Plant Diagnostic Lab’s leader solves biological puzzles

Abby Beissinger
Abby Beissinger

When Assistant Extension Educator Abby Beissinger took over leadership of the UConn Plant Diagnostic Lab in the spring of 2019, she dove into a job that seems tailor made for her interests, background and skills. As is often the case with extension educators, the path to her current position was not necessarily direct.

Born and raised in a suburb of Chicago, Beissinger majored in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She was interested in primate and human evolution. She studied how humans shape their landscapes. Her adventurous nature took her to Costa Rica and Uganda to help implement low-cost pest management systems and to undertake community needs assessments through development projects. After graduation, she joined AmeriCorps and served with the environmental nonprofit Groundwork Lawrence to establish schoolyard gardens with K-12 students.

But how did this path lead to plant diagnostics? Beissinger smiles as she recalls taking a plant pathology course on a whim to complete her undergraduate science requirements. Suddenly the path toward anthropology took a sharp turn toward diagnosing the intricacies of insect pests and plant diseases. She enrolled in a graduate program at Washington State University and studied potato virus Y and its effect on the livelihoods of western Washington potato growers. She applied her interest in human development and human health to the interaction of plant health and diseases.

Beissinger moved to Hartford and began working in the College’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, coordinating the Conservation Ambassador Program, part of the Natural Resources Conservation Academy. For two years, she worked with teens and a network of  adult community partners across the state, gaining an appreciation for the comparatively small size of Connecticut as well as its historic attachment to natural resources. It was good preparation for assuming the directorship of the statewide Plant Diagnostic Lab.

When Abby Beissinger began at the lab, the growing season was ramping up.  “I learned something new every day. In Extension you learn from the people you serve as well as from other professionals in the field. I’ve become a good listener. We have technical expertise, but our clients are the ones who see their plants every day,” she says.

Beissinger says climate change is creating new plant health problems. Plant pathogens aren’t overwintering in the same ways. Historic data are not as reliable in predicting what will happen during a given growing season.  With support from the UConn Home and Garden Education Center, more than 700 plant samples were evaluated this year. Recommendations were returned to the senders within a week for physical samples, and many problems were diagnosed immediately from photos submitted on the internet.

Beissinger also collaborated with Master Gardener clinics across the state in compiling lists of plant health issues, sending out monthly diagnostic summaries for the growing season. In 2019, wet spring weather was followed by a dry period in mid to late summer. Woody ornamentals such as cedars and maples suffered from Phytophthora root and crown rot, which could be identified and managed as soon as homeowners knew what to do. Vegetable growers faced challenges from bacterial diseases; Beissinger says that a hot water seed treatment before planting can greatly reduce these pathogens from showing up later in the season. She is collaborating with Vegetable Extension Specialist Shuresh Ghimire to work toward offering this seed treatment service in her lab.

House plants offer apartment dwellers and others without access to land or unable to do the physical work of gardening the chance to enjoy growing plants. Beissinger’s Instagram initiative (@sick__plants) to provide information on plant diseases has a growing number of followers. She is  also  developing workshops on house plant care in which participants will get their hands dirty and leave with a plant of their own.

Inquiries to the Plant Diagnostic Lab change frequently. In Connecticut there are currently now more than hemp growers. It was illegal to grow hemp for many years, so there is little scientific information on its cultivation. Beissinger sees an opportunity to develop diagnostic services for the growing network of Connecticut hemp farmers, which she will be prepared to provide in the 2020 growing season.

Abby Beissinger may have started out her academic life looking at the past, but as head of the Plant Diagnostic Lab, she is firmly wedded to the future. She is using all the techniques at her disposal to modernize diagnostic techniques, collaborate with other diagnostic labs in the region and connect with the growers and home gardeners across the state.

She sums up her philosophy by saying, “I really love working with people. I like hearing about their plant disease problems and solving their biological puzzles. It is really exciting to figure it out.”

Visit the UConn Plant Diagnostic Lab website at http://plant.lab.uconn.edu/ and on Instagram @sick__plants.  The lab is located in room 8 of the Ratcliffe Hicks Building on the UConn Storrs Campus..

By Nancy P. Weiss