Award-winning plant pathologist vital to Michigan vegetable industry

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Driving to work on a late August morning, Mary Hausbeck was concerned. The traffic wasn’t particularly bothersome, and she didn’t have car trouble. It was the weather that gave her pause, but not for the same reason the average driver might give. It was hot and extremely humid.

“Today’s weather is perfect for downy mildew,” she thought.

Hausbeck is a University Distinguished Professor—an honor she earned in 2015—in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University (MSU). She has spent her 26-year career in plant pathology, troubleshooting crop disease issues for Michigan’s vegetable and greenhouse ornamental industries. Downy mildew is the most persistent and problematic dilemma.

After more than a century as a very rare and easy-to-manage pathogen, the fungal-like disease made its way back to Michigan stronger than ever in 2005. Since then downy mildew has devastated a wide array of vegetable crops, especially cucumbers.

“Michigan is No. 1 in the nation for pickling cucumbers,” Hausbeck said. “But it’s become harder to grow them each year. That’s why our lab has spent a lot of time combatting this disease. We are the lead on a national grant where we are working with six other universities to develop management techniques.”

The four-year, $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was awarded to Hausbeck and MSU in 2016. Michigan growers are looking to Hausbeck, as they have for more than two decades, to come up with the answers.

“My responsibilities are especially broad, with 60 percent of my role in MSU Extension and 40 percent in research,” Hausbeck said. “Many times I’m the first person to sort out whether a problem is from a plant pathogen or some kind of physiological stress. Growers know we are listening and are responsive to them. They expect us to solve the problems, and we do our best not to disappoint. I feel we’ve played an important role in keeping the Michigan vegetable industry healthy.”

Believing her laboratory can act as a front door to growers seeking assistance from MSU, Hausbeck has built important relationships throughout the industry. Her efforts have led to her standing as a highly respected member of the agriculture community.

“Dr. Hausbeck is recognized nationally for the research and extension outreach she has done for a number of plant diseases, including downy mildew,” said Dave Smith, executive director of the Michigan Vegetable Council. “She is a valuable asset to our state’s vegetable growers and an excellent model for how research and extension specialists should operate. She addresses relevant disease problems and is successful in obtaining grants to fund her research.

Joining and Elite Club

The first University Distinguished Professors were named in 1990. In all, the title has been conferred on 144 MSU faculty, including Hausbeck as the 17th from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

A candidate must meet several criteria, such as attaining the rank of full professor, performing nationally and internationally recognized scholarly work, and leading a superior teaching or outreach program. After nomination from faculty, deans, directors or chairpersons and review by an advisory committee, the MSU Board of Trustees awards University Distinguished Professorships based on recommendation from the president and provost.

“Faculty selected as University Distinguished Professors represent the most outstanding scholarship of MSU,” Provost June Pierce Youatt said. “The superior achievements of Dr. Hausbeck set her apart as both deserving of this honor and worthy of joining this exclusive rank.”

Hausbeck said it was a humbling experience to garner this recognition from an institution that has meant so much to her. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MSU, met her husband on the East Lansing campus, and her three children are Spartans.

Conversely, she has greatly advanced the university’s land-grant mission. Hausbeck’s laboratory brings in an average of $1 million of external research funding each year, with a total of more than $26 million in her career to date. Although her dedication to the Michigan vegetable industry has never wavered and her competitiveness on the national grant scene remains strong, she refuses to take full credit.

“This award validates our team approach,” Hausbeck said. “I’m a big believer in graduate and undergraduate education. While I don’t have a teaching appointment, I employ a lot of undergraduates who are essential to our program. A lot of people at MSU have influenced my career, and it’s truly a privilege to pass that on and serve as a mentor for young people who want to enter the agriculture field.”

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