From Plant Press, Vol. 17, No. 4, October 2014.
Every summer the National Museum of Natural History is invaded by a golden horde of interns and visiting students. The Department of Botany is no exception, with over 25 students passing through its doors this past season. Vicki Funk and Aleksandar Radosavljevic shared in supervising one of these exceptional interns, Philip Waissen, a master’s student from the University of Hawaii-Manoa. Before he returned to the university, Radosavljevicsat down with Waissen and asked him a few questions about his research and home country of Papua New Guinea.
AR: So, Philip, what brought you to the Department of Botany?
PW: Well, my master’s degree is being funded through an East-West Center Graduate Degree Fellowship and one of the requirements is that we complete two internships—one in our home country and one at an institution of our choosing. For my first internship I went back to Papua New Guinea and my alma mater, the University of Technology-Papua New Guinea, to study the effects of soil sterilization (through burning) on nematode load in the roots of banana and plantain crops. And, as you know, my second internship was here in the Department of Botany.
AR: Nematodes…I take you are not a botanist in the traditional sense?
PW: No, not really. I guess you would call me a nematologist. Or maybe a plant pathologist…My master’s work is focused on the use of the insecticide Movento to control the reniform nematode Rotylenchulus reniformis, which is causing major damage to Pineapple crops in PNG. The farmers are already using Movento to control aphid infestations, so we are trying to determine what effect, if any, it has on other sucking parasites and if there are ways to improve application techniques to target several parasites at once. Farmers in PNG don’t have much money to invest in costly pesticides, so if we can kill two birds, er bugs, with the same stone it would be a real benefit to small scale farmers.
AR: What have you discovered so far?
PW: Ask me in about two months! I still have some data to analyze, but it looks like it does reduce the number of nematodes found growing in the roots. We just aren’t sure yet that reduction has any effect of the overall health of the individual plant.
AR: Why nematodes?
PW: I grew up in a town in the highlands of PNG called Kainantu. Most of the families grow coffee as a cash crop, but rely on their plantings of things like sweet potato, taro, and plantain to produce most of the food they eat. In 2003 there was a major outbreak of blight that wiped out most of the potato crop. My parents grow quite a bit more coffee than a lot of their neighbors so we were mostly insulated from the shock—but seeing how quickly and severely some of our neighbors were affected inspired me to study plant pathology when I left for the university the following year. I am not exactly sure how I ended up deciding to work nematodes for my senior capstone project, but I did…and I was hooked.
AR: So, I have to ask…how was your experience here in Botany?
PW: Great! At first I was a bit nervous, because I didn’t really know much about botany outside of what we covered in an introductory course during my undergraduate studies. But in the end, this lack of knowledge ended up being a great reason to come here. I was exposed to things I never would have learned as part of my normal training. I got the chance to learn plant morphology and a bit of taxonomy, made plant collections with Carol Kelloff, learned some techniques like DNA extraction and PCR, and learned how a herbarium functions on a day to day basis and how the collections here can improve my own research.
AR: And, last question…what’s next?
PW: A break! Just kidding…once I complete my degree I will have to return to PNG for a few years as a condition of my J1 visa. After that, however, I would like to continue my education and perhaps pursue a PhD studying the molecular interactions between plants and their parasites.