Linda Jewell - Research Scientist in Plant Pathology

Linda Jewell

Research Scientist in Plant Pathology, St. John’s Research and Development Centre, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

I was born/grew up in: Toronto, but I grew up in the west end of Ottawa.

I completed my training/education at: I completed my BSc and MSc at the University of Ottawa. Later I moved to Guelph to do my PhD at the University of Guelph. When I was finished, I moved to Sapporo, Japan, to work as a postdoctoral researcher at one of Japan’s national agricultural research stations. In 2015, I moved to St. John’s, NL, to begin my job as a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Describe what you do at work.

One of the best things about my job is that I have a lot of flexibility in my day-to-day tasks. Sometimes I am outdoors collecting samples of diseased plants. This means that I get invited into farmer’s fields or I can go out for a hike to find wild plants. Sometimes I am in the lab culturing and identifying the microbes that are responsible for causing plant diseases. And sometimes I am in my office preparing to share my findings with growers and other scientists. My job involves a lot of math, because I need to calculate how to prepare solutions in the lab. I also have to do calculations to set up properly sized field experiments. I also use statistics to analyze my results. I also use chemistry to test whether the plant diseases that I have identified might be associated with harmful natural chemicals. Some of these chemicals are called mycotoxins that are produced by some fungi. To actually identify the microbes that cause plant disease, I use the tools of biology. For example, I grow organisms in the lab, examine them under the microscope, isolate their DNA, and compare how closely related they may be to other disease-causing microbes found in other parts of Canada.

Luckily, I don’t work alone. At the research centre, I am part of a team with four other scientists that have expertise in other areas of agricultural science (such as entomology and crop physiology). I supervise a lab technician and undergraduate students to help me get my work accomplished. I also share samples and research goals with scientists from other research stations and universities across Canada. These collaborators lend their expertise to make sure that our research gets done quickly and correctly.

When I was a student I enjoyed:

How does your job affect people’s lives?

We all need access to healthy and safe food. Plant diseases threaten food security by destroying plants before or after harvest. My work to understand and to reduce the impact from plant diseases can directly increase the yield and the quality of the food that farmers work hard to provide.

What motivates you in your career?

I find my career very rewarding because we all need to eat. Here in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as in other boreal areas in Canada, agriculture is very challenging. This is because the growing season is short, temperatures are low, and the soils are acidic. There hasn’t been much research done on the plant diseases that affect agricultural crops here. As a result my job is very open-ended and I do a lot of detective work to solve the problems that growers are already having. I then have to figure out the best way to prevent challenges in the future. The problems that I help to solve directly affect the food that I find in the grocery store every time I go shopping! I have always been a person who enjoys a balance between time spent outdoors and indoors, so this job is perfect for me. I feel pretty lucky that I get to hike through fields and work with passionate farmers, and then go back to the lab and use high-tech science equipment all within a single day! I get really excited when I find myself on the trail of a new or unusual plant disease or pathogen.

When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:

Describe your career path to this career.

I had NO idea what I wanted to do after high school! I didn’t have access to very much information or mentorship when I applied to university because nobody in my family had been to university before my older brother. I enjoyed science, so I applied to a program at the University of Ottawa that combined organic chemistry and molecular biology. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was actually the perfect balance for me!

During my undergraduate degree, I won a scholarship that gave me a job in a biology lab during the summer. That was the first time that I learned about graduate school, and when I learned what research was really all about! My experience in the lab made me realize that I wanted to become a researcher. I completed my MSc in organic chemistry and I loved every moment of it, but I missed biology. After a lot of self-reflection, I decided to switch gears and do a PhD in plant pathology because it combined my life-long love of fungi with plant biology.

What activities do you like to do outside of work?

I try to strike a balance between indoor and outdoor activities. I am very introverted and I spend a lot of time reading, playing video games, drawing, painting, and knitting, but I also love running, snowboarding, skating, hiking, and playing roller derby.

What advice or encouragement would you give others seeking a similar career?

If plant pathology interests you, pay attention to the plants around you! It isn’t hard to find examples of plant diseases, such as spotty black maple leaves or mats of pinkish grass at snow melt. Biology, especially microbiology or plant science, is a good foundation for plant pathology.

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