Meet Dr. Morgan Carter, Plant Pathologist
Dr. Carter’s innovative research and vision of Academia have led her through an ongoing path of collaboration and community outreach.
Dr. Morgan Carter has been interested in science since she was very young. Born outside of Winston-Salem (NC) she attended the North Carolina School of Science and Math. She decided to pursue a B.S. in Biochemistry with minors in Genetics and Biotechnology at North Carolina State University. She graduated valedictorian and began her search for a graduate program that could help her advance in her scientific career. At this point, she had been exposed to plant pathology during her undergraduate studies but had not yet decided to pursue it as a career.
However, she knew that she was very interested in molecular biology and all the incredible things that happen inside living cells. This certainty helped her apply to several different Ph.D. programs where only one was based in plant pathology: the Ph.D in Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology at Cornell University. Cornell’s community and the potential projects that she could do there convinced her of choosing it as her graduate school. Morgan worked with Dr. Adam Bogdanove and received her doctorate in plant pathology in May 2020.
Using well-known lessons to understand unknowns
Morgan’s Ph.D. research had a strong component of effector biology and how the exchange of these molecules impacted the interaction between two organisms. “Effectors”, in plant pathology, are proteins or other types of molecules that elicit an effect in the opposing organism. She was able to use lessons from classical and well-known bacterial effector biology and apply it for the understanding of other organisms whose pathogenic biology is not so clear, like some fungi.
As well, she was able to extract the knowledge obtained from the interactions between plant pathogens and their hosts and extend it to a different type of system. For this, Dr. Carter focused on the interactions taking place between Burkholderia, a bacterium, and Rhizopus, a fungi, and how they lead to a mutualistic symbiosis between these organisms. This experience led to her current research interests: how organisms interact when causing disease and how these interactions might be determinant for the outcome!
“Big picture you see a plant get sick or not but then, what is actually happening in the cell?”
Deciphering the intricate layers that constitute disease
Morgan’s innovative research focuses on the molecular interactions between a microbe (bacteria or fungus, for example) and a host plant. This exchange of molecules would determine the type of relationship between a host and a microbe. For example, would a symbiosis happen where both benefit from each other? Would disease occur? What is the difference between these molecules that lead to one outcome or the other?
“Now what I’m working on is microbe-microbe-host interactions. How can co-infection affect a plant? If there are two pathogens does that make disease better or worse? If your pathogen has a symbiont living inside of it is that affecting whether or not it can affect a plant? Kind of more layers to it. Disease does not occur in a vacuum. So I’m interested now in looking at more of these relationships in that community”.
She also told us how recently, perhaps in the last 15 years, it has been found that more and more fungi seem to cooperate with bacteria to grow. However, this is still pretty much based on researchers’ observations and has been officially documented in just a few cases. There is a huge potential of this being the determinant for the success or failure of certain diseases but perhaps we don’t know it yet.
“If you’re taking isolates from the field and you think it’s clear but then you find some other organism there and you cure it of it, then you might be altering your pathogen! It’s just adding complexity, we started to figure out all the rules of one-on-one interactions but now we are trying to understand how the presence of multiple things can add significantly to a situation”
Her research explores the intricate relationships between
organisms when infecting a host plant. Photo: Morgan Carter
You might face hard challenges since the very beginning
Morgan Carter faced a “high-stake” challenge pretty early. She had just started her Ph.D. studies and was presented with the opportunity of collaborating with a group of male researchers that were much more advanced in their careers. She was then tasked with performing some experiments that branched from research that had been recently published. However, by doing so, she discovered that her results were consistently opposed to those of the publication. She repeated the experiments several times, even got somebody else to do it in order to assess any personal bias. However, they still came out the same. So, she had to face the challenge of fully believing in her work and then revealing these results to the researchers that were part of the collaboration. Lastly, the authors of the original publication had to retract their results.
It really takes a village to get through grad school
Morgan told us about her graduate cohort, five 22-year-olds who came into their PhDs directly from their undergraduate studies. For her, they were one of the biggest supports that she had during her graduate studies, especially at the beginning when they were all facing new challenges every day.
“I don’t know how I would have made it through the first three years of grad school without this really awesome group of women going through it with me”.
As well, she highlights the importance of having a supportive advisor, someone that really understands the process of what PhD students are going through, and what can be done for them to have the best experience they can have. “I felt like we learned from each other, I was learning all the time and he was open-minded and wanted to take my suggestions to improve our department”.
