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Kelly working to dig up ailments as plant pathologist

May 25, 2012

Photo submitted - St. Marys native Emily Pfeufer Kelly is shown in an onion field at one of the many farm sites she visits as part of her training in becoming a plant pathologist.

Assisting the state's growers in raising healthy crops is just a portion of what St. Marys native Emily Pfeufer Kelly, 26, is working on toward her way to becoming a plant pathologist.
As a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Plant Pathology at the Pennsylvania State University, Kelly's lab group, overseen by Dr. Beth Gugino, is currently studying interactions between pathogens, their plant hosts, and the role of the environment in promoting plant disease in order to provide recommendations to Pennsylvania growers on managing disease in their crops and improve the profitability of farming in the state.
Kelly noted that plant pathogens consist of fungi, bacteria, viruses, or other microbes which infect plants, causing widespread infection and usually resulting in lower crop yields or plant death.
"My main project is focused on identifying management factors that reduce bacterial rots of onion in order to increase marketable yields. I spend most of my time recording data and analyzing samples from 90 plots on 30 grower-collaborator farms across the state," Kelly said. "I like my project because in addition to becoming a plant pathologist, I’m gaining experience in soil and plant tissue analysis, entomology, and weed science."
In addition to her project, Kelly also assists with her lab group’s on-farm research with snap beans, cucurbits (vegetables like cucumbers and squash), and tomatoes, and has spent time as a teaching assistant for their integrated pest management course.
"I really enjoy the cooperative extension aspect of our lab group’s work. PA growers are very knowledgeable about what they do, and I seem to learn something new on every farm visit I make. This on-farm, applied knowledge is a great addition to the classes I’ve taken at Penn State," Kelly said. "As I gain more experience, I’m improving at educating growers as much as they are educating me."
Over the past four years, Kelly has been studying at Penn State, having earned her masters degree in plant pathology in 2010 from the school. She also earned a bachelor of science degree in biology in 2008 from Allegheny College.
Kelly is a 2004 graduate of Elk County Catholic High School. She is the daughter of Tony and Jan Pfeufer. Her siblings are Tony Pfeufer, Kate (Pfeufer) Engel, Matt Pfeufer, Mary Pfeufer and Becky Pfeufer. She currently resides in State College with her husband Andy Kelly, a Ridgway native.
She said she "feels fortunate to have received a great education throughout my life, at home, in elementary and high schools, through Allegheny, and currently at Penn State."
"Science teachers played a big role in encouraging my curiosity, especially Mrs. Laura Anderson at ECC. Being able to communicate effectively is an asset in my position, just like many others: A fair amount of my time is spent talking with growers, giving presentations, and writing. Becoming a good writer is a constant process, though; it’s something I’m still working on," Kelly said.
She said her work and studies have been influenced by her Elk County roots.
"The most influential part of growing up in Elk County is the work ethic I learned from my family, teachers, coaches, teammates, supervisors, and from the community in general. Elk County is full of people who work hard, which I think is great because a strong work ethic is an asset in any job, in any field," Kelly said.
While living in St. Marys, Kelly was a member of the Sacred Heart Parish, attended Sacred Heart Elementary School and worked as a lifeguard at the St. Marys Community Pool at Memorial Park.
According to Kelly, although she did not grow up on a farm, her parents and grandparents were hobby gardeners and she has always been interested in food and the environment.
"Recently, in talking with my parents, we realized that both of my junior high science fair projects involved plants, so I think I had an appreciation for them early on. I had summer internships during undergrad at the USDA in Beltsville, Md., where I actually worked in a plant pathology lab, so that experience made me more confident in pursuing the field after my B.S.," Kelly said. "For me, one of the main draws of plant pathology is the combined, varied experiences of field and laboratory work."
Field work also poses challenges due to its unpredictability, Kelly said. She explained June 2011 was one of the driest on record and the state is currently coming out of an unexpected onion maggot epidemic. She added it's tough to tell what the effect of the mild winter will be on pathogen populations carrying over from last year.
"The hours can run long and I spend a fair amount of time traveling to farms," she said.
Kelly's work has not gone unnoticed, as portions of her masters degree senior thesis, pertaining to a project done on apples, were published in national peer-reviewed scientific journals.
She has also had the opportunity to travel to present her research results at national and regional meetings of the American Phytopathological Society.
Kelly said she advises anyone interested in agriculture in general to get involved with Master Gardener training, 4-H, or a garden club; speak with county extension educators about their upcoming programming; or go online to extension.psu.edu to find out what’s coming up. The Penn State Department of Plant Pathology has many plant disease factsheets online, which are free to access, for those with questions about plant diseases around their home.
"In the future, I could see myself employed as a Cooperative Extension professional, a teaching professor, or possibly pursuing a career with the USDA. My immediate plans, though, are to complete my research project on bacterial rots of onion," Kelly said.
Outside of work, Kelly stays active by running, hiking, biking and playing the piano. She is currently training for a "Tough Mudder" competition in Maryland this September, an 11-mile team obstacle course and race in which she will be participating with her husband and a group of friends.

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