Plant pathologist accepts national post

Growers in the Red River Valley soon will have to bid farewell to one of their most dedicated plant pathologists when Charla Hollingsworth leaves for her new post as national science program leader for plant pathology and weeds at the U.S. Depart...

Growers in the Red River Valley soon will have to bid farewell to one of their most dedicated plant pathologists when Charla Hollingsworth leaves for her new post as national science program leader for plant pathology and weeds at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Plant Health, Science and Technology in Raleigh, N.C.

"My responsibilities in that position will be to protect U.S. agriculture from exotic diseases or weeds that will be coming in, and that's on the shores of the country as well as those getting close, or maybe threats in countries that we trade with," Hollingsworth said.

She will focus on acquiring tools, protocols and assays needed to detect dangerous organisms and either stop them from entering the United States or contain or eradicate them after they've arrived.

Getting started

Hollingsworth was born in Colorado and raised and educated in Wyoming, the daughter of a state employee and a meat cutter. She attended a community college and later transferred to the University of Wyoming in Laramie.


"I was a nontraditional student, meaning I had kids of my own," she said. "We both were sitting at the kitchen table and doing our homework."

She thought about a degree in range management, but something happened to shift her focus.

"I took an introductory course in plant pathology when I was at the university, and it was one of those classes that really opened my eyes up to things that I didn't know existed before," she said.

She was living on a small ranch at the time, raising the kids and a small garden.

"I started to understand why my potatoes would get brown and nasty smelling and melt to the ground, and I could understand why the beans would get red spots on them," she said. "There were just all of these diseases and microbes that were attacking my garden that I hadn't even known of before."

She already could identify weeds and knew when her potatoes were in trouble with nutrients.

"It was the disease portion I was missing, and that plant pathology class just brought it all together," she said. "Once I had plant pathology, I knew that that was where my interest was."



Hollingsworth graduated with her doctorate in plant pathology and plant breeding in 2002 and was hired that same year at the University of Minnesota's Northwest Research and Outreach Center in Crookston as its small grains plant pathology extension specialist.

There, she established highly effective extension and research programs for addressing plant disease problems of small-grain growers in northwestern Minnesota and northeastern North Dakota. She has written or contributed to more than 40 research articles, extension bulletins, fact sheets, abstracts and educational articles and was an original co-editor of the "Cropping Issues in Northwest Minnesota" newsletter. Also, she participated in maintaining the Web-based Minnesota Fusarium Head Blight Forecasting System (

Hollingsworth has given numerous plant disease presentations at ag-related events and has trained plant pest surveyors to identify and estimate disease severity in wheat and barley fields for the state's department of agriculture.

"She built an incredibly strong and productive research and extension program that met well the needs of the wheat and barley growers in the Red River Valley," said Carol Ishimaru, head of the university's plant pathology department.

And that is where Hollingsworth's loyalties lie: with the growers.

"They try their best all year long to get the best crop and the best quality of crop they can, and when something goes awry, whether it's disease or severe weather, or what have you, it has always impressed me that they can do it all again next year," she said. "I admire that."

She said that direct contact with Red River Valley growers has been the most enjoyable aspect of her time at the NWROC.

"When I traveled around the valley and talked, they always visited with me ... and I get to visit them on their farms, looking at sick plants and sick crops."


A national leader

In her new position as the national science program leader, Hollingsworth will be involved in planning, coordination and oversight in support of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and its Plant Protection and Quarantine program.

These new responsibilities will be a variation of her duties at NWROC, she said. But in Raleigh, disease management will have broader implications.

"It is somewhat similar, however different," she said. "Management in that sense would be to educate policymakers, industry, commodity members and on occasion, individual growers on how to prevent the spread of or detect new incoming pathogens and diseases."

She expects to maintain ties with land grant universities such as the University of Minnesota.

"Those will be the folks that I tap on the shoulder, that develop these new assays and the new techniques that we'll need in APHIS to identify these organisms," she said.

Regarding a possible replacement for Hollingsworth, Ishimaru said the subject is under consideration, though the University of Minnesota is under a "hiring pause."

"This position is a high priority for the department as well as NWROC," she said. "Given our current budget situation at the university, all positions have to be approved through the provost."


A farewell gathering for Hollingsworth will be at 1 p.m. today in the Bede Ballroom at the Sargeant Student Center on the University of Minnesota-Crookston campus.

She will begin her new duties Nov. 8 in North Carolina.

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