Clarissa Balbalian

  • April 2024

Plant Pathologist/Lab Director

Mississippi Plant Diagnostic Laboratory

Mississippi State University Extension

Years in position/at MSU: 22


Just like people, plants get sick occasionally, and when they do, some end up at the Mississippi Plant Diagnostic Laboratory or MPDL. The lab, affiliated with Mississippi State University Extension, protects the health and productivity of agriculture through plant disease screening, diagnosis and management recommendations.

“I like to think of us as an urgent care for plants,” said Clarissa Balbalian, plant pathologist and director of the lab. “Mississippi is hot and humid and plant pathogens like hot humid weather, so there’s an opportunity for plant disease. We’re an agrarian state, so I’m able to see and treat a lot of neat things.”

Each year, the lab receives upwards of 800 samples, ranging from residential rose bushes to crops and even turfgrass from golf courses. Additionally, 2,500 – 3,000 soil samples also make their way to the diagnostic lab each year. While most samples come from in-state, the lab also receives samples from Texas and states surrounding Mississippi. Bermudagrass from golf courses or home lawns and trees are the most common issues that present to the lab. One puzzling case even led to the identification of a new fungus.

“We received a turf sample one time that had leaf spots, but the fungus associated with the spots didn’t fit any of the pathogens in the literature. I worked with MSU turf pathologist Maria Tomaso-Peterson and her students, and their work resulted in a scientific paper describing and naming a new fungus and disease affecting warm-season grasses in the southeastern U.S.,” explained Balbalian.

Standing in the lab with mushroom-printed socks, it’s hard to imagine Balbalian pursuing any other career, but it wasn’t until her senior year in college that she chose plant pathology.

“I was on a pre-professional track for occupational therapy, and we had to do a project in our senior biology class about something that affected all five biological kingdoms. I was researching fungi and picked up a plant pathology textbook and read it cover to cover. I couldn’t wait to get to the next chapter! I thought, ‘this is what I want to do with my life,’” said Balbalian.

The rest is history. Balbalian has served as director of the lab for more than two decades.

“I have a strong call to serve others and I am a generalist at heart,” said Balbalian. “I like looking at the interconnectedness of things. Working as a diagnostic plant pathologist lets me dabble in many biological disciplines and doesn’t limit my focus to one specific commodity or disease system.”

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