Meet Dr. Lindsey du Toit, President of the American Phytopathological Society
Following a prolific and impactful career, Dr. Lindsey du Toit is ready to move forward the American Phytopathological Society as their new president.
Dr. Lindsey du Toit is a plant pathology full professor at Washington State University and the new president of the American Phytopathological Society
(APS). She is a seed crop pathologist that works with farmers and stakeholders in developing management programs to produce good seed quality in different parts of the world. Some of the crops she works with are cabbage, carrot, spinach, red beet, Swiss chard, onion, and radish.
Seed production is a very high-risk area of agriculture since seeds take a longer time to develop than the vegetative crops and seeds may become affected by pathogens during that period. For instance, cabbage takes around 16 months for seed production, while it only takes about two to three months to harvest the cabbage as a vegetable. Therefore, it is critical for seed growers to have strict management for producing high-quality seeds free from pathogens to prevent transmitting seed-borne pathogens.
One of the main reasons Dr. du Toit got interested in her current job was because of the opportunity to do research and work with extension. In fact, she worked as a diagnostician while she was a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois, where she further developed her interest and skills in working with farmers and stakeholders directly.
“…it gave me that direct experience interacting with a wide range of stakeholders, different types of crops, types of problems, types of ornamentals, and so on. But also, I was mentored by the diagnostician on how to communicate with the customers, how to write letters, and write management recommendations - and that is something you don’t always get as a student. So, this job appealed to me because it had the research side, but it also had the extension side where I got to work with growers.”
She also recognized the importance of teamwork with farmers and stakeholders to have successful outputs. Although her background is not in agriculture but biology and plant pathology, this experience helped her acknowledge that farmers’ knowledge and inputs for research are highly valuable.
“I’m not an expert in farming, but growers are experts in crops and the nuances they have to deal with… but they’re not pathologists, so together we work as a team to come up with solutions.”
Plant pathology is a highly demanding field with various types of employers, including the government, private industries, academia, and others. We asked Dr. du Toit why she chose to work in academia, and her answers were mainly the following factors: the research-extension synergy, and neutrality
Dr. du Toit never thought she would end up in academia, mainly because she understood how hard and hectic the job could be. However, her experience as a diagnostician motivated her to work towards filling the knowledge gaps in this field, where there is still a lack of information for growers and stakeholders. So, she gave herself a minimum of five years to do her best and decide whether she wanted to stay in academia or not. It turns out this job in academia was the perfect fit for her goals and vision.
“Doing both research and extension is very synergistic. As a diagnostician, I learned there are a lot more questions out there, especially if it’s not a mainstream crop like corn and soybean that have been looked at very extensively. So, that’s the beauty of this position, how to develop solutions, how to develop knowledge that can contribute to better management programs, that’s the part I really like… I believe I could work quite effectively in a seed company and do that as well, but one of the things that have kept me at this job is that I really like the neutrality of being a public scientist. I’m not tied to one company or one company’s products. I can create knowledge and distribute knowledge through extension to everyone that’s a stakeholder, and that’s the reason why I’ve stayed in academia.”
The tenure process was INTENSE, and Impostor Syndrome does not make it easier…
Dr. du Toit got tenured in 2006 and promoted to full professor in 2013. She described this process as very intense due not only to its difficulty but because of impostor syndrome and lack of self-confidence. It is essential to recognize that even high-level professionals like professors can go through impostor syndrome and self-doubt. The important thing is to look for professional help or talk to a friend when feeling overwhelmed. However, she promised herself time and patience and little by little, with hard work, persistence, good mentorship, and teamwork, she gained confidence in herself and harvested success. Something Dr. du Toit told us about Impostor Syndrome that we found very helpful was the following:
“There are always going to be people that know more than me, there are always going to be areas I know nothing about, but that’s okay. Where’s my place? Where’s my contribution? Where can I provide a set of expertise and skills that contribute to the big picture?... and I think that’s an important moment to get to where you are comfortable with yourself, and you are contributing in a meaningful way.”