“Experts need to be seen and heard to be trusted”
When we asked Morgan about her passions aside from research she told us she loves to serve the community. “If I can help identify problems or help promote things I’m interested in or make things easier for people, I do.” Throughout her career, she has volunteered to be part of graduate student associations, undergraduate student government, inter-residence councils, student councils, task forces, faculty search committees, and basically all this type of community organizations. She loves to cook and play videogames. But hey, an academic hobby is also a hobby!
We also talked with Morgan about her active engagement in public policy. She served as an intern in the Public Policy Board of the American Phytopathological Society (APS) and is keeping herself engaged with this initiative. She looks for the decisions being done on things that she is interested in and participates! Just writing a comment when they are in the process of making rules, can really make a difference.
“If you’re not telling your story someone else is telling it for you” “You can call your congressperson and tell them: “Hey, I really think we need to be funding this more” or “I am worried about this specific pesticide”. You can get involved in the government while being a scientist!”.
She highlights the importance of doing outreach while being an agricultural scientist. Actively finding ways to reach out to the community. She talked about initiatives like Science on Tap or Skype a Scientist, specifically making a shoutout for people to join this last initiative.
“I think we are way past the point of science being able to just sit in an ivory tower and I also think that is not realistic, especially in agriculture science. None of us are doing this without the intent of helping people. So to be able to do that, they have to know about and get a positive feeling about it”.
Dr. Carter has become a huge advocate of outreach
and any other strategy to get science closer to people.
Photo: Morgan Carter
You think you’re asking a lot of questions? Ask more!
Morgan emphasized how important it is to talk to people, ask questions, take advantage of the experiences they have all gone through before you and learn as much as you can from those interactions. She reflects on that being scared at the beginning when you feel very new to grad school, but if you push through that initial feeling you will get a much greater reward! People really enjoy talking about themselves and they will be able to provide you with valuable advice and tips on what you are also going through.
“I have always been so scared of taking up people’s time and thinking that maybe I should already know the answers to some things. But, I definitely learned that people are so chill about answering your questions. Taking the time to get that information from people is the best way to find out what you want to do and how to do it”.
You can ask things like: How is it like being a grad student? How did you get interested in plant pathology? What are the different things I can do with this degree?
Also, there is so much information in your professional societies. Use that resource! The American Phytopathological Society is a great example for plant pathologists but there are plenty of Ag-related societies out there and they will be a huge resource to make connections and understand if that field is what you want it to be for you.
“Connections make opportunity. Agriculture is all about who you know and who is connected to who. Ask if you don’t know how to do it and do it as early in your career!”.
Let’s power-through our own doubts and apply for that thing!
We talked about female role models and Morgan told us about how looking up to successful women in her field has been an awesome and beneficial support for her career. Having these figures of what other women have gone through is determinant for our careers. She mentions Jan Leach as an example of these big figures in plant pathology that represent an incredible research career and active involvement in policy and professional societies.
“Just being exposed to the women in your professional area and learning about their history and their trajectory, even if not being directly mentored by them or even if you never actually meet them, is determinant. Especially if there is someone that has had a long career. Because we think there’s a lot of stuff that is hard now but I can’t even imagine what it was like in the 70s or 80s, being the only woman in the department for example”.
Being a role model for younger women and girls, Morgan reflects on the constant self-doubts that we face as young professionals and highlights how important it is to power through those feelings.
“There are a lot of times when you’re going to be like “I shouldn’t be here” or “somebody else would be more qualified” or “I’m too early in my career to be trying to do this”.”
Being self-promotional, to the extent that you’re comfortable with, can really help with these feelings and promote your own self-confidence. However, the most important part is being able to connect with people, communicate what you are doing and they will relate with you!
“Put yourself out there! Even if it is super scary” is part of her advice to young scientists.
Photo: Morgan Carter
Her future as a mentor that makes a true impact
Morgan’s vision for the future entails mentoring. She talks about how her research impact is very important but also she really sees herself mentoring others.
“I truly think that the impact of one researcher is not necessarily that much but if you can inspire a lot more researchers and perhaps people that took your classes, that network is such a bigger impact”.
She would love to have her own lab studying bacterial-fungal interactions in plant health where she can mentor graduate and undergraduate students while also teaching her own course.
“I have worked really hard to make that dream a possibility. I tried really hard to convince myself that other careers might be a good idea but I still want to be a professor”.
You can find more about Dr. Morgan Carter at
This interview is written by WAGS team member Juliana González-Tobón