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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

New NIMFFAB director Kitty Cardwell took scenic route to OSU

STILLWATER, Okla. – Kitty Cardwell, the new director of the National Institute for Microbial Forensics and Food and Agricultural Biosecurity at Oklahoma State University, sits at her desk in the Henry Bellmon Research Center on a Tuesday morning in April.

Backlit by bright early spring sunshine filtering through blinds stretched across a set of wide windows overlooking a slice of the Stillwater campus, she contemplates how she arrived at this point in her life and career.

It wasn’t planned, that’s for sure.

“Who ever thinks they’re going to be a plant pathologist?” Cardwell mused.

The short answer is Cardwell comes to OSU and NIMFFAB after 15 years as a national program leader and grants administrator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Washington, D.C.

“Getting back into academia was always something I wanted to do. I love to teach and will probably teach one semester each year. I love science,” she said. “I love this institute. It’s small, it’s got really good people. It’s a really interesting and unique opportunity.”

However, every life story features far more twists and turns, dips and curves than any short answer can provide and Cardwell’s journey is no different.

Despite hailing from a family of veterinarians, Cardwell was contemplating a career in medicine until a college professor turned her onto botany and plant pathology.

A poor showing on a quantitative chemistry exam in graduate school led to her agreeing to join the Peace Corps and working as a plant pathologist, first in Nicaragua – until a revolution broke out – and then Colombia.

“My major professor asked me if I’d like to be a plant pathologist in Nicaragua and I said I’d do anything. I was just burned from that exam,” she said. “It wasn’t an idea I would’ve been adverse to in the first place. The idea of being a plant pathologist in another place that needed it was very attractive.”

At the conclusion of her three-year Peace Corps stint, Cardwell remained in South America another eight years overseeing a large-scale rice farming operation.

“That was probably a bigger education than anything else I’ve ever done, running a large farming operation. It was a huge learning experience for me and because of it I have an intense appreciation for people who do agriculture for a living,” Cardwell said. “The way American producers farm in the United States is so sophisticated. Farmers and ranchers have to know so much and their business is complicated in a lot of ways. If I can do anything in my skill set that helps that whole endeavor, then that’s meaningful to me.”

After a decade in South America, Cardwell returned to the United States to earn her doctorate then moved to Africa, where she spent a dozen years fighting hunger by way of investigating plant diseases and promoting food safety practices.

In 2001, she accepted a role with the USDA one day before the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“I think my life path has been a little unusual,” said Cardwell.

Unusual? Yes. But now, NIMFFAB, the only institute in the nation dedicated to microbial forensics in agriculture, is getting the benefit of Cardwell’s deep well of experience.

She succeeded Jacqueline Fletcher, the institute’s founder, March 14.

The institute is part of OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and Cardwell’s tenure-home is the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology.

“While in Africa, I led a very large research group and at the USDA I was exposed to the other side, which is research funding. I saw a full spectrum of the science going on and it was cutting-edge because it was proposals,” she said. “So, I have this very broad perspective on the science. I have experience and background in managing people, working with groups and leadership. Those things add up to making this a really great opportunity for me. But, I also think I can be good for the institute, growing it and making sure it’s meaningful and useful.”

If the term microbial forensics brings to mind episodes of the popular suite of CSI network television shows, you’re in the ballpark. The discipline seeks answers to questions such as how a disease infected a crop or how an animal disease got into a state or how a food-borne pathogen ended up in a food product that was then distributed.

“People talk about DNA. We look for unique fingerprints of the microbes so we can trace back and figure out where they came from,” Cardwell said.

While crop and animal diseases can be moved in multiple ways – through the air or shipping, on seed or in feed, for instance – if it’s intentionally introduced for ill purposes, that’s a different matter.

“There are multiple food-borne illness outbreaks every year, there are crop diseases moving around and important animal diseases in the world we’re very concerned about so we want to make sure that by having really good forensic science, it will act as a deterrent,” Cardwell said. “But, if somebody wants to do something, whether accidental or intentional, to be able to figure out who did it is an important thing.”

NIMFFAB is well positioned to not only fulfill that investigative charge, but also pour into the vital pipeline of highly-trained professionals and scientists to staff regulatory laboratories such as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Food and Drug Administration.

Looking ahead, in the short term, Cardwell will focus on mapping out the institute’s direction. Longer term, she envisions a microbial forensics curriculum that could appeal across multiple sciences such as veterinary medicine, plant pathology, food safety and food science.

“There is no other institute like this in the United States. I think it was very visionary of Dr. Jacqueline Fletcher and the OSU administration to create this center,” she said. “We will strive to make it as productive and as smart as we can.”

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