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Five Questions for Katie Gold

Katie Gold kneeling in potato fieldDr. Kaitlin (Katie) Gold joined Cornell AgriTech as an Assistant Professor of Grape Disease Ecology and Epidemiology in February 2020. Katie holds the primary research and extension responsibilities for grape disease management for NY state. Her research combines fundamental plant pathology, data science, and vegetative spectroscopy to improve integrated grape disease management for New York stakeholders. Katie leads the Grape Sensing, Pathology, and Extension laboratory at Cornell AgriTech (GrapeSPEC), the only academic group worldwide wholly dedicated to the use of proximal and remote sensing for plant disease research.

Katie completed her Masters in Applied Statistics (Biometry) concurrently with her PhD in Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2019, where her dissertation research pioneered the use of hyperspectral sensors for pre-symptomatic disease detection and diagnosis in potato and specialty crops. Prior to joining Cornell AgriTech in February, Katie worked as a visiting Cornell Faculty Fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA using NASA hyperspectral and thermal imagery for grape disease mapping in California’s Central Valley. Katie hails from New Jersey and earned her Bachelors of Science in Plant & Agricultural Science from Rutgers University. She and her husband Ben are thrilled to be back on the east coast and are excited to join the broader Cornell and grape community!

What inspired you to work with grape disease management?

I have loved working with specialty crops ever since my first undergraduate research experience with the hazelnut breeding program at Rutgers University. My doctoral research with another specialty crop, potato, cemented my desire to continue working with this oft-forgotten, especially in terms of ag-tech, yet critical industry. As a fan of grape products, working in grape pathology in beautiful upstate New York is really a dream come true!

What are the major challenges in your field, and how do you see these featuring in your research program?

Plant disease sensing faces a number of challenges, rooted in both the underlying biology and technology. Plant disease is a chaotic process that results from the three-part interaction of host, pathogen, and environment, each with its own spatio-temporal variability. This leads disease to have a heterogenous, or “patchy” distribution, as opposed to the more uniform distribution associated with abiotic stresses like drought and nutrient deficiency both within the canopy, as a result of microclimate variability, but also at the field scale, as a result of macroclimate variability. Combined, this has made it a great challenge to study early stage, heterogeneously distributed disease with the spectral, spatial, and temporal sensing tools and imagery we’ve historically had access to. Thus, there’s been a great deal of research about late stage disease, which is far easier to sense. This information, while critical to the long term growth of the discipline, hasn’t been particularly useful for stakeholders. For successful early intervention, growers need to know when their plants are at imminent risk of, or actively under, attack. They don’t need to be told that their plants are dead two weeks after they saw it with their own eyes. Next generation satellites, such as Planet CubeSats and NASA’s forthcoming Surface, Biology, and Geology hyperspectral satellite, and the increased availability of high quality sensors deployed on low altitude and proximal sensing platforms, should greatly assist on this end. One of the ways the GrapeSPEC lab will advance research in this area is by using fully integrated sensing that spans the canopy to satellite level. Each deployment platform has its own advantages and disadvantages, and by pulling the best from each level and feeding it into a single decision support pipeline, we hope to circumvent the historical challenges associated with early stage plant disease sensing.Katie gold using remote sensor on research plant

Additionally, until recently, most plant disease sensing studies have been driven by engineers, computer scientists, and remote sensing scientists, and not by plant pathologists. These historical works have been crucial to developing the subdiscipline of plant disease sensing, but also explains why we lack a great deal of fundamental information about what underlying phytopathological processes we are actually sensing when we use these tools in this context, as well as the underlying biological origins of our ability sense disease in the first place. I often like to say that sensors don’t work because they’re magic, they work because they sense and quantify the sum total disease imparts onto plant biochemistry, morphology, and physiology. By firmly rooting our fundamental research, experimental design, and overarching goals in plant pathology theory and host-microbe interaction biology, GrapeSPEC will drive forward the basic science of plant disease sensing while concurrently advancing its utility in integrated grape disease management.

What projects are going on in your lab right now?

The overarching goal of my program is to improve the three pillars of integrated grape disease management, which are understanding pathogen biology, vine susceptibility, and fungicide efficacy. GrapeSPEC’s forthcoming research projects fall within these three categories, and include using proximal sensing for early pathogen detection, improving our understanding of the biological origins of cultivar-associated spectral variability, and using both proximal and remote sensing for non-invasive pesticide weathering and activity monitoring. Our extension mission is to provide robust and reliable early management intervention decision support for New York grape growers. Some of our first extension activities surround evaluating commercially available sensors for disease detection in our extensive fungicide efficacy trials and developing integrated sensor management (ie: what makes a quality sensor?) extension materials to help growers sort through the deluge of marketing surrounding new ag tech products and services.

Has anything about the grape and wine industry in New York surprised you?

I’m a big fan of aromatic white wines, so Finger Lakes Riesling has been on my radar for a few years now. But before I accepted this job, I was not familiar with cold climate wines, French hybrid wines, and wines produced in NY regions outside of the Finger Lakes. I’ve greatly enjoyed getting to taste the delightful wines made in Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and Lake Erie area, and most importantly, getting to know the hardworking and dedicated individuals responsible for their production across the state. Overall, I have been pleasantly surprised with how opening and welcoming the New York grape and wine industry has been to a newcomer like myself!

What project would you pursue, if funding was unlimited?

Right now I am extremely fortunate to already be working towards my dream project of augmented reality assisted scouting with integrated detection to management robots in collaboration with my colleague Dr. Yu Jiang, new ag-engineering faculty in the Horticulture section at Cornell AgriTech. To answer the question though, if funding were unlimited I would subsidize the acquisition of digital viticulture and digital pathology tools for all NY grape growers to ensure that everyone, regardless of operation scale, has access to the latest and most effective tools for early management intervention. If unbounded by the constraints of reality as well and in the spirit of NASA’s forthcoming Moon and Mars missions, I would also develop crop and disease management guidelines for space station, lunar, and Martian viticulture. After all, what’s the point of being an interplanetary society if we don’t have wine?