IS-MPMI > COMMUNITY > Interactions > Posts > InterView with Dr. Kimberly Webb
Jun 14
InterView with Dr. Kimberly Webb
Ani Chouldjian
Front row (left to right): Ilea Chau, Jamie Calma, Yuritzy Rodriguez, Yuan Chen, Karl Schreiber. Back row (left to right): Jana Hassan, Hunter Thornton, Jennifer Lewis, Maël Baudin, Jacob Carroll-Johnson, Jack Kim.
Dr. Kimberly W​​ebb
Ani Chouldjian and Jennifer D. Lewis

Ani Chouldjian is currently a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in microbial biology. She is interested in plant-microbe interactions, infectious diseases, and genetics. After graduation, she wishes to take a year or two off from school to pursue research opportunities and later enter a microbiology and immunology Ph.D. program.

Jennifer Lewis is a principal investigator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an adjunct associate professor at UC Berkeley. Her lab studies the plant immune system and its response to the bacterial pathogen Pseudomonas syringae. The Lewis lab is committed to diversifying plant sciences. To encourage this, we are carrying out interviews with prominent scientists in the field to discuss their research and their perspectives on diversifying science.

Dr. Kimberly Webb

Dr. Kimberly Webb is a plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) in Fort Collins, CO. Her research primarily focuses on diseases in Beta vulgaris (sugar beets) caused by Fusarium species, Beet necrotic yellow vein virus (BNYVV), and Rhizoctonia species. It is important to study these diseases because sugar beet is an important commercial crop that accounts for 5060% of sucrose production within the United States. Fusarium species, BNYVV, and Rhizoctonia species cause foliar symptoms in B. vulgaris. Fusarium invades the vascular system of the plant and produces toxins, causing yellowing of the leaves and necrosis. BNYVV causes rhizomania, whose symptoms include taproot constriction and proliferation of small feeder roots with reduced sugar content. BNYVV also causes wilting and yellowing of leaves. Rhizoctonia causes stunted leaf growth and wilting of foliage. By preventing these plant diseases, growers can decrease crop losses and increase sugar beet yields.

Dr. Webb studies many isolates within many species of Fusarium and tries to identify isolates that cause disease in the field. A major tool she uses to do this is phylogenetics. In one of her studies, Dr. Webb and her team identified multiple species of Fusarium that are able to cause disease in sugar beets; they found a greater number of virulent strains than people previously thought existed. Dr. Webb says, "Phylogenetics is a really good tool to see if there are genetic mechanisms that are associated with these pathogen phenotypes." She also studies the effects of temperature and soil moisture on Fusarium virulence. She has found that temperatures of 24°C or higher lead to more Fusarium yellows; however, symptoms do not worsen as temperatures increase past 24°C. Higher soil moisture also correlates with an increase in Fusarium yellows. However when looking at the effect of temperature and soil moisture on Fusarium virulence, the results ultimately depend on the Fusarium strain under study.

Dr. Webb also studies sugar beet resistance and susceptibility to BNYVV and Rhizoctonia species. In both cases, she uses proteomics and metabolomics to look at the proteins and metabolites present in healthy and infected B. vulgaris. She also looks at the difference in protein and metabolite content in infected susceptible or resistant strains of sugar beets. Looking at these differences allows her to identify certain pathways that are related to BNYVV and Rhizoctonia infection and resistance within sugar beets. These studies help identify specific genes in B. vulgaris that confer resistance to these pathogens.

Dr. Webb is proud of the fact that through her research she is able to help farmers solve problems they are experiencing in the field. She says, "Within my research, being able to help people solve problems has been the most exciting part of it, even in my private industry days I really enjoyed being able to solve a problem for my customers and farmers at the time." Dr. Webb believes that her research is important for the future because she is "building little pieces of knowledge that other researchers can use to not only help sugar beet growers but also agricultural producers everywhere."

Although she really enjoys solving problems in her field of research, Dr. Webb never planned on becoming a plant pathologist. When she first started her undergraduate degree at Colorado State University, her intended major was business. However, during her senior year she decided to change her major to agronomy after taking a plant biology course in which her professor really challenged her. She said,

When I was an undergraduate I actually started as a business major, science was not even in my mindset. I was in business courses, and I needed to have three more credits to fill out my year. The only class I could get into was a plant biology class, so I ended up taking it. I think that just having really good professors really got me interested in plant biology, and so I switched my undergraduate major when I was a senior and ended up completing a whole agronomy degree within a year and a half in addition to an agricultural business minor.​

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Dr. Webb took a job as a crop consultant in western Kansas, where she was responsible for advising dry bean growers on general agronomic practices. She was responsible for looking at pinto bean fields and helping farmers decide how to better manage their irrigation, soils, and plant diseases. It was this job that led her to the decision to attend graduate school and learn more about plant pathogens. She said,

My farmers' plants had a ton of diseases. Every week I seemed to tell them to spray more chemicals, and it didn't seem to do any good. They asked me why I was telling them to spray chemicals when it wasn't doing anything, and I said 'I don't really know.' That made me decide that I wanted to go to graduate school to learn more about plant pathology, and I'm glad I did.

