Above: Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta

Sharifa Crandall calls herself a plant doctor, a scientist who is developing early tests for plant diseases in order to prevent their spread.

But she might also call herself a plant ambassador for her work introducing kids to the magic of the natural world.

“What drives me is understanding why nature works the way it does. In particular, I want to know what constitutes a healthy or sick plant and how we can address this problem,” says Crandall. “I’m interested in how we can maintain healthy plants and ecosystems, but I’m also very interested in teaching and outreach.”

Born in Oakland, Crandall is the daughter of Tanzanian-Indian immigrants. Her early love of science took her to UC Berkeley and then to Yale, where she earned a master’s in forest science. She worked in science education at Harvard before returning to California to earn her Ph.D.

Her first postdoctoral job was working at a plant pathology lab at Cal State University Monterey Bay, where she also coordinated a program called Nature Detectives with the nonprofit Return of the Natives. The program brought young public-school students into the UC Fort Ord Natural Reserve for their first taste of field science.

Some 450 children went through the day-long program each year, with UC Santa Cruz and CSU Monterey Bay undergrads trained by Crandall serving as environmental leaders.
Today, the 40-year-old is working in a lab at UC Davis in coordination with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a rapid-diagnosis test for the destructive fungi Fusarium oxysporum, which can destroy strawberry and lettuce crops. A test would allow quick removal of infected plants or use of a more targeted pesticide to encourage sustainable agricultural practices.

“Worldwide, it’s a food-security issue where you have fungal pathogens coming through and wiping out entire crops,” like what happened during the Irish potato famine, Crandall says. “It’s especially important to solve these issues with changing climate and weather patterns, which influence the ecology of the plant host and fungal pathogen.”

In 2020, Crandall will join the faculty at Pennsylvania State University as assistant professor in plant pathology.

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