors.

The problems detected in the plant samples vary from season to season. Pests, pathogens and abiotic disorders cause most of the problems that Allen sees. Aggravating factors include drought stress, improper siting of the plant or nutrient deficiencies in unamended soil. No one can predict what plant problems will come through the lab doors in 2015. “Every year is a little different in my job,” she said.

However, the lab does get samples exhibiting some common ailments. According to Allen, one of Connecticut’s current problems is needle cast disease in Colorado blue spruce. A fungus causes the tree to lose needles and branches from the ground up. The problem could range from affecting a single Colorado blue spruce in a homeowner’s landscape to being present throughout a Christmas tree farm.

About the scope of problems that she sees, Allen said, “It’s meaningful to me to be able to help people with something that is important to them. In my position as diagnostician, this can be on the scale of protecting a field of crops or as small as an individual houseplant that is special to someone. While I can’t always give advice that will save a plant, I am glad to have a job that can make a difference.”

As part of the IPM team, Allen consults with her colleagues when plant problems appear to be widespread in commercial crops. She is also on alert for an “unusual outbreak, a pest of concern or symptoms of a pest of concern” as part of the lab’s membership in the National Plant Diagnostic Network.

In addition to her education in and experience with forestry and plant pathology, Allen uses a microscope and other tools in her work. Sometimes she performs tests that are more extensive. As she dispenses recommendations for the prevention and/or control of problems that she sees, Allen concentrates on IPM and sustainable practices. Some advice is as simple as “avoid getting the stems and plants wet.” Allen’s goal is to provide “sound science-based advice to reduce the use of pesticides while achieving the goals of healthy plants and, for commercial clients, a viable crop or product.”

The diagnostic lab seems to be making a difference to both those who garden as a hobby and people who work with plants as a business. In addition, Allen finds her hands-on work with clients to be rewarding. Perhaps that is a benefit of having her feet (and plants) on solid ground.

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By Patsy Evans