Spotlight: Scientist

Trevor V. Suslow

Trevor V. Suslow - Trevor V. Suslow, Ph.D.

Trevor V. Suslow, Ph.D.

Extension Research Specialist

University of California, Davis

1980: Ph.D., Plant Pathology, University of California, Berkeley
1977: M.S., Plant Pathology, University of California, Berkeley
1975: B.S., Agricultural Sciences, University of California, Berkeley

Dr. Suslow figured he was going to spend his career being a landscape contractor until Dr. Bob Rabbe, Professor of Plant Pathology, University of California, Berkeley, convinced him otherwise in his final year of undergraduate school. Today, Dr. Suslow thrives on the diversity of projects he works on under the umbrella of microbial food safety. CPS student staffer Alyson A. Barnes met with Dr. Suslow recently about his career path and research.

Where are you originally from? Did it influence your field of study?
I was actually born in Berkeley but grew up in San Francisco. I wouldn’t say the area per se influenced my field of study, but we had family friends that were involved in agricultural production. I spent a lot of time in cherry and apricot orchards, in what today is Silicon Valley. Being very outdoor oriented, messing around on farms and in the orchards, ultimately influenced me to pursue something in agricultural, rather than a job indoors.

How did you learn about the Center for Produce Safety?
I learned about CPS by being connected with the original concept in a meeting with Dean Neal Van Alfen and a group from WIFFS (Western Institute for Food Safety and Security) at the University of California, Davis.

What led you to apply for funding? Why is it important?
It was available! It’s pretty simple, we need to find resources wherever we can to carry out our mission on behalf of the industry and consumer interests. I always say we have a three part mission that I am constantly trying to balance: help sustain the agricultural sector, along with doing things consistent with environmental stewardship and management. Finally we are trying to help provide healthy and safe products for consumers. These three aren’t mutually exclusive, and we are trying to balance the research effort to balance the conflicts and optimize the resolutions.

CPS awarded funding for your project “Comparison of surrogate E.coli survival and epidemiology in the phyllosphere of diverse leafy green crops.”  What do you anticipate your project will accomplish?
There remain large information gaps in the understanding of biology and behavior of human pathogens on these types of plants in the production environment. At the same time, using real human pathogens to research their ecology, biology, survival and dispersal has many limitations. We have to use surrogate strains. Surrogates are manageable; they mirror the behavior of real pathogens so we can come up with predictive information. Basically this project is intended to develop and help validate whether specific strains are useable surrogates for pathogens. We take surrogate E.coli and compare them head to head with pathogens that have been rendered less serious in terms of infectious ability, so we can determine whether they behave the same or differently under the same conditions. If they behave differently in environmental fitness or on leafy greens, then we are done and our project ROI was not good.  I worry about this constantly, but that’s not how it is turning out. So far, everything we are doing is supporting the model research that went into selecting three surrogate strains. They appear to be appropriate for on-farm use for modeling pathogen behavior in relevant regions. Hopefully this will help other scientists by enabling them to incorporate these surrogates as “standards” for their own studies to learn if they are appropriate for use beyond California. So it’s really intended to get more information about the ecology and biology of human pathogens on lettuce and leafy greens, and at the same time validate specific surrogate strains for open dissemination to other researchers.

Where do you conduct all this research?
It starts here in the lab at UCD and the greenhouse, but the actual research is being done in and around commercial production in the CA Central Coast. These are dedicated research trials in a field that is not going to be shipped to the market, but with the same farming practices, varieties, and exposure to the open elements. We work very closely with UC county-based extension farm advisors who provide a lot of on the ground expertise and contacts.

There will always be a need for food safety research- where do you think the focus will be five years from now?
I think a lot of the research will have the same focus as today, but perhaps moving to other commodities. In five years, I hope, I expect, there will be more research looking at the genetic basis for plant:human pathogen interactions, both from an understanding of the risks and also uncovering, developing and innovating new approaches for control. Ultimately, I hope there is more solution control based research than mostly describing the risk potential.

Can you describe a typical week for you both in terms of research and extracurriculars?
My schedule is fun because it’s constant multitasking, but that means there’s nothing typical except the atypical. In my role as an extension specialist I make loose plans because stuff comes up spontaneously that I feel I have to respond to. I have my research component and I do a lot of grant management, trying to make sure everything is on task. As an extension specialist, I have responsibilities beyond my own research like providing technology transfer to the outside world on both produce quality and safety. Whether its industry regulators, consumer groups, or other collaborators, I try to provide that connection to the university across many different topics. I’m answering questions about food safety, water management, preharvest and postharvest issues, shipping and handling, quality. It’s a lot of people work and staff management. I try to distinguish myself by being responsive. In addition, I try to spend as much time with my family as possible. I enjoy sports as my main outlet, but also anything outdoorsy like gardening, hiking, or golf.

Lastly, you’ve accomplished a good deal of research, what would you say is most memorable?
I’ve just been blessed to have had so many experiences and done many things over the years I never would have predicted. Picking out just one is tough; if I had to I say what am I most satisfied with, it would be that I’ve been able to provide science-based assistance and technology-based transfer to an amazingly broad spectrum of people-- from limited-resource growers and small, family farms up to global giants. I’m most satisfied with being able to touch, reach and provide to the entire spectrum, you name it. It’s a sobering thought, and I hope I keep it well in perspective.