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Department welcomes new adjunct faculty

Posted: July 5, 2018

The Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology recently welcomed two new adjunct faculty, Brenda Wingfield and Justin Pita.
Justin Pita, left, and Brenda Wingfield join the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology as adjunct faculty. (Image: Photos provided)

Justin Pita, left, and Brenda Wingfield join the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology as adjunct faculty. (Image: Photos provided)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology recently welcomed two new adjunct faculty, Brenda Wingfield and Justin Pita. Wingfield, fungal genetics research chair and professor in the Department of Genetics at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, is a fungal geneticist who has had a significant influence on the field of plant pathology. Pita, director of the West African Virus Epidemiology (WAVE) for food security at Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Côte d’Ivoire, has a research focus in virus epidemiology. Both faculty will be working with the department in developing collaborations with the International Agriculture and Development (INTAD) program. 

Dr. Wingfield served as acting and deputy dean of the faculty of Natural and Agricultural Science from 2009 to 2016. She is the past chairman of the National Science and Technology Forum, vice president of the Academy of Science of South Africa and the secretary general of the International Society of Plant Pathology. As of March, she has 357 peer-reviewed publications, many in top-rated journals, over a dozen book chapters or symposium proceedings and numerous meeting contributions which contribute to her Institute for Scientific Information/Web of Science h – index of 41. Dr. Wingfield was awarded the Harry Oppenheimer Memorial Fellowship Award in 2015, the highest award for science in South Africa, for her research contributions. In addition to this award, she has also received the South African Department of Science and Technology’s Distinguished Women of Science and Technology award, the African Union Regional Award for Women in Science and the National Science and Technology Forum of South Africa’s award for Mentorship and Human Capacity Development. She was the first woman ever to win the Persoon Medal from the South African Society for Plant Pathology. In 2017 she was named as an American Phytopathological Society Fellow and an Honorary Member of Mycological Society of America, the highest honor for an international mycologist by this society. Dr. Wingfield is among the top 4 percent of South African researchers with a National Research Foundation A rating. 

Dr. Pita is the director of WAVE, a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department of International Development of the United Kingdom, which is taking a preventative approach to anticipate major viral diseases in the crucial root crops of West Africa. This is being achieved by bringing together 10 National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) under the coordination of Dr. Pita. As part of this project, he is working with members of the Roossinck laboratory at Penn State to use phylogenetic analyses to assess potential threats from other parts of the African continent, as well as co-advising a postdoctoral scientist with Dr. Roossinck. Interactions between PPEM, the INTAD program and WAVE will be facilitated by Dr. Pita. He is actively working to move efforts from a regional network in West Africa (WAVE) to a pan-African network for root and tuber crops (PAVE). This will enable the use of a broader approach to protecting harvests and advancing productivity of root crops. Dr. Pita’s research and demonstration of virus evolution using the plant virus Cucumber mosaic virus as a model system was groundbreaking. His work addresses the in-host fidelity of a viral RNA dependent RNA polymerase and still stands as the only demonstration of this. He showed an inverse relationship between mutation frequencies and recombination frequencies by comparing different strains of the virus. This paper was highlighted as a “Spotlight” by the Journal of Virology, the premier journal for virus research publications. In May 2018, Dr. Pita became a member of the Steering Committee of African Women in Agriculture Research and Development (AWARD), a gender-responsive agricultural innovation program working toward agriculture-driven prosperity for Africa, by investing in African women scientists and agricultural research institutions to deliver gender-responsive agricultural research and development.

Additional information about Dr. Wingfield and Dr. Pita can be found by visiting their directory page on the department’s website.