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  • Writer's pictureAna María Vázquez-Catoni

Meet Dr. Leslie Holland, Assistant Professor in Plant Pathology

Starting with a proactive and transparent mentorship approach, Leslie established a lab that bridges the gap between research and fruit crop growers.

Dr. Leslie Holland is an assistant professor and fruit crop extension specialist within the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Her laboratory encompasses distinct research endeavors from economically important fruit crops to the state of Wisconsin, such as apples, cranberries, and grapes, alongside extension activities. In addition to mentoring graduate and undergraduate students, her role entails cooperative efforts with growers, delivering presentations, formulating management solutions to grower-oriented needs, and conducting field visits.

The research conducted in her lab centers on cranberry pathology, with a specific focus on two disease systems: cranberry fruit rot complex (CFR) and cranberry false blossom. Research on CFR focuses on studying the biology of the fungal pathogens associated and the mechanisms by which they are being transmitted and spread within cranberry plants. Cranberry false blossom, caused by a phytoplasma, is investigated in the context of both propagation material and its insect vector. Additionally, Dr. Holland’s lab also focuses on foliar and fruit diseases affecting cold-climate grapevines. The ultimate objective is to leverage this information to develop effective management solutions.

A non-linear path towards plant pathology


Although Leslie’s path eventually led to her becoming a plant pathologist, early on in her academic career it was very different. She started on a pre-med track as a Neuroscience major at the University of Cincinnati and changed to Biology with an emphasis in plant biology when she transferred to New Mexico State University.

“I changed my major several times during my undergraduate years. It took me some time to navigate my way towards the field of plant science. It's important to acknowledge that many students don't have a clear idea of what they want to pursue when they start college.”

Leslie had the opportunity to intern in a horticultural lab during the Biological Interactions Summer Research Program at UW-Madison where she was involved in researching plant physiology of various fruit crops, including cranberries and grapes. After an entire day of planting grapes, they were deeply upset to discover that the plants were diseased, and these had to be removed. However, this experience was a revelation for Leslie. “This experience greatly impacted me and made me realize that plants can get sick! I soon found out there’s an entire field dedicated to studying this. I figured I could still be a doctor, but for plants instead of humans! It just really shook up my world in the best way possible.” This experience prompted Leslie to change her coursework during her senior year of college to gain more exposure to plant pathology.

During her undergraduate field diagnostic course, Leslie had the opportunity to witness how her professor was received by the growers. “It was incredibly inspiring. It made me realize that I, too, could make an impact and build relationships with growers, directly interact with stakeholders, understand their needs, and allow their perspectives to shape my research.”

Although Leslie felt more inclined towards applied work, she also explored her options in more basic research. “My initial experience in a molecular lab was quite challenging. I struggled to grasp the concepts, and the lack of effective mentorship made it even more difficult. There were days when I felt lost, merely transferring clear liquids from one tube to another without truly understanding the purpose behind it.”

However, everything changed when she joined a more applied lab that allowed her to work directly with plants in a greenhouse setting. Being able to physically interact with the plants and ask questions where she could witness their responses firsthand made a significant difference for Leslie. As a self-described visual learner, she needed that hands-on experience to truly comprehend the subject matter.

Subsequently, Leslie started a master's program in Plant Pathology at Washington State University where she worked on understanding the etiology and taxonomy of fungal canker pathogens of grapevines. Canker diseases are associated with a complex of over 20 different types of fungal pathogens that grow inside of the woody tissue and reduce longevity and profitability of these long-lived perennial cropping systems. Then, Leslie pursued her Ph.D. degree in Plant Pathology at the University of California-Davis where she shifted to almonds and further expanded on chemical management and taxonomy of fungal canker pathogens.

While working on fruit crops for both her masters and Ph.D. programs, her passion for plant pathology truly blossomed. Now, Leslie in her current position at UW-Madison has found herself completing the full circle.

“Ultimately, I see myself as someone dedicated to serving the stakeholders and making a positive difference in their agricultural practices.”

Overlooked challenges in an academic career


Graduate school is undeniably challenging in various aspects and it can be an overwhelming period in one's life. As it transitions from undergraduate studies, the academic environment differs significantly and it becomes more competitive. Graduate school demands a balance between research, independent thinking, and coursework.

One significant challenge Leslie faced in graduate school was the sense of isolation compounded by the fact that she was located at a research station, which is often an overlooked aspect in agricultural graduate programs.

“While being close to the agricultural crops, I was far away from other students and the campus community. This created an equity issue in terms of accessing professional and medical resources. These aspects are often overlooked when one is constantly focused on their work.”

This situation contributed to a sense of not fully belonging and further exacerbated the challenges she faced.

Leslie personally experienced additional difficulties as a woman of color in the field of extension agriculture. “It was disheartening not to see individuals who looked like me in the field, and I often received peculiar stares due to my appearance. These experiences contributed to a sense of not belonging and profound isolation that I grappled with for some time. There were moments when I questioned whether this was the right field for me. Even now, in her professional position, Leslie continues to encounter and navigate such situations. “For me, it's all about accepting that I belong here and have something valuable to offer. Delivering this message has always been challenging, and getting it across can be equally tough.” One important lesson Leslie has learned and accepted is that not everyone will embrace this message.

