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New faculty profile: Renee Rioux leads Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program

Renee Rioux joined the Department of Plant Pathology as an assistant professor in August 2019. She is the administrative director of the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Bar Harbor, Maine and lived there until around age 9 when my family moved farther inland to a small town near Bangor, Maine.

What is your educational/professional background?
I earned a BS in Biology at University of Maine-Orono (2008), and then an MS in Botany and Plant Pathology at University of Maine-Orono (2010) and a PhD in Plant Pathology at University of Wisconsin–Madison (2014). I went on to work as a Crop Protection Manager at NewLeaf Symbiotics (2014-2017) and then a Product Development Manager at Bayer Crop Science (2017-2019).

How did you get into your field of research?
I had always wanted to help people but never felt comfortable in the health sciences and decided on a research track. I pursued an MS in a basic research lab to gain laboratory skills with the full expectation that I would go on for a PhD in Biomedical Sciences. However, my PI was a plant pathologist and, when I realized that agriculture and managing plant disease were just as important to human health and well-being as anything in the medical or biomedical field, I knew I had found my calling!

What are the main goals of your current research program?
With my appointment as administrative director of the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program, my research is focused on detection and biology of pathogens that affect the seed potato industry here in the state, as well as how the microbiome can be used to improve seed potato production.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
We have an excellent Department of Plant Pathology at UW–Madison, in regard to both the faculty and the caliber of students that the department recruits. The high quality of the department was one of the most attractive features of the university to me. Beyond that, the overall campus culture has a great air of excitement and innovation, which was very appealing to me.

What was your first visit to campus like?
The very first time I visited campus was in August 2009, when I was thinking about coming to Madison for graduate school. I remember meeting with some professors and then sitting at the terrace and drinking a beer while reading papers. It was absolutely gorgeous and I was hooked – so much so that this was the only university I applied to for my PhD.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
That understanding science is crucial to being an informed citizen. There is so much fear mongering out there when it comes to science, especially agricultural science, that stems from individuals not understanding how various technologies work. If my students take one thing away from a class with me, I want it to be that that don’t have to like or agree with something based in science, but they should know enough to back up their opinions with facts.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I do. I primarily use Twitter (@renee_rioux) to share when it comes to my professional life. Science Twitter is an amazing, supportive community. I’m doing my part to give back to all those who have helped and inspired me on Twitter.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Absolutely! The Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program is an amazing example of the Wisconsin Idea. The program was started in 1913 as a collaboration between the university and the state’s seed potato growers to enable the production of high-quality, disease-free seed tubers, and it has been in place ever since! The program and my research are committed to solving problems associated with seed potato production in Wisconsin and supporting the needs of our growers.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
Virtually all potatoes grown in the US were started in tissue culture before they went into the field because this is a necessary part of the seed certification process and ensures the starting material is free from viruses or other pathogens. If you’re eating potatoes grown in Wisconsin, there is a decent chance that at some point in time they were tiny tissue culture plants in our lab at the Biotron on campus.

What are your hobbies/other interests?
I enjoy doing anything outside with my husband, dog, and 15 month old son. Chasing around a toddler is my hobby these days – but it’s a great one!