For more than 20 years, scientist Lindsey du Toit has helped safeguard many of the Pacific Northwest’s most valuable crops from damaging diseases. Now, she is the first woman to lead Washington State University’s Department of Plant Pathology as full chair.
Taking over Sept. 5, 2023, du Toit replaces wheat scientist Tim Murray following his second tenure in leadership, which began in 2019. As chair, she will support WSU research, education, and extension work that faces threats to the world’s food supply from fungi, bacteria, nematodes, and viruses.
“We’re one of the few remaining standalone departments of plant pathology in the country,” du Toit said. “As a team, we bring expertise in all aspects of plant pathology — nematology, bacteriology, virology, mycology — in service to Washington foremost, but also to the greater Pacific Northwest, the U.S., and the world. The solutions we bring make a huge impact on food security, health, and economic viability.”
Internationally recognized for her work protecting vegetable seed crops from diseases, du Toit joined the faculty at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in 2000. A professor and Extension Plant Pathologist, du Toit studies the origins, spread, patterns, and management of diseases affecting important vegetable and vegetable seed crops at home and around the globe, including seed crops of spinach, carrot, onion, cabbage, radish, beet, Swiss chard, and sweet corn.
“Dr. du Toit brings a lens of experience that sees every aspect of the Department of Plant Pathology’s mission,” said Wendy Powers, the Cashup Davis Family Endowed Dean of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. “She has led research on both sides of the Cascades, holds the support and respect of her peers, and pays forward the encouragement and opportunities that she’s received. I’m excited to see how she shapes the future of plant pathology at WSU.”
Powerful impacts on people
Growing up in the city of Durban, in South Africa, du Toit came to the field not from a farm, but through an undergraduate course in plant pathology that opened her eyes to how science can help people.
“The instructor took us out to visit farms, forests, and NGOs,” she said. “Seeing these diseases that were devastating individuals and communities, and seeing the intersection of science and community, was really powerful. I switched my major to plant pathology because of that course.”
Dr. du Toit earned her bachelor’s degree in plant pathology at the University of Natal-Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and holds advanced degrees in plant pathology from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. As a master’s student, she seized the chance at a paid university assistantship in the U.S., gaining simultaneous experience in epidemiology and plant diagnostics. That led to her doctorate, and then her first job out of college, in 1998, as a diagnostician at the WSU Puyallup Plant & Insect Diagnostic Lab.
“I was one of those students who didn’t have a lot of confidence in themselves,” du Toit said.
Her teachers and colleagues continually pushed her to grow and take new roles in her field and career. As a professor, and as a fellow, past president, and councilor-at-large of the American Phytopathological Society, she has helped support peers and her field for more than a decade.
“It’s important for me, now that I’m in this role, to encourage others who are earlier in their careers, and provide them with support and guidance,” she said.
While professor Lori Carris served as interim chair for two years prior to Murray’s latest term, du Toit is the first woman to serve as a full, regular chair of the department.
“The landscape is changing, and it’s a good change,” du Toit said. “Women are more accepted as equals in the scientific field than in the past, and I am grateful to the women who stood steadfast to get us to this place. It’s not just a gender equity issue, but other issues of progress as well; I think we’re finally seeing this happen at the levels of chair and beyond.”
To young people who are considering a career in plant pathology, du Toit reminds them that science is a lot of fun.
“If you have intellectual curiosity, if you like to understand why things happen, if you like solving puzzles, plant pathology might be for you,” she said. “You’re putting the pieces of the puzzle together to make a beautiful picture.”
Murray, the outgoing chair, was credited by Powers for his longstanding service and leadership.
“Tim has done an outstanding job in supporting the department’s important work of service, fundamental and applied discovery, and training and inspiration for the next generation of scientists,” she said. “Well done!”