‘I want to know that what I did mattered to someone, somewhere, somehow’

Posted on August 31, 2020

This year is officially recognised as the International Year of Plant Health. UP plant pathologist Prof Lise Korsten tells us about her work in plant quality and food safety, and the lasting impact that she would like to make on the discipline.

Professor Lise Korsten of UP’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences explains why she is proudly a plant pathologist, about her hope to make a lasting impact through her work and her students, and offers her thoughts on the plight of women.

Tell us about yourself and your educational qualifications.

I am a plant pathologist who specialised in fresh produce quality and safety. I graduated from Stellenbosch University with a BSc Botany/Plant Pathology and a BSc (Honours) in Plant Pathology. I then moved to UP, where I completed two more degrees: an MSc degree in Microbiology and a PhD Agric. Plant Pathology.

I have since focused on industry-funded research to reduce farm losses and food waste through innovative problem-solving technologies to ensure product integrity and safety from the farm gate to the plate. This year is officially recognised as the United Nations’ International Year of Plant Health. It is important that the public understands the importance of plants in the environment, as a source of food and that there is an important link between plant health, environmental health, animal health and human health. Unfortunately, this year has been overshadowed by COVID-19, which makes it difficult for plant health practitioners to effectively impart the message of the importance of plant health.   

What does your role at UP entail?

My academic home is the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, and I am Co-director of the Department of Science and Innovation-National Research Foundation’s Centre of Excellence in Food Security. I am also a house mother for House Khutso; it’s my evening job, and one I really enjoy.

Over the years I have taught various undergraduate courses on microbial ecology, phytobacteriology, plant pathology and disease control. I have also taught postgraduate courses in post-harvest technology, food safety, supply chain management, phytosanitary and risk assessment, and biological control. In addition, I established a diagnostic platform with a series of biosecurity laboratories that focus on rapid food-borne and plant pathogen identification, disease diagnostics, and quality and safety assurance systems such as the MushDrops system, where we do industry-specific microbial health checks on farms, packhouses or mushroom-growing rooms.

Finally, and most importantly, I have walked a long and sometimes difficult – but always enriching – path with postgraduate students, and have seen 51 master’s and 20 PhD students successfully graduate from UP. I have shared a similar journey with 10 postdoctoral students over the years who have significantly contributed to my career development. I am extremely proud of the 14 black PhD and 26 master’s students who have contributed to my awakening. 

What made you decide to follow this career path?

Curiosity, the challenge, the unknown, a desire to explore and discover new things, the freedom to do what you want, and to have total control over your destiny. Most importantly, to create something that nobody else has thought of and to work in agriculture, food and trade. Over the years I have met so many amazing people, it’s almost like a “club” of nice people that you get to know and can become lifelong friends with.

What sparked your interest in food safety?

I got sick from food once and have never forgotten that terrible experience. It made me think that food should be safe and not poison us. I wondered who was to blame and how we could prevent that from happening again. I also realised at the time, when it was not even thought of, that food-borne pathogens can infect plants and survive, and even multiply in them, similar to the mechanisms used by plant pathogens.

Who is your role model?

My hero is Marie Curie. I think her life was so remarkable. Against all odds, she was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize and the first person to receive it twice. She also enabled her daughter’s Nobel Prize win. It is one of my favourite stories and one I often share. 

What are your aspirations at UP and for your life in general?

At UP, I want to be valued, even beyond retirement. I’ve seen so many people retire, then be amazed by how quickly they were “deleted” from the system, as if they meant nothing, no longer had value and were considered dispensable. My aspirations are to leave behind a passion for plants and an appreciation for agriculture; food security is such a complex science and so critical for the future. My aspirations in life are to go beyond making a difference – I want to make a lasting impact on the discipline, the University, agriculture, the country and to the many students I have trained. I want to know that what I did mattered to someone, somewhere, somehow. 

What are some of the challenges of your job, and what keeps you motivated?

The odd student or two that you just don’t get along with, where the chemistry is just not there and you’re never able to connect, make an impact or enrich their life. Staying ahead of the curve is also a challenge, and not being able to be an expert in everything. What keeps me motivated is exploring the unknown; seeing things that are unfolding before anyone else has grasped that shifts are about to happen; and seeing connections that few can (though being frustrated that I won’t be the one to implement them).  

How difficult is it to manage a career and family life?

I have no words to begin to describe how tough it was to balance a career and a family. I was always rushing around: dropping off or picking up kids, and trying to be a good mom, wife, scientist, employee, friend, family member, etc. It was exhausting to say the least, but it is over and I can enjoy my family, children, grandchild and a job that I love. I take my hat off to UP staff members who have young children and who are coping during lockdown with schools being closed.

What do you consider as a career highlight?

The day I introduced five PhD students during one of our graduation ceremonies. In the context of our current urgent challenge to train scientists in Africa, it’s worth mentioning that five of them were black students. That same year, I had a total of six master’s and six PhD graduates. My cup was full and I had accomplished what I was employed to do: to train the next generation of top scientists who can make a difference. Today I am so proud of all the students that I have trained and their achievements, as well as the leaders they have become in their own right. I would not have achieved that pace or output if it were not for an amazing team of postdoctoral fellows and contracted staff.  

What are some of the barriers to women assuming leadership roles in the workplace?

That’s a journey I have been on and one that I can only describe as difficult and requiring tenacity. I always thought: never compromise, never give up and never stop believing you can break the fragile glass ceiling. Today, it is very different. Even though women will remain ultimately responsible for nurturing children, there is a more open, co-sharing approach towards raising a family. I think men have accepted this change and are more involved in raising children and helping out at home. I think it is important to not only open the door for female scientists and all young people but to keep the door open and invite them in.

At UP, women are assuming more leadership positions. An example is our previous Vice-Chancellor and Rector, Professor Cheryl de la Rey. She made a huge difference: she made an immediate impact, and had stature, presence, direction, determination and took control. I believe she and many other strong female leaders such as Prof Stephanie Burton made a huge difference for other women at UP. Also, let’s not forget that Prof De La Rey sailed this ship through very stormy seas (#FeesMustFall) without sinking it, and handed over a functional system that allowed us to harvest the fruit of our labour – being rated the best university in Africa.

What steps do you think we can take towards putting an end to gender-based violence? 

Education, education, education. Making everyone aware that it is not okay, it was never okay and will never be okay to abuse a woman. No human being should ever be exposed to violence, abuse or humiliation. It is about treating all people with dignity and respect all the time; it is about how you speak to people that cross your path every day – from the security guard, cleaners and students to elderly people, children and the most vulnerable in society. We must all engage in this awareness and make it the norm that gender-based violence has no place in a modern society and should not be tolerated, as with any other form of discrimination.  

What advice would you give to women today?

The world is literally your oyster; just go out and do it. Be passionate, driven, work hard and be the best. Also, enjoy the journey, because you are walking on this road only once. So, don’t live in the past – look towards the future and make a difference.

- Author Primarashni Gower

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