“I've grown comfortable with where I am in life, and I don't need everyone else's approval. It can be a challenging way to navigate the world, but it's an honest perspective.”

However, despite the challenges and moments of isolation, Leslie truly enjoys and loves what she does, and she believes that her unique perspective brings value to the field.

Transparency as a pinnacle of her mentorship style


When Leslie first assumed her role as an assistant professor, her main concern was providing adequate mentorship. Having experienced mentorship challenges in the past, she felt unequipped to fulfill that role.

“It can be daunting when you don't have clear examples or guidance to follow, and there is often a lack of formal training for becoming a mentor. Suddenly being in a position where others look to you for guidance and support can be overwhelming. It's difficult to find resources or structured training to prepare for such a responsibility.”

Leslie’s approach to mentorship is grounded in a mutual understanding, stemming from the fact that she has been in the same position as her students. She vividly remembers what it was like to be in their shoes, which enables her to empathize with their challenges and experiences.

“I strive to have open and honest communication with my students about their research, my expectations, the graduate school journey, and what lies beyond. It's essential for them to have a clear understanding of the process and to be able to make informed decisions about their future. Sharing my own experiences as a faculty member and being transparent about the realities of academia allows them to assess whether it is the right fit for them based on their own experiences in my lab and within the academic environment as a whole.”

The importance of seeking accurate and reliable information


As someone working in extension and closely collaborating with growers, Leslie has gained valuable insights into their practices and the agricultural industry as a whole. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions surrounding farming and agriculture that she hopes to address.

“Misunderstandings about topics like GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), organic farming, and conventional farming persist. By witnessing firsthand how growers manage diseases and cultivate their crops, I have a unique perspective on the subject. Furthermore, being a consumer myself, I understand the importance of having accurate information about the food we consume.”

Her hope is that individuals gain a deeper understanding of the complexities, diverse practices and approaches within agriculture and make informed choices as consumers.

Becoming a professor, a significant shift in responsibilities


This past August, Leslie celebrated three years in her current position and transitioning from graduate school, where the focus is primarily on research, to an academic position has been quite a contrast. In her current role, she is more involved in conceptualizing ideas, developing protocols, and overseeing research projects rather than actively conducting the research herself.

“Two key areas that demand a lot of my time and attention are interacting with people, both in managerial and mentorship roles, and managing budgets and finances. These aspects have proven to be challenging, and while I have improved over time, they remain ongoing areas of growth for me. I have come to realize that this is the reality of being an academic – the behind-the-scenes work involved in running a research lab.”

Despite the unexpected nature of the position, Leslie has found great satisfaction in managing and building a community within her lab. Being able to cultivate positive and productive interactions among students and staff has been immensely rewarding.

Change the narrative: figuring out what you don't like is just as crucial as discovering what you do like


We often tend to think of careers in a linear manner. However, along the way, we can also encounter things that we dislike, dread, or even hate. Leslie emphasizes that it’s essential to listen to those feelings. “They are signals from your gut, your body, telling you that this particular thing doesn't resonate with you. Embrace it, check it off your list, and move forward.”

Photo credit: Cranberry Learning, Inc

Leslie explains how viewing these experiences as valuable opportunities helps you narrow down your interests and preferences. By acknowledging what you don't like, you can focus your energy and attention on the things that genuinely captivate and inspire you. “Instead of seeing those experiences as losses, perceive them as wins because each one brings you closer to discovering the next thing that truly aligns with your passions.”

She wants others to know that you do not have to perceive encounters with things you dislike as setbacks. Instead, “see them as stepping stones, guiding you towards the next opportunity that sparks your interest and propels you forward on your journey.”

Instruments in Leslie’s academic and professional growth


Leslie has been involved with organizations that provide a wealth of resources and service opportunities that have been beneficial to her career and personal development.

Leslie is actively engaged in the American Phytopathological Society (APS). One valuable experience she has had within this society is the opportunity to connect with experts in the field. “At conferences, I've participated in sessions where you can sign up for short, one-on-one meetings with professionals. Initially, I was quite intimidated, especially when meeting renowned individuals whose work I had followed. However, these interactions have consistently been rewarding and insightful. It's a resource she would strongly encourage other students to explore, especially since most professionals are genuinely eager to engage in meaningful conversations and offer guidance.

Despite Leslie considering herself an introvert, she has found that she becomes more extroverted at conferences because she genuinely enjoys them.

“As I've progressed in my career, I've come to appreciate the importance of networking and building connections as well as getting involved in committees within the society. While networking is not the sole determinant of success, it plays a crucial role that we should not underestimate.”

Another resource that has been immensely helpful to Leslie, since graduate school, is the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development (NCFDD). NCFDD provides a variety of exercises to help with writing and offers motivational emails called "Monday Motivators" to kickstart your week. "What I appreciate most about NCFDD is its honesty and transparency. The organization acknowledges the challenges of academic writing and the occasional lack of motivation, which is something many of us encounter.”

Joyful hobbies!


Beyond the lab and field visits, Leslie enjoys vegetable gardening, hiking and exploring the outdoors, often accompanied by her energetic dog, Clyde. Additionally, she has a passion for cooking, which primarily stems from her love for eating and trying new flavors and recipes.

If you want to contact Dr. Holland, access her lab website or follow her on X.

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