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Nebraska Program Takes Unique Approach to Plant Health
Nebraska Ag Connection - 08/11/2017

As more focus is placed on the agricultural industry to produce more food with less resources, plant health is taking center stage. While basic research in soil health, plant breeding and pest management is more critical than ever, there is a growing demand worldwide for leaders who can comprehensively address plant health issues. A unique professional program at the University of Nebraska--Lincoln is training leaders with multidisciplinary expertise to optimize plant health.

The Doctor of Plant Health Program was started in 2010 and has produced 12 graduates receiving doctoral level professional degrees. There are currently 15 students enrolled in the program covering curriculum in all areas that affect plant growth and production including entomology, plant pathology, plant sciences, soil science and weed science. According to DPH Director Gary Hein, Nebraska's program is one of only two in the world.

"With the increasing complexity of today's agriculture, the industry as a whole needs to find ways to be more efficient and focus on production systems from the field level," Hein said. "This is not a replacement for the very important research conducted in specialized areas. The program is intended to supplement that expertise and integrate it across disciplines."

Graduates with a Doctor of Plant Health degree are called plant practitioners or plant doctors and focus on how science is carried to the field. They try to take the disciplinary research being conducted by specialized scientists, and figure out a way to apply those findings to maximize economic, environmental and social sustainability.

It's a rigorous program, taking four years after a bachelor's degree and approximately three years for those coming in with a master's degree. With so many different facets of the plant industry for students to learn, the program is designed to be flexible based off the needs and interests of each student. Students are faced with a heavy course load, but they have freedom to select elective courses that most align with professional aspirations. In the later half of the program, the students also must complete internships.

"The flexibility we give our students when it comes to course requirements and internships is really done so they can progress their knowledge in a career direction that will be best suited to them," said Hein.

It's a model that is working. Of the 12 graduates, all of them received job offers upon graduation and half of them are working for the company that they completed an internship with.

Haley Oser earned her Doctor of Plant Health degree in 2015 after completing internships in the university's plant pathology department and MillerCoors Brewing Company. After graduating, Oser was hired by MillerCoors as a Brewing Materials Agronomist, in the barley program, for its northern Colorado growing region. In 2016 she was promoted and now serves as the U.S. Regional Brewing Materials Supply Manager for hops. Oser works in a collaborative effort with hop growers and suppliers around the world.

"The Doctor of Plant Health program is very challenging and it stretches you in ways that you will never anticipate but in the end it's the most rewarding thing that I have ever done, and I now have countless opportunities that wouldn't have been available to me before," Oser said. "The interdisciplinary aspect of the program really enhances the opportunity pool."

Other DPH graduates include an arborist for the park system in New York City, deputy chief of party on the USAID funded, IFDC-led Agriculture Technology Transfer Project in Ghana, and a technical market manager for BASF. Justin McMechan received his Doctor of Plant Health degree in 2016. He is currently an assistant professor of entomology at the university's Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center. His responsibilities include extension and research programs for crop protection practices with designed integration with cropping practices in eastern Nebraska rainfed and irrigated production systems.

"What good is education if you can't communicate with it," Justin often asks. This philosophy kept his study of agriculture broad. He believes that the cross-disciplinary approach he learned while pursuing his degree has made him aware of the problems of management decisions within agricultural sciences.

"Our graduates have seen a wide variety of rewarding career opportunities, and they have exceeded our expectations with how well they've done," Hein said. "This has reaffirmed our belief that there's a demand for experts who can function at a systems-level."

For more information about the Doctor of Plant Health program, visit http://dph.unl.edu/.

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