Dr. du Toit expressed that it took some time to get immersed in the field, and she immediately started engaging with growers, asking them to show her around and explain their work. She compared this learning process as her being a sponge around the people she was supposed to be helping, basically having them teach her. This experience not only helped her learn about the fieldwork, but also demonstrated to them she respected their expertise and considered them partners.
“In that process, you learn a lot, and there are so many people around you that have expertise. My job was to build that network and to learn from everyone, not just try to tell people what to do. I took the time to build confidence in myself and establish a strong network and, especially as a woman, I was afraid of being a woman in the field that they wouldn’t accept me. But I realized that, if you get a strong graduate training, that foundation is something you have to offer without being arrogant, which is a critical message. If you have a skill set and knowledge from which growers can benefit, and you present it to them as an option to use as opposed to expecting them to do so, it really changes the dynamics and builds a synergy that is incredible.”
“Like any job, there are going to be ups and downs…”
Dr. du Toit commented she struggled at the beginning of her job with the human relations side of things where she ran into difficult situations or conflict with other people and felt like she was not given effective training on how to handle conflict properly as a faculty member.
“I could’ve done a much better job at the time, but you do your best at the time and try to recognize the resources you can go to so you can anticipate that ahead of time and try to develop those skills and develop a good set of mentors around you. Most universities don’t do a good job helping faculty develop those skills and provide the necessary resources… it’s a tough one.”
On the other side, Dr. du Toit expressed how she encountered great moments of pride and satisfaction in her job, especially when stakeholders and growers have mentioned how her work has helped them minimize significant expenses and risks. For instance, she learned during a conversation that she had helped some farmers to control a disease significantly to the point that in the past five years, that disease is no longer an issue for the growers thanks to her contributions. In another case where she was in the field setting up a trial, one of the growers reached out to her and told her “because of the work you’ve done in the past few years, you have saved the farm over $50,000 a year”.
“They don’t always tell you this stuff, and you can be giving a talk in front of 200 stakeholders, and you don’t know who’s listening. It’s when you start to get that feedback that you realize “you know what, I am making a difference, and this effort is worth it.” So it’s these stories that keep you going and believing in what you’re doing.”
To all the young girls out there!
“What makes you enthusiastic? What drives your curiosity? What makes you want to do more? Follow that passion. Let that guide you as opposed to a title; then you can develop gratification for what you do”.
Dr. du Toit encouraged young ladies to just go for it! As a young student, she always liked biology, but she never thought she’d end up working in agriculture. In fact, it wasn’t until she took a required plant pathology class that she discovered she loved it and became passionate about it.
We all have the ability to create an impact in the world
Dr. du Toit’s ultimate vision is to contribute to making a better place for people. Through research and extension, and by working in teams with growers and stakeholders, she finds her way to give back to the world that has given her so much.
“I was given a lot of opportunities that not everyone had in South Africa, probably because of my race (white), so I kind of knew I was privileged. I was always thinking I was given stuff that I didn’t necessarily deserve, and had the sense that I owed something back to the world that gave me a lot that not everybody in my situation would’ve received. So that’s where the extension side, the Land Grant mission comes in, and seeing people out there impacted by diseases and thinking I can be a part of helping solve these problems. I realized this was my opportunity to give back.”
Not everyone knows about the vital role plant pathologists have in food production
Plants can also get sick, and this can significantly affect [reduce] our food production. We all need food to survive, so plant pathologists’ work is essential for food security.
“We still have flu despite people having worked to try and control flu for over a hundred years. We still have plant diseases like late blight and white mold that we haven’t solved entirely. We have growers who manage them more effectively. There is still a need for more work, just like in the medical field.”
Moving countries to follow a vision is not easy
If moving from states or cities can be hard, imagine leaving everything behind, moving from one country to another to follow a desired path. Dr. du Toit moved from South Africa to the United States for graduate studies, focused on her vision to help growers through biology. However, no matter how exciting this opportunity might be, this big change can be quite hard and challenging, especially during the first years when people can get really homesick. Dr. du Toit express to us how homesick she was those first years she lived in the US and that one of the things that helped her the most was building a supportive community.
