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Strawberry Pathology with Dr. Hewavitharana by taylor chalstrom and Hannah jackson

Researching for fun and researching with purpose represent two different ideologies in the world of science. Dr. Shashika Hewavitharana represents the latter. She joined the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo in 2019. She studied plant biotechnology and pathology at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka and at Washington State University before coming to Cal Poly. Here, Dr. Hewavitharana is not only an assistant professor but also a researcher at the Cal Poly Strawberry Center.

“My Ph.D. advisor, who is a USDA scientist, put me on a research collaboration focusing on apples and strawberries, which is the reason for my link to working with strawberries,” Dr. Hewavitharana said.

Dr. Hewavitharana’s time at the Strawberry Center is split between strawberry research and the Center’s strawberry disease diagnostic service, a free service where San Luis Obispo county growers send in samples to be tested. She explains the diagnostic service and how it helps benefit her research.

“When growers send in samples, I usually help with testing,” Dr. Hewavitharana said. “I then let them know what is wrong and what they can do to manage and prevent it again. The testing helps me discover new things, too, since I’m able to isolate pathogens from the samples and use them for my research.”

Dr. Hewavitharana’s current research is with fumigation in above-ground and soil-borne strawberry pathogens. Soil fumigation typically involves killing the bad microorganisms in soil with injected gas. Even though she hasn’t made any specific discoveries yet, Dr. Hewavitharana and her team are optimistic about the future.

“We are close to a discovery and will hopefully have an answer to one question by May 2020,” Dr. Hewavitharana said. “The project I’m working on involves fumigation that looks to find microorganisms flourishing afterward to help strawberries continue to grow. Basically, we want to know if these fumigations kill the good and bad things in the soil or just the bad things.”

Research such as this has the ability to revolutionize the way how not only strawberries are grown, but also how other crops using fumigation grow. Since fumigation has the possibility to negatively affect crop growth, it is pertinent that safer fumigants be created for commercial use. Utilizing the future results of this research and continuing to run the strawberry disease diagnostic service, Dr. Hewavitharana can help strawberry growers in managing above-ground and soil-borne diseases. Her favorite part of conducting research is to help others.

“All of my work here carries a unique spirit that allows me to help growers and do things for the problems we have,” Dr. Hewavitharana said. “It gives me a reason to get up in the morning.”

Dr. Hewavitharana mentioned how she has been helped to succeed throughout her entire life, and wants to return the favor. She wants to give back through her work and research, which represents the best quality of a scientist.

Taylor Chalstrom is a fourth-year Agricultural Science major with an Agricultural Communications minor at Cal Poly. Hannah Jackson is a fifth-year Agricultural Communications major at Cal Poly.

Photo credits: Taylor Chalstrom and Hannah Jackson