Dilantha Fernando is a professor in the Department of Plant Science at the University of Manitoba (UM) and dean of studies at UM’s St. Paul’s College. Dilantha was born in Sri Lanka where he completed a bachelor of science in botany with a chemistry minor, as well as a master’s in microbiology. He then moved to the U.S. and completed his PhD in plant pathology at Oregon State University.
Fernando has been recognized with several prestigious awards for his work in research and teaching. He is an editor of six journals, including two where he is editor in chief. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife, who is also a researcher, and the two youngest of their three sons.
Where did you work before UM?
I have been very fortunate to have had work opportunities in many places. After completing my PhD, I held a postdoctoral position at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, where I worked on rice diseases. Next, I was presented the opportunity to come to McGill University as a postdoctoral fellow, which brought me back to North America.
After McGill, I held postdoctoral positions with the University of Arizona, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Ottawa Research and Development Centre (where I first worked on fusarium head blight) and Michigan State University. I then accepted a full-time position with UM.
What got you interested in this area of work?
While doing a degree in botany, one must have that moment of realization: “This is what I want to do.” I was not going to be a top scientist looking at plants, I was more fascinated by what I could not see – the bacteria, the viruses, the fungi. My microbiology research was entirely on bacterial microbiology. I became fascinated with how a single cell of a bacterium can do so much – good or bad. That’s where it all started, with my background and fascination with microbiology.
Tell us a bit about what you’re working on at UM.
I begin my days very early. I generally wake up around 5 a.m. to do any editing work and catch up on emails with a nice cup of Sri Lankan tea, before sending the kids off to school. In my office which is beside both of my labs, I spend time with my graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, working on research papers, developing new ideas and writing proposals and reports, before heading to St. Paul’s for the afternoon to do administrative work.
I teach two courses: plant disease management in the fall and the epidemiology of plant diseases in the winter. I also work with graduate and post-graduate students in the lab. This is one of the best parts of my job, mentoring students through research.
In research, I focus mostly on canola and cereal diseases. I have been working on Fusarium in wheat and barley, and training post docs in this area. The population structure of Fusarium pathogens of small grain cereals, their distribution and relationship to mycotoxins research is funded by Manitoba Crop Alliance, Western Grains Research Foundation, Alberta Wheat Commission, Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute, SaskBarley and Sask Wheat.
In this research we are looking at the western Canadian cline, or the way the pathogens are moving, and how that is impacting farmers. Our studies are also looking at how different chemotypes can impact the cereals.
Building on this opportunity, we have received thousands of isolates from different sources, including scientists in the east and in Ontario, enabling us to do several studies and make comparisons, which is very important. With these isolates, we are starting to see differences and to understand why a certain area might be getting less or more disease pressure. One of the key questions we are interested in is to understand why the 3A-DON chemotype is displacing the 15A-DON chemotype.
What can you say about the value of farmers providing funding and support to your organization?
The funding farmers give to support any research is so important. If you have good ideas and you want to help the world, to execute those ideas you need funding. It enables us to train highly qualified personnel and to answer farmers’ key questions that can only be answered through doing the research.
In our lab, we as researchers have a moral obligation to provide applicable results back to farmers.
How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?
The direct benefit a farmer would see in the type of research I do on Fusarium is increased yields and decreased loss of quality. Because of that, farmers will gain a lot of opportunity at the trade level.
Safeguarding their fields is another direct benefit, because if they know how to reduce the inoculum of any fungus, any pathogen, they are going to have a better opportunity the next season with less inoculum of the pathogen in their fields.
How do you spend your time outside of work?
I have a very busy lifestyle. My biggest hobby seems to be family and keeping in touch with friends, which has been a pleasure, especially when I am travelling. When I travel overseas, I always have somebody to meet up with, and some of those friendships have continued for more than 40 years.
What are you excited about for the future of agriculture?
This is a discussion we have at home because we feel very proud to work in agriculture. There are industries that come and go or change, but everyone in the world has to eat. Our land is not going to grow, but the population is.
So, we have to find new techniques to improve production, with less diseases, higher yields and high quality. I think agriculture is going to be one of the most desired industries also from a work standpoint where there will be more opportunities for people trained in agriculture to find jobs.
Who or what inspires you?
I give the highest credit to my parents. Both my brother and I were interested in playing sports, but my parents told us, “If you want to play sports, you have to be really good to be someone in the sports world. If you have an education, you can go a long way.”
I loved doing science and up until my PhD I had never worked in agriculture, but that opened up a new area that got me excited.
Connect with Dilantha Fernando on LinkedIn.