Dr. Webb believes that her greatest accomplishment so far is the fact that she is the first person in her family to go to college and be able to work her way through college on her own. She says, "I was the first person in my family to go to college and to go all the way and get a Ph.D., when we really had no knowledge of what a college education was; this is the thing I am most proud of in my career." She participated in a Ph.D. program at Kansas State University and conducted her studies under the supervision of Dr. Jan Leach. Dr. Webb studied Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae, which is a bacterium that causes rice blight. Because rice is not grown in Kansas, Dr. Webb spent most of her time in the Philippines at her rice plots and "looked at different combinations of how to use rice resistance genes and collect bacteria that was in the field." She would then bring the bacteria she collected back to the United States and study them. She said, "[We would] characterize the bacterial population using phylogenetics to see if we were maintaining resistance or if we were encouraging the bacterial population to mutate to be more virulent."

On the very day she received her Ph.D. degree in plant pathology in 2005, Dr. Webb had her son. She then decided to work in industry. She said, "It's been a unique path for me; most people take a traditional postdoc path after a Ph.D. [program] and then move into research or academia. I actually went into industry instead of a traditional postdoc." While working in industry, Dr. Webb had the title of seed health manager at STA Laboratories and managed seed health testing at two facilities—one in Colorado and one in California. She made sure that testing followed industry standards for quality. She said, "What our company did was, test all commercial agricultural seed for the presence of seedborne pathogens. It was basically a diagnostic laboratory. I worked with over 40 different crops and disease interactions to identify and determine if they were actually colonizing the seed prior to being sold to the market." After three years of working in industry, Dr. Webb joined the USDA ARS and continues to conduct research there today.

When asked if anyone ever discouraged her from pursuing a career in science because she is a woman, Dr. Webb said, "I wouldn't necessarily say because I'm a woman"; however, she believes that biases toward women definitely exist within academia and the workplace. Dr. Webb was strongly discouraged from having kids, and she believes that women having to choose between having a career or a family is a big issue in today's society. She said,

I had an amazing female mentor; however, she was probably the biggest one who discouraged me from having kids. I was actually discouraged against either starting a family or staying in science. There is still this perception that the most successful female scientists tend to not have kids. I think that is one of the hardest things for women in science to deal with, because women also tend to be the primary child carer and to take care of the home. I don't need to be the most prestigious scientist. I want to do my job to the best of my abilities, but I may not ever win a Nobel Prize. I really wanted to put my family as a priority. I think that there is still this stigma that if you don't want to be the best, then you're somehow not successful, and I think it's a particular issue in academia. Or, you have to delay everything until after you get tenure; you have to do "x," "y," and "z" first, then you can have kids. It's almost a competition type mentality.

Dr. Webb also believes that biases against women exist within the workplace. She said, "There's this stereotype that women tend to be more empathetic, gentle, or more understanding, and if you're not falling into that group then you're being judged on how you communicate with your coworkers. I have been criticized for not being emotional enough; I don't think that would ever be told to a man." She believes that a solution to this problem can be to incorporate training or classes on leadership into graduate programs, where students learn how to deal with certain communication problems or personality differences. She said, "I think this is where business does a much better job than science, because they teach students how to interact with different people and different personalities. When I was in private industry, I had to take a couple supervisor and manager training courses. They were week long sessions, and they were great. I think we should provide more opportunities like that to our undergraduate and graduate students in science and plant pathology." Dr. Webb also said that in her 16 years of working in plant pathology she hasn't seen a decrease in these biases toward women, which is why these training courses and classes would be important to not only decrease biases toward women but also toward minorities.

When asked if she thinks the inclusion of women in plant pathology will increase in the future, Dr. Webb stated that she believes it will; however, women should also be educated so that they know that careers in plant pathology exist. She stated that, "It's still a primarily male-dominated field. Within the USDA, at my location up until two years ago we only had two female scientists. I think we are doing a better job at the high school and undergraduate levels of bringing females into the sciences. It would be nice, especially in rural and agricultural communities, to let women know that there is more to agricultural careers than just traditional farming. Most women go into the family farm and business but don't know that there is more technical science and research that they could do in agriculture outside of just farming."

Aside from educating students on how to deal with certain biases and women about their career options, Dr. Webb also believes that the public should be educated on how food is grown. She says, "I wish that we would teach people more about agriculture than just trying to pick sides over which agricultural system is better than the other." Dr. Webb believes that many people fear new scientific technologies, like those used in agriculture, and, therefore, believes that the public should be educated about topics like genetically modified crops.

In her free time, Dr. Webb loves to spend time with her son, who sometimes accompanies her to the lab. She also loves being outdoors and hiking. One piece of advice that Dr. Webb has for the younger generation is to "make sure you have a life outside of work. For your mental health, you have to have activities and other things that you like to do."

​Must be ​logged in to post comments.


There are no comments for this post.

 ‭(Hidden)‬ Blog Tools