Meet Shelly Pate, Plant Pathologist
Updated: May 27
A plant pathologist by heart, Shelly strives to educate about agriculture and to be a role model for future generations.
Shelly Pate recently obtained her plant pathology master’s degree at The University of Tennessee and will officially graduate this summer. She was stationed at an agricultural research facility in West Tennessee (@UTcrops) and worked on soil-borne pathogens that cause cotton seedling diseases and evaluated seed treatment efficacy against those diseases. More specifically, Shelly worked with the National Cottonseed Treatment program to evaluate the presence of Rhizoctonia solani, Thielaviopsis basicola, Fusarium spp., and Pythium spp. across the United States Cotton Belt. As part of her project Shelly did plating of cotton seedlings onto different types of selective media, soil baiting methods, and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) to determine the presence of cotton seedling disease pathogens.
From 4-H to Plant Pathology
Shelly never envisioned ending up within the realm of agriculture because she wasn’t from a farming background. When she was younger, she was heavily involved in 4-H, and participated in the public speaking events each year. Eventually, when Shelly reached high school, a friend encouraged her to participate in a parliamentary procedure practice for FFA.
Shelly said: “I went and was initially sold on joining the team because it involved public speaking. However, after enrolling in an intro to agriculture class, I soon developed a passion for agriculture as a whole.” Her newly ignited passion led her to become the greenhouse manager of her FFA chapter and to pursue a plant and soil science degree. During her bachelor’s degree at the University of Tennessee at Martin Shelly learned about plant pathology, and she has been pursuing that as a career ever since.
Although she was passionate about agriculture, Shelly felt she had more to prove because she didn’t come from a farming background. Shelly expressed that she was afraid of saying the wrong things because she wanted everyone to think she “belonged”. However, she then realized that it does not matter where you come from, or what you study.
“If you are willing to work hard and learn, then there is nothing that separates you from being able to engage with your peers.”
Every path has its puddle
When Shelly first started graduate school, she felt completely intimidated (like most of us). Shelly had never been exposed to research at this level, and in addition to this, she had never lived more than 40 minutes away from home. “Although I could express my fears and worries to my family, they could never truly understand what I was struggling with because they had never experienced it. Eventually, the other new graduate students in my department assured me that they were just as lost as I was, and I began to feel more confident in my abilities.”
As time passed Shelly felt more confident in her research, professional, and academic abilities than she has ever before. Along the way, Shelly learned that it is not healthy to be carrying all of your questions, fears, anxieties, and worries on your own. She expressed that she would have never made it this far in her academic journey without the guidance of some very important people.
“I have learned that even at this point I will sometimes still feel like I don’t know what’s going on, and that I will occasionally doubt myself. However, I have also realized that it is perfectly normal for all graduate students.”
Another dreadful experience that Shelly had during grad school was when her grandmother unexpectedly passed away. All the professors in her department were very understanding and supportive. Her fellow graduate students even made her a sympathy card and one of the students, Tara Rickman, drove across town every day to her apartment to feed her cat! She described that from this negative experience she was able to gain the positive experience of growing closer to everyone in her department and beginning to lean on others instead of internalizing everything. “It also made me realize that “academia” isn’t always strictly business.”
Fighting misinformation in the ag industry
Shelly explained that there is a huge information gap between agriculture and the general public. “People get so caught up in rumors without doing any actual research, or they hear about different sections of agriculture, and do not question the impact those sections have on their everyday lives.” For Shelly this type of transparency is key, and she admires how organizations like “Women in Science”, and “Ag in the Classroom” are bridging the information gap.
Goals for a bright future
Shelly recently finished her master’s program and will stay at the University of Tennessee for a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology with a focus in sustainable diseases and integrated pest management systems. After completing her Ph.D., she would like to become a professor with a split appointment in extension, teaching, and research. Moreover, before her undergraduate career, she never had any role models to look up to in academia. Thus, part of the reason Shelly wants to become a professor is to become a positive role model for students.
“I have always considered myself to be somewhat of a mentor to my younger friends, and I look forward to having the opportunity to continue to act as a mentor to future students.”
Shelly’s biggest role model is her mom
Shelly mentioned that even though her mom is not involved in agriculture she has always been extremely interested in whatever she is working on and considers her mom as her main role model. “She has taught me the values of hard work, perseverance, selflessness, and dedication. All of these lessons have helped me to be able to exceed in multiple ways.”
It’s not just about work
In Shelly’s free time she enjoys playing tennis and reading. She also tries to visit the gym as often as possible. However, her favorite hobby is spending time with her cat Bentley.
What would you like to say to women pursuing their dreams?
“Although we all hope that we will be judged equally, and solely on our merits, that isn’t always the case. However, it is so important to keep on pushing, striving, and excelling in your field. We should not develop feelings of entitlement, but instead, let our words and actions speak for ourselves. Do not seek validation from those that refuse to give it to you. If you are passionate about your work, and determined to reach your goals, then YOU know you are worthy.”
Thank you, Shelly, for sharing your story with us!
- The Women in Agricultural Sciences (WAGS) Team
You can contact Shelly via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @PatePlantPath
This interview was written by WAGS co-founder Marlia Bosques Martínez.