Plant Pathologist Kara Lanning '07 Helps Local Farmers


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Farmers feed the world, with a little help from scientists like Kara Lanning ’07.

Lanning is a plant pathologist and visiting assistant professor of biology at Pacific Lutheran University near Tacoma, Wash. 

Like other plant pathologists, Lanning studies diseases in plants caused by infectious organisms and environmental conditions. The control of plant diseases is crucial to food security. It also has environmental and economic implications. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 20 to 40 percent of global crop yields are reduced each year because of damage by pests and diseases.

On any given day, Lanning and her students can be found surveying farms in the Pacific Northwest and talking with breeders and growers about their experiences. Their concerns inform her research, which lately has focused on a specific virus that impacts raspberry crops.

Lanning never imagined herself in such an esoteric field when she was a student at Pacific University, where she majored in molecular biology and minored in literature. Her goal was to attend medical school, and after graduation she took jobs to position herself for admission, including a stint as a research assistant to spine surgeons at Oregon Health & Sciences University. Somewhere along the way, Lanning decided that she’d rather study diseases in plants. She went on to earn a doctorate in horticulture from Washington State University and in early 2016 joined Pacific Lutheran University, where she is not only a teacher but a mentor to many of her students.

She likens being a plant pathologist to being a modern-day Sherlock Holmes: It’s her role to determine the cause of plant illnesses by asking questions and finding answers.

Recently, though, Lanning got a chance to do some actual detective work. She was hired by a police department to help with a forensic investigation related to a homicide case. Her job was to determine the cause of injury to a plant at the crime scene.

Tune into our new alumni podcast, “Boxer Talks,” coming this fall, to hear us talk with Lanning about her journey into the little-known world of plant pathology and her recent foray into forensic work.