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Featured Researcher Bio - Lisa Vaillancourt 2024


Meet Lisa Vaillancourt, a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Kentucky, chair of the Pathogen Biology and Genetics research area committee, and co-chair of the National Fusarium Head Blight Forum Organizing Committee. Vaillancourt has been funded by the USWBSI since 2002 and her current USWBSI-funded research focuses on the role of chemotype in aggressiveness and toxigenicity of Fusarium graminearum to wheat.


Cultivating Plants Early on Leads to a Love of Pathogens

As a child, Vaillancourt moved around a lot. Born into a military family, she’s lived in a lot of different places within the U.S. and Europe. On her father’s side, she has roots in Maine, while her mother is from a small town in southeast England. Descending from a very long line of agricultural workers and gardeners, Vaillancourt has had a love of plants ever since she was small. She spent many hours with her maternal grandfather in his garden learning the Latin names of the cultivated and wild plants growing there and being introduced to amateur plant breeding has he created several new varieties of flowers and vegetables through crossing and selection.


Vaillancourt attended the University of Connecticut for her undergraduate degree majoring in biology. She had initially planned to use her degree in biology to enter medical school but, one class changed her direction. Needing an elective, Vaillancourt chose to take a plant pathology course where she was introduced to the idea of plant health and learned that plants had doctors too. She was inspired and began reading several older books on the subject including “Famine on the Wind: Man’s Battle Against Plant Disease” by G.L. Carefoot and E.R. Sprott.


After completing her undergraduate degree, Vaillancourt received her master of science degree from the University of Illinois studying the biochemistry of resistance in soybeans against Phytophthora root rot. While there, she worked in the plant disease diagnostic clinic primarily performing race testing of soybean cyst nematode samples. For her doctorate degree, she moved to Purdue University and studied the molecular genetics of Colletotrichum graminicola, which causes anthracnose diseases in maize. At the time she began her graduate studies, molecular biology methods were just beginning to be applied to fungal pathogens. Her PhD mentor, Robert Hanau, gave her the opportunity to enter this new field even with her relatively limited background. His kindness, patience, and intelligence guided her through her PhD. Following graduate school, Vaillancourt went on to do postdoctoral studies with Carlene Raper at the University of Vermont where she researched the molecular regulation of mating type in Schizophyllum commune, a small mushroom that resembles undulating waves of tightly packed corals and has more than 20,000 mating specificities. As a woman in science, Raper was a powerful role model for Vaillancourt.


Understanding the Impact of Pathogen Diversity on Adaptation

Vaillancourt attended her first National Fusarium Head Blight Forum in 2002. At the time, she wasn’t working on FHB but was studying Fusarium graminearum as a causal pathogen of maize ear and stalk rot. A few years later she began her first project on FHB working with her colleague at the University of Kentucky, Dave Van Sanford, on a project that she is still engaged in today which is trying to understand the role of fungal genetic diversity and recombination in aggressiveness and toxigenicity.


Being part of the USWBSI allows Vaillancourt to meet and interact with wonderful people representing a wide variety of professional roles, both academic and industry, within and outside the U.S. Over the years, she’s become increasingly more involved thanks to the encouragement of her colleagues and is now active in the operations of the USWBSI through her leadership roles.


As a fungal geneticist, Vaillancourt takes a genetic approach to understanding what factors are important for aggressiveness and toxigenicity. Making controlled fungal crosses in the lab can be tricky as one needs to be able to recognize heterothallic versus homothallic perithecia. Her lab is building on the work of others to develop standardized crossing protocols. In addition, they are evaluating whole genomes and looking for segregation of SNP markers among progeny to provide insight into how recombination occurs during interspecies and intraspecies crossing. Vaillancourt anticipates that these protocols and tools will help expedite the future of genetic studies of recombination and heterokaryosis in field populations. Her ultimate goal is to develop association markers for rapid screening, pathogen population tracking, and risk assessment.


Another project she is currently working on that is exciting to her is evaluating the role of competition in adaptation and disease outcomes of different Fusarium graminearum genotypes in wheat heads. In order to study this, Vaillancourt’s lab is inoculating wheat heads with various combinations of progeny or field strains, and then identifying markers associated with increased colonization and survival under various environmental conditions including the presence or absence of fungicide. Because co-infections are quite common in field conditions, it’s important to develop better tools to study the role of these complex interactions.


Taking Risks and Asking Questions Along the Way

When it comes to being a graduate student or early career professional, Vaillancourt encourages one to be brave and take risks. Understand that if you trying something and it fails it only means your one step closer to an answer. One can become more efficient about the process of trial and error by reading literature and learning from others. With current digital technologies, it’s become too easy to just skim the literature and never actually dig deeply into the work that’s already been done. “The goal of the student, and of the early career professional, is to take what has already been done, put it together in new ways, and build on it in order to take the field in new directions,” says Vaillancourt.


Another piece of advice she has is to never be too shy to ask a question. “A thoughtful and well-framed question will reflect well on the questioner and help to build their professional profile and reputation,” adds Vaillancourt. Take it from her, she’s been in the business for over 30 years and she still asks a lot of questions.


For more information about Dr. Lisa Vaillancourt's research, visit his faculty webpage.


To learn more about others in the FHB community, check out all the previous USWBSI Featured Researchers/Advocates.