A new specialty: doctors with green thumbs

The director of a 'plant doctor' degree program hopes the budding profession will quickly take root.

February 13, 2000|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun Staff

The situation is tense, time critical. Hundreds of lives hang in the balance. A highly trained specialist is called to the scene to examine the rotting flesh using sophisticated diagnostic tools such as DNA probes and serological testing. He bends to the patient: a green, leafy little guy with a bad case of mites. Just another day on the job for a D.P.M. -- doctor of plant medicine.

Yes, those with dreams of becoming a doctor will soon have a new breed of patients upon which to practice: vegetables. Actually, all vegetation.

This fall, the world of specialized medicine will open up to plant life when the University of Florida introduces a new graduate program designed to churn out seedling surgeons. The multidisciplinary degree will combine existing course work in plant pathology, entomology and plant science in a way never done before, creating a new kind of authority and a new kind of profession.

Dr. George Agrios, a plant pathologist and director of the new doctorate program, estimates that "the world loses about $500 billion worth of plant produce each year out of $1.3 trillion worth of attainable produce" because of fungi, bacteria, viruses, insects and weeds. These new plant doctors will make it their focus to reduce that number, he says.

In a recent interview from his office in Gainesville, Agrios told us more about the new venture and its details:

What exactly is a plant doctor?

It will be a practitioner trained to diagnose causes of disease or injury in plants and to offer recommendations for their management or control.

It would be parallel to general practitioner physicians -- the M.D.s for humans and the veterinarians for animals. They all do the same thing. They diagnose the problem, and then they offer recommendations for management.

Why do we need plant doctors when we already have other specialists?

A plant pathologist does not study all pathogens that cause disease. He does not study insects or mites. That is the job of the entomologist. Weed science is studied by agronomists and so on. Up to now, each one of them is in a different department of the university. There is nobody trained to identify all of these causes. Hopefully, we will correct that by producing plant doctors trained in all the areas.

How is the degree program structured?

The program is 120 credits. Ninety credits will be in graduate course work -- courses where the students will be trained in laboratory techniques. The other 30 credits will consist of internships where the students will work in diagnostic laboratories and alongside professionals.

What kind of interest are you getting?

We have a few more than 40 requesting application materials, but they have not all been submitted yet. We plan to accept 25 as the first class entering in September and then to increase that number to about 50 in three or four years. Most of them are from Florida, but there are several from out of state, as far as San Francisco and Cornell University [in New York]. And a few from other countries, primarily South America.

Where will plant doctors work?

A plant doctor has a wide choice of employment.

One that would be quite common, among others, is as a private practitioner who would be hired by a group of growers to observe the condition of the fields and then report to the grower what problems exist and what he or she should do about it. These people are also being awaited by the agri-chemical industries, those that sell pesticides, companies like DuPont and Novartis.

Could a plant doctor serve the general public? Would he or she make house calls?

I expect that, if there is a market, that garden shops may hire them to keep the plants in good health for when they sell them. As to individual homeowners and home visits -- I doubt it, unless there are large estates that can afford to hire one. We are looking at it really as a much more important profession than taking care of homeowners' problems with a tree or shrub or lawn.

What sort of salary can a plant doctor expect to earn?

They will have a doctorate and specialized training and will earn better salaries than those filling the positions now. We expect it to be around $35,000 to $50,000.

So little? When we think "doctor," the salary range is usually much higher. Will that be a problem in motivating students to be D.P.M.s instead of M.D.s?

Well, maybe, but maybe not. Actually the salaries for Ph.D.s in other than a few professions are not much higher than between $40,000 and $50,000. And even though we compare the profession to the M.D., I don't think that D.P.M.s can match the M.D.s' earnings, but they will match and surpass the [veterinarians].

The students are coming mostly from plant sciences studies, not medicine, although we are finding that we are getting candidates who are also applying to medical schools because they're afraid they might not make it into medical school, so they apply to the D.P.M. program [as backup].

Your graduates will face some interesting challenges. Every patient, for instance, will be in a vegetative state.

(Laughs.) That's not the biggest chuckle there is when [people] hear the name "plant doctor" or "doctor of plant medicine." Some think you're dealing with medicinal plants or treating a plant like a human, asking it to say "ahhh." But it's considered a very serious profession that will save a lot of plant produce.

More information about the University of Florida's doctorate of plant medicine can be found online at http://plantpath.ifas.ufl.edu/DPM/ dpm.htm.

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