Biotechnology pervades almost every scientific discipline, including plant sciences. Mary Burrows received her Ph.D. in 2003 from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in plant pathology and says being a Biotechnology Training Program (BTP) trainee was useful for her graduate education. She is now a professor at Montana State University and leads their Schutter Diagnostic Lab at MSU Extension.
The Minnesota native came to UW–Madison after studying biology at the University of Minnesota Moorhead and worked in Craig Grau’s field lab in the Department of Plant Pathology. Her background in molecular biology allowed her to bring new technology to Grau’s research program. During her time here, she also received funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), a common occurrence for BTP trainees.
From UW–Madison she did a postdoc at Cornell University at the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. She now works at MSU where much of her work is with Extension. Her lab provides statewide identification services for plant diseases, insects, weeds, native plants, mushrooms, and more.
“The nice thing about Extension is you can have a real impact on people’s lives,” she says. “I combine and translate my research and others’ research into information that farmers and others can understand. In my case, as plant disease issues come up we communicate directly with farmers through multiple mediums including in-person presentations, email, text, fax, or social media.”
“I was one of the few trainees in an applied lab and my question at the end of others’ seminars was always ‘how are you going to apply this research in the real world?’ to get them thinking about that,” she says. “Conversely, after my seminar, a lot of people commented it was very informative to see how we actually did work out in the field and how that went together with lab work. We got exposed to a lot of different areas through the seminar series.”
Her internship took her abroad to Australia for more field work. She says the experience was the most valuable part of the program and changed the way she worked on a professional level.
“I went into it very driven and focused and it made me pause and look at things differently and realize that you really need to work smarter, not work harder, as they say,” she explains. “If you can step back and see the big picture you can focus your efforts and work more efficiently and effectively.”
Her advice to students interested in biotechnology is to take opportunities that become available, even if they are not convenient, rather than letting them pass by. She says if a student is interested in something they should push to make an opportunity to explore that area to see if they want to pursue it or not.
“I think biotechnology is crucial to almost every field because of the tools it provides to answer questions and that anyone could benefit from learning more about it,” Burrows says. “And normal citizens may not understand the underlying methodology but cooperation between biotechnologists and people like those in Extension can translate that information for those who need it. I think training programs like BTP help students learn those skills.”