Toban Dyck, Director of Communications, MPSG – Spring 2021 Pulse Beat
Dr. Debra McLaren lives in south-western Manitoba on a small acreage with her twin brother, who has Parkinson’s disease.
She was in the middle of packing up her office when we chatted. The email address she had since 1998, when she began her career as a plant pathologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), would only be valid for a few more days.
She hadn’t intended to retire this year. It was supposed to happen in March of 2023, but concerns related to her own health and the unbreakable commitment she made to support her brother changed things for her.
“I had to make the decision to retire,” she said. “There is just too much going on with my health. And then looking after my brother — I determined that I will always be around for him. We’re really close. We’ve always done the weird twin things over the years. We’ll pick the same cards out for people. I lived in Lethbridge, and he lived in Winnipeg and we’d buy the same bottle of wine. I would do everything I can for him.”
If you could hear McLaren say this the way I heard it over the phone, you’d be struck, like I was, with how earnest, caring and smart, she comes across.
She understated her impact on the industry. Everyone I spoke to about Dr. Debra McLaren couldn’t say enough about the exceptional work she has done in so many aspects of pathology research. It will be impossible for the next few hundred words to properly dissect her career as a sought-after pathologist and coveted collaborator.
McLaren is an award-winning photographer, a highly regarded plant pathologist, a lover of 1955 Chevy cars and she brimmed with excitement when she told me that the ranch next to her acreage is expecting 11 foals this spring.
“I absolutely love horses, but I can never have one of my own,” said McLaren. “So I’ll be there. I’ll be there with my mask on, but I’ll be there.“
McLaren’s career began in animal science, motivated by her love of horses and animals, in general. She was determined to be a veterinarian.
“I’m only a couple of courses short of an animal science degree,” said McLaren.
She was aware of her allergies going into the program, and when they started intensifying, she knew that being a vet was not in her cards.
She grew up in a creative environment. Her mother, who turned 99 the day we spoke, was a nurse and photographer.
“We grew up with a darkroom in the kitchen,” she said. “We’d cover everything, windows and doors. We had the trays and a developer and we’d just put the paper in the trays and watch the nose, the eyes and the hair appear. It was really awesome. We’d have strings across the kitchen and we’d have these pictures drying off on them. It’s kind of a lost art, I think. We’ve got a well-documented childhood, believe me.”
She shifted trajectories from animal science to horticulture, pursuing her love of plants and flowers. Following her undergraduate degree, she worked for a few years at the Agriculture Canada Research Station in Morden as a technician.
“I worked for Dr. Henry Huang, who was a plant pathologist there. I was always kind of interested in pathology, but also horticulture,” she said. “But once I worked for Dr. Huang, that was it. I was hooked on pathology.”
McLaren completed most of her graduate work in Lethbridge, Alberta, under Dr. Huang’s supervision, before doing a post-doctorate at the Beaverlodge Research Farm. She returned to Manitoba, worked for the province for a few years and then, in 1998, “was lucky enough to get the position at Brandon and has been there since.”
McLaren, along with Dr. Richard Bélanger and recently retired Dr. Bob Conner, started to investigate the hypothesis that Phytophthora stem and root rot present in well-established soybean production areas in eastern Canada may start presenting themselves here in Manitoba.
“Phytophthora is a pathogen that has a number of races,” said McLaren. “We started to work collaboratively on this, looking at what races were present in Manitoba and western Canada. Generally, there is just one race that is most prominent and causes the most losses.”
“We developed a screening process and a set of protocols for this system to work and we were able to identify races in Manitoba and western Canada. We’ve been able to look at Phytophthora isolates that we get every year and determine what races we have,” said McLaren. “Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers has been great at bringing in samples. So has Manitoba Agriculture along with support from provincial, federal and industry colleagues out west. It’s been really great working with them over the years.”
McLaren’s commitment to farmers shone through in every point she made related to the job she was about to leave. The advancements in disease detection that occurred while she was with AAFC must have been exciting to her as a scientist with a curious mind, but her account of these moments was through the lens of how farmers would benefit.
