As the COVID-19 pandemic stretched out from winter through spring and into summer, University of Georgia plant pathologist Phillip Brannen (BSA — Plant Protection and Pest Management, ’83; MSA – Plant Pathology, ’87) knew that the twice-yearly field trip for his students to view plant diseases in the field at various locations around the state — affectionately dubbed the “disease tour” — wasn’t likely to happen this year.
The June tour was scrapped when the pandemic shut down in-person university operations in March and, as time passed, Brannen knew the August tour was unlikely to happen.
“The tour normally involves four or five vans filled with students who we take around the state to meet with researchers, farmers and U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel at the beginning and end of the summer,” Brannen said. “After we cancelled the first one, I knew we needed to do the second one in some way.”
Fortunately, Brannen was able to hire two undergraduate students — senior horticulture major Kendall Busher and senior agriscience and environmental systems major Courtney Cameron — to travel around the state filming interviews at each of the stops for both tours to create a “virtual disease tour.” Both Busher and Cameron had experience working with Brannen on field trials during the academic year.
“They traveled throughout the state to interview people in the field showing the diseases our students would have viewed on both of the tours,” Brannen said. Those videos were edited and put on Kaltura, UGA’s media storage and streaming platform, for students to view and study before classes began in August. “This format allowed us to cover things virtually that we’d never been able to cover before, like a discussion of seed treatments on cotton for fungicidal and insecticidal purposes with a colleague from the seed treatment industry.”
Cameron and Busher spent the summer scheduling video shoots with researchers and producers throughout the state, planning content for each video, then traveling to farms and research centers to film using their smartphones. In all, they filmed and edited 21 videos, some with multiple experts, all while practicing social distancing and wearing personal protective equipment, including masks.
Cameron, who is planning to pursue a master’s degree in plant pathology, gained concrete, practical skills she says she will continue to utilize.
“I’d never done any videography before and I never had to edit video before. That was completely new for me and it was really interesting and useful learning how to do that. It was fun to do, but I know it is going to be useful as well,” she said.
Busher, who will pursue a master’s degree in horticulture at UGA after graduating with her bachelor’s degree in December, said the experience gave her an idea of what to expect from graduate-level field research.
“What I loved about doing this is meeting all of the different people. Everyone was so kind and passionate about the work they were doing. They were happy to share it with us and it was really interesting to be able to pick the brains of a lot of really intelligent people who were really specialized in different diseases. It was a good experience for me to see what plant pathology field research is like,” she said.
Expanding the program to 21 sessions would have been impossible on a physical trip due to time constraints, Brannen said.
“We still covered all of it in one week, with three virtual sessions in the morning and three each afternoon, all of them 45 minutes long. With the virtual sessions, we could bring these people in and have them talk to students after viewing the videos, allowing students to ask questions and still have a break between sessions,” he said. “Granted, doing this virtually is not quite as good as being in the field, but this allowed them to see what they would have seen in the field in the video, then have the chance to talk to the farmers and experts, so it was a success from that standpoint.”
While he hopes to be able to resume the in-person tours in 2021, Brannen said the videos will serve as valuable tools for students to use during labs and as study materials.
“I’d never used video before and this has gotten me started doing videos. I’ve learned enough to take a high definition video on my phone, then pull that off and edit it, and get it ready to put on YouTube or Kaltura,” Brannen said. “I’ve done it a few times now and it’s expanded my horizons. I never would have thought of doing this a few years ago.”
Live versus virtual
Both the early summer and late summer tours are requirements for graduate students in plant pathology. Doctoral candidates Nabin Sedhain and Sorrel Tran had each traveled on one of the in-person tours before participating in this year’s virtual tour.
Sedhain, who is studying cotton leaf roll virus with crop virologist Sudeep Bag, appreciated the opportunity to travel the state with Brannen for the spring 2019 “disease tour.”
“Having that time in the field is a very important part of the experience, especially for students who are from different areas of the U.S. and the world. We enjoyed getting the Georgia flavor, including seeing peaches in the field, then being able to eat peach cobbler,” said Sedhain, a native of Nepal.
However, he appreciates the tremendous undertaking by Brannen and his undergraduate students to provide a viable alternative to the traditional tour.
“One advantage of the virtual sessions was being able to speak with the farmers and the producers who are presenting and to dive into the information,” Sedhain said. “It also gave us the opportunity to interact with farmers from northern Georgia and look at different commodities that we would not have been able to see on the tour through south Georgia. Academically, the information was covered very well.”
Tran, who is studying de novo root regeneration under the direction of Li Yang, assistant professor of plant immunity, participated in the plant pathology tour in fall 2019 as well as this year’s virtual tour.
“I think I got more out of the in-person tour in being able to see different plant diseases in person and being able to interact with the professors and growers and farmers we visited, but I enjoyed the virtual tour as well,” Tran said. “The videos were really well done and informative and we got to see videos about crops that we didn’t get to see on the in-person tour, like a producer who was working with olives.”
The online format was a more comfortable environment to ask questions, she added.
“I felt like I had more opportunity to ask questions because it is easier to speak up or use the chat function to ask questions if you are nervous about asking questions in person,” she said. “It is very cool to see all the different things in person and seeing demonstrations and plant disease symptoms up close, but there is also a benefit to being able to watch the videos online. Both have pros