MEET: Prof Lise Korsten, Plant Pathologist from the Department of Plant and Soil Science and Co-Director of the DSi-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security.

Posted on May 14, 2021

“You cannot love yourself if you do not care about mother nature,” says Prof Korsten, who sees plant pathology as a critical field of study and part of the bigger concept of plant health and one health.  It is about biosecurity, biodiversity, and food security in a sustainable ecosystem.

Q: Why did you choose to study plant pathology

A: Curiosity, wanting to explore the unknown and to be a scientist. I loved plants and wanted to work with some aspects of health and well-being. But at school I was not sure what options were available.   It was the blue-eyed cool student standing next to me at Stellenbosch University first-year welcoming event that convinced me to study plant pathology

I never looked back and will always be grateful to Dr. Johan Ferreira who introduced me to this wonderful field of science. I often thought about how fortunate I was to have been exposed to agriculture at the right time in my life.  I see so many students that do not know what they want to become one day and realise they have not been exposed to all the options particularly in our scarce fields of science. We, therefore, need to target schools and introduce the different fields of study in agriculture so that young people can make the right career choices that will be best for them and contribute to the future development of our continent.

Q: Why is science (including plant pathology) important? 

A: The prevention, eradication, and control of plant diseases are extremely important for food security and the general well-being of all people. Plant health forms a critical component of One Health (referring to the trinity of health, people, and places) and will remain a critical element in the post-COVID world. Further advances in plant pathology will contribute to a more stable food supply and help address global biodiversity concerns associated with agricultural production systems. By reducing pesticide usage, a more harmonious production system and safer food supplies can be supplied within the context of a sustainable food production system.

A more science-based risk assessment and prediction approach can further guide policy and decision-makers to more sustainable production and regulatory systems. Similar models exist in big data, epidemiology, and blockchain management systems, where estimates of food quality and supply can bolster trade and economic growth. Stabilising food trade and creating intervention frameworks can contribute to a more food sovereign approach (i.e. democratisation of the food system, where the people who produce, distribute and consume goods also control the mechanisms for food production and distribution).

Q: Why do we need to observe International Mother Earth Day each year?

A: Caring about mother earth should be a core focus for all. You cannot love yourself if you do not love mother nature.  We are intrinsically linked. You have to make a difference and help restore the ecological balance that man has destroyed. Our challenge is to make a difference in this world and to start today! Be the agent of change and help heal mother earth.

Q: What are the highlights of your career so far, including your time at UP?

A: Working with the rich UP diversity of our students and having to deal with new technologies that far exceeded my wildest dreams of science fantasy. Science is exhilarating and it is about staying at the forefront of change, surfing the big waves of innovation and technology.  Being part of strategic think tanks is rewarding and, in a way, I can imagine, must be like a conductor and his orchestra, in perfect harmony.  Knowing you made a difference, even in the smallest way possible, gives meaning to your life. Being part of the global science family further enable us to make friends all over the world and visit places you would never have seen.  

Q: Describe a day in the life of Prof Korsten. What does the work of a plant pathologist entail?
A: Waking up to the smell of coffee, finishing your first hundred emails in bed, and then rushing off to start the day. Connecting with your students and research team and managing your day full of virtual meetings, webinars and spend some time with your family which all becomes a critical balancing act. Keeping your finger on the pulse of international trends, developments and staying abreast of science thinking and innovation.  But as with all things in life, if you do not publish you will perish so staying relevant is important.  Managing your research team and sustaining your outputs remain challenging and requires focus and dedication.  We need to publish our research in highly rated journals and flawlessly present our work at national and international levels.  In short, you need to engage with society and policymakers and never forget our communities.  We have to share our knowledge and research and embrace change if we really want to make an impact.

Q: What qualities does a good scientist need?

A: Passion, energy, zest, initiative, drive, a determination to succeed and to remain positive and always to see the silver lining around the dark clouds.  Turning challenges into opportunities and to give your best all the time. Never shy away from hard work and lead by example, do not be scared of taking initiatives and be bold and daring yet remain focussed on your goals.  

Q: What advice would you give to young scientists? 

A: Work extremely hard and remain passionate about your work.  Never doubt yourself but make room for improvement.  Identify the best in the world and align yourself with them but walk your own path. Take note of your environment, the people around you and learn from their and your mistakes.  Be humble and never speak down to people, no matter who they are.  Never fail to deliver and do not make promises lightly, something I should have learned earlier on in my own life.  Finally, be passionate about writing and acquire as many skills as possible.  Never fail to learn and learn to fail.  As they say, practice makes perfect, and try and try again.

Q: What motto do you live by?

A: To be kind to people, animals and nature, to truly care and try and make a difference. To be grateful for the opportunities you have had and to give back to society.  We all need to make this a better world for all.  Finally, I believe in empowering the next generation and to mentor them so that they can become the leaders of tomorrow.  Hand over with grace and allow them to succeed in life and achieve greater heights than what we could ever have imagined.

For more information on plant pathology click:

- Author Martie Meyer

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