In her position at AAFC, McLaren was a scientist, yes, but also a civil servant and she took that role to heart. Her research provided disease management strategies for farmers and that is exactly what motivated her.
“It’s interesting to see how the pathogen evolves because we are seeing more complex races developing, which is common for this pathogen. It’s done this in North Dakota and down east. There are so many things that come into play, but it’s been really rewarding to be able to identify what Phytophthora races are out there so that we can provide the best information to the growers. They can pick the best variety that will be suitable for them depending on what races they have. There are more varieties out there now that have some of the genes in them that will be more effective against some of the races. It’s been rewarding to see the development of varieties that contain a better gene package. It’s very encouraging.”
McLaren’s research has also been instrumental in developing protection against Sclerotinia, helping breeders identify varieties that will help farmers put together strong disease management plans on their farms.
“Sclerotinia can be very devastating, depending on the year and the weather,” she said. “It was encouraging to see that there are lines out there that were more tolerant. It was good to see that something will be available to farmers down the line for better disease management.”
I asked her if she considered herself more of a classical or molecular pathologist, a question that, judging by her response, she appreciated.
“I consider myself more of a classical pathologist, but moving ahead and embracing the new technology as it comes along. Moving forward, the molecular research is very important. I’ve gotten into some of that area myself, but I’ve hired people with expertise in molecular techniques and they have a lot of experience in the field, so they have a really good combination of skills,” said McLaren. This includes Drs. Maria Antonia Henriquez, who is now a research scientist at Morden, and Yong Min Kim who is currently in the pathology program at Brandon. “A lot of the disciplines are embracing molecular techniques. Although DNA research is revolutionizing plant disease detection, it must be used with conventional plant pathology. It is essential that plant pathologists have one foot in the furrow. You need to be able to go out in the field. You need to see what is happening out there. That is extremely important.”
Currently, Phytophthora can only be identified if you have the cultures. However, according to McLaren, molecular detection tools are being developed and she’s hoping that such a test will be commercially available to farmers soon.
A molecular test would allow for the detection of pathogens at lower limits and alert the farmer if their soil is low, medium or high risk.
“This is the way research is going — fast and precise with quick delivery back to the farmer,” she said. “The grower was my client and I always felt very strongly about that.”
McLaren recalled working with Dr. Conner on the Prairie Grain Development Committee and witnessing plant breeders developing new varieties that will benefit farmers based on their research, including cultivars with no or reduced disease levels.
As with many scientists, McLaren has vivid memories of entering the lab on a given day and discovering something new.
“When you place this diseased tissue on this agar and you expect something, but instead you get something you haven’t seen before,” she recalled. “Then you have to take that culture, purify it and confirm what you have. We found a new Fusarium species that hadn’t been detected before that was pathogenic. There have been a couple of things like that along the way. It’s quite exciting.”
As McLaren considers what’s next for her, her mind and heart bend towards caring for animals, supporting her brother and, perhaps, volunteering her time with the Parkinson’s Society. Oh yeah, and photography.
In the early 2000s, McLaren took a photo of mammatus clouds following a tornado event just north of Brandon. She showed the photograph to her mother.
“My mom was adamant that it should be entered into this Canadian Geographic photo contest, and I said ‘no, just don’t.’ Well. My mother did without telling me and I won this award. She actually got the picture framed for me and I have it up on the wall in the house. She is a sweetheart.“
McLaren wants to strengthen this hobby now that she may have some more time on her hands to do so, but she is also exploring the possibility of taking her Labradoodle, which has brought her and her brother so much joy, to nursing homes so that others can enjoy her company.
“I have loved every minute of my career,” said McLaren. “It has been really rewarding. I have worked with such great people. One of my technicians, Tom Henderson, has been with my program almost since the day I started. I’ve been blessed to have him as my senior technician. I can’t say enough about him.”
But McLaren’s final mention goes to her partner, George. “He has been an anchor for my brother and me, and so helpful on our acreage. He’s awesome with a chainsaw. I wouldn’t be where I am today without his love and support.”