“What kept me going was that I tried to learn as much as I could. I never thought I’d stay; I wanted to go back. But I thought, “okay, I’ve been given an opportunity, I need to make the most of it.” One of the things that helped me during those first years was building a support group; those friendships, those relationships, and people that are inspired by the opportunities that graduate school presents, people who do not feel graduate studies are a right but a privilege and an opportunity, to build up that sense of making the most of what you have.”
It is ESSENTIAL to highlight minority women in ag sciences
We talked to Dr. du Toit about the importance of highlighting minority women in agriculture, and she expressed that, although women are fairly well represented in biology, they are not as well represented in the agricultural field. Agriculture is known for being a male-dominated area, especially outside in fields and on farms. Dr. du Toit talked to us about how she’s learned about the importance of being a role model for women in agriculture through the field plant pathology class she teaches.
“I remember one year we had a student that, at the end of the class, wrote about how as an African American female she never felt like she’d be accepted in the field-oriented side of agriculture. However, traveling around the state and being in the field with me and others in the course, and seeing the relationships I’ve developed with the farmers and this community, really helped her feel she could do it. The important thing is that we show what skills we have to offer.”
Dr. du Toit also talked about how she had struggled being accepted as a woman in agriculture while she was on sabbatical in South Africa trying to help some growers improve their onion disease management programs. During this experience, she described how she could feel some people’s skepticism towards her inputs because she wasn’t local, didn’t speak their language fluently, and was a woman.
“…part of it was it because I’m a woman and a few of those growers were not used to working with women in the field. Several farmers didn’t even look me in the eyes and only looked at the male consultant with whom I was visiting their fields. It was the first time I felt, “Wow, this gentleman won’t look me in the eyes because I am a woman.” I know that if I were a black woman, it would have been even worse because of the history of racism in South Africa. However, I felt confident in myself at this mid-point of my career that I didn’t take this as a negative. Instead, I did my best to show the skills I could offer. If I had just been starting out on my career, it would have been really hard not to feel offended.”
Dr. du Toit mentioned how some of these growers were receiving recommendations from chemical and fertilizer dealers that made them over-apply products or apply products they didn’t need to use, proving the evident conflict of interest. As Dr. du Toit studied these cases, she was able to help some farms reduce their fertilizer and fungicide inputs, and cut some of those growers’ expenses by more than 50%. It took five to six months, however, before some of them felt like they could trust her advice.
“I know that if I were a black woman, the story would have been completely different, so I recognized I had privilege because of my skin color. That’s why I think it is really important to highlight minority women, especially in the field side of agriculture because they face an even bigger hurdle. When people have a need, that’s what you focus on, how you can help them address that need. They’ll come back quickly enough once they realize you have something valuable to offer.”
But not everything is work!
Dr. du Toit loves being outdoors. Luckily, Washington has beautiful nature views like forests, mountains, and trails that Dr. du Toit enjoys exploring. She told us whenever she’s feeling overwhelmed or stressed, being out in nature is what helps her recharge and feel refreshed and inspired. She loves running and hiking on the trails with her dog, Lucy, and friends.
Role models are essential for motivation
Dr. du Toit shared that, interestingly, one of her classmates, became her role model while she was an undergraduate student. During her first year, she worked in a lab where she met another student that seemed always to be inspired by the laboratory and classwork they did, while Lindsey felt indifferent. Walking back to another class one day, they had a conversation that, as Dr. du Toit described, she will never forget. This student made Dr. du Toit realize she had an attitude problem, that she needed to change her understanding of the amazing opportunities she’d been given. Dr. du Toit also mentions Dr. Sally Miller as one of her plant pathology role models because of the amazing work she does, all her support for students, and her international development work.
Special shout out to:
Dr. du Toit wanted to shout out the American Phytopathological Society, especially the diagnosticians and the seed pathology groups that have been a support for her through her career. “I also think that you guys [WAGS] are an inspiration to me; you are already doing it by forming this group and reaching out. You are an inspiration already, so keep it up!”.
Aww, thanks Dr. du Toit!!!
You can contact Dr. du Toit via email firstname.lastname@example.org
This interview was transcribed by: Noely Gonzalez-Maldonado