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Jun 16
InterStellar: Barbara Valent Inducted into National Academy of Sciences

Barbara Valent, distinguished professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University, has earned membership in the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy of Sciences is considered the country's leading authority on matters related to science and technology. As a member, Valent joins a group of scholars that is often sought out to provide independent, objective advice to national leaders on problems where scientific insights are critical. 

What area(s) of molecular plant–microbe interactions do you feel your research has impacted most?

New understandings of hemibiotrophy: I’m most proud of our work to elucidate the repeated live-cell invasion strategy executed by the blast fungus to cause disease. Except for pioneering Japanese scientists who established rice blast fungal genetics, there were few people working with rice blast when I began. I’m also proud of how many laboratories worldwide are studying the system and how much the rice blast research community has learned about fungal pathogenesis and host specificity over the past 40 years. I can’t claim to have triggered all that, but I’m proud to have played a part.

What advice do you have for young scientists aspiring to achieve the level of science that has major impact?

It’s important to choose a research problem that matters to the world and also excites your passion. It’s critical to stay in touch with the field biology of your organism (pathosystem) in order for your research to be relevant in the real world. Fungi are microbes that have the ability to rapidly adapt to life in laboratories, and it is critical to maintain and study the fungus in its original form out there in nature.

When you were a post-doc, what had the largest influence on your decision to enter your specific research area in your permanent position? Was this a “hot topic” at the time, or did you choose to go in a different direction? 

As a graduate student studying biochemical Oomycete-plant interactions, I was inspired by a small book entitled “Genetics of host-parasite interactions” written by Peter Day. I applied to post-doc in Gerry Fink’s lab, which had just transformed yeast, adding new power to fungal molecular genetics. In Gerry’s lab, I chose to devote my career to the rice blast fungus based on many features that suggested it could become a good model system: the sexual stage for the fungus had just been described and it was an Ascomycete like yeast and Neurospora; the fungus could be cultured away from its host; field pathologists reported extreme genetic instability in race structure; and the disease has real-world importance on rice, wheat and other cereal crops. 

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