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Student Spotlight: ‘Plant Research Immediately Impacts People’

Woman with cassava plants in a greenhouse
Doyle with cassava plants in a greenhouse in Dar Es Salaam.

Video by Chris Liotta, with footage in Africa by Catherine Doyle

After a summer undergraduate research experience with a leading NC State plant scientist, Catherine Doyle was hooked.

“I fell in love with the idea that plant research is something you can work on that immediately impacts people,” she said, “especially when it comes to working on cassava, the No. 1 subsistence crop produced in sub-Saharan Africa.”

[pullquote color=’red’ align=”left”]I fell in love with the idea that plant research … immediately impacts people.[/pullquote]

Doyle is now a Ph.D. student in NC State’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, working as part of a large interdisciplinary and intercontinental team studying cassava mosaic disease (CMD). It’s a devastating plant disease – and one that has become increasingly resistant to management strategies that used to keep it in check.

Doyle was a Provost Fellow for 2016-17 and is a current National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. She studies with Linda Hanley-Bowdoin, who guided the summer research experience she undertook as a Davidson College undergraduate.

In her current research, Doyle studies how temperature changes affect the virus that causes CMD over time.

This summer, she stepped away from her lab work at NC State to spend three weeks in Tanzania. Traveling 3,264 miles in three weeks, she learned about the spread and severity of the disease firsthand from farmers. In photos and words, she documented her time as part of NC State’s research blog, the Abstract.

“Seeing CMD in the field is important,” she said. “It changed my perspective as a scientist on how to ask better questions about the disease and its vector. As scientists, we have a lot to learn about how CMD works and spreads. Basic research is needed for outreach efforts in local villages to be effective.”

Doyle sat down recently to discuss the fieldwork, her lab research and more.

What motivates you?

A passion for serving others and making a difference.

Why did you choose to study cassava?

Cassava is a tuber crop, like potatoes, and it’s really high in starch. It’s one of the most caloric vegetables, and it can grow in poor soil and high temperatures. That is important because it feeds small-scale farmers and their families.

What was the goal of your fieldwork in Tanzania?

The survey was needed to figure out how CMD was spreading throughout Tanzania. Six other countries in Africa are doing the same thing, and the idea is if we know where the disease is we can monitor it over time, we can find where there are hot spots — really, really bad places — and talk to the local governments there. It will help us figure out how we can get disease-free material to those farmers, set up education practices and get them clean seed. Hopefully, this will make the diseases in that area go down, and they’ll have more food.

[pullquote color=’red’ align=”right”]We have to get out and talk to people, to know what the problem is, and then we have to match the science to understand what happens in the field.[/pullquote]

What was the trip like? What did you learn?

It was fantastic. It made things come together that I’d been working on in the lab and heard about for so long, but then to actually see the impact in the field and see the conditions — it broadened my perspective.

In the lab, you look at one component — you break it down into small things and you don’t really look at the holistic picture. When I was in the field, I saw the diversity of the disease and how different conditions affected the disease. I was thinking in a box, and this problem is a lot bigger than I thought.

And to see the farmers — a lot of times I can’t get their pictures out of my mind — and then going to their field and then realizing they’ll have no crop, and you’ll have to tell them that. It puts in perspective what you are doing.

What did the trip mean to you?

I realized that, yes, this is what I want to do — I absolutely love working on science and seeing how there are complex problems, and it takes many, many people. And we have to get out and talk to people, and we have to know what the problem is, and then we have to match the science to understand what happens in the field.

What’s next for you? 

I’m going to be finishing up my thesis and taking what I learned in the field to help me figure out how the virus is changing in relation to temperature. Once I finish my thesis and Ph.D., then hopefully I will work internationally in Africa and other countries using science to address food security issues.