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A life and career in Nature..Plant pathologist

Here at Outdoor Mums we are passionate about helping our little ones to learn to treasure the gifts that the natural world has to offer and be inspired by them.

In this series we are exploring and celebrating some of the incredible people who work in nature or outdoor-focused roles. From Arborists to Wakepark Instructors we hope to inspire your families and children to think outside the box of 9-5 for future careers and go outdoors!

Plant Pathologist - Dr J Drakulic

Dr Jassy Drakulic is a Plant Pathologist based at RHS Wisley. Jassy’s research focuses on Honey fungus, which is actually the largest living organism in the world! She took the time to share with us the things she loves about her career and the nature from her childhood that inspired her.

What do you do?

I carry out research about fungi which attack living plants, called plant pathogens. My job title is Plant Pathologist. I work for the Royal Horticultural Society, which is a gardening charity, and I spend some time helping diagnose garden diseases of the RHS members' gardens and doing public outreach/education. I focus my research on the number one disease diagnosed by the RHS, honey fungus.

What is honey fungus?

Honey fungus is actually the largest living thing on planet earth! It's a fungus that infects plants through their roots, rotting the roots and blocking water from traveling into and upwards through the plant. One colony in the USA has spread out to cover nearly 4 square miles! It gets its name from the honey coloured mushrooms it forms in the autumn.

It can infect a large range of plants, particularly trees and shrubs. Infected plants are eventually killed as the roots fail to deliver enough water and this causes plants to wilt or dieback aboveground. Once the plant dies the fungus can use the dead plant roots as food for decades afterwards. The fungus spreads underground by making black fungal bootlaces called rhizomorphs which search for new plants to infect, or by contact between infected and healthy plant roots e.g. in a hedgerow. It is edible when cooked and is popular in Poland. Lastly, it is bioluminescent, which means that it glows in the dark!.

What led you to a career in nature and have you always been interested in the natural world?

When I was a child my and my sister spent a lot of time outdoors at our local nature reserve, woods or in our big lovely garden and that experience made me appreciate nature from a young age. I grew my own patch of marigolds and honesty, and I spent a lot of time climbing the trees. I was drawn to science in school as I liked understanding the deeper meaning of why things worked as they do. I studied Natural Sciences at university, focusing on biology and chemistry to start with, but eventually specialising in Plant & Microbial Sciences. I was fascinated by the hidden complexity of plants and fungi, which cannot move much for themselves, but can adapt to and explore their environment with some incredible biological processes. I did a PhD a couple of years later, which was about fungi and insects that attack wheat, and then moved into gardening science when I got this job at the RHS.

What is your favourite thing about your role and environment?

I work with a great team who are very knowledgeable and happy to share their knowledge. However nothing is better than working in a beautiful botanical garden at RHS Wisley. I spend a lot of my time on holiday visiting botanical gardens so working in one every day is a dream come true.

What are the challenges you face in a nature based career?

Doing experiments on plants can be hard, depending which plants you use. Small well-studied 'model' plants are easier to work with but provide less insight into the garden plants I want to know about. Creating experiments means controlling as much as you can so you can see the pattern you are looking for if it is there, and nature often overrules your attempt to control it! You have to be good at keeping work consistent and do long repetitive tasks at times. Finding ways of seeing patterns that develop over long timeframes is also hard, as most research is only funded to be done over a few years.

What are your outdoor essentials?

Head to toe waterproofs and sturdy boots, camera phone, mushroom knife and brush, sample bags or boxes and hand gel so I can collect interesting mushrooms or infected leaves that I want to identify later.

Do you have a favourite place in nature?

I don't have one favourite place, but I love being underneath the canopy of trees so I love being in the woods. I've been lucky enough to see many incredible natural places in the world, including the giant redwood trees in California which are thousands of years old and are spectacularly large!

Do you have any advice for young people who may be considering a career in plant pathology?

To work in plant pathology you might not need a PhD but you will need an undergraduate so aim to study somewhere which has a good course that covers plant biology. During your degree you can get lab experience in the summer with funded summer placements, including projects based at the RHS! The British Society of Plant Pathology is our learned society and they host events and webinars and help advertise for opportunities.

How can families get involved and help with current projects?

Yes! This year we are launching the Check-a-Sweet Chestnut project, calling on people to become 'citizen scientists' and look for and record sweet chestnut trees (note that these are different to horse chestnut trees which make conkers). The project will help map these trees and find a gall wasp which is invasive (it arrived recently in the UK from abroad so UK trees cannot defend themselves against it). The website is going live in March: and we would love to have lots of outdoor mums involved!

Thank you Dr Jassy Drakulic for taking the time to talk to Outdoor Mums! If this has peaked your interest in Plant Pathology you can find out more about Jassy’s research here

You can also find information on current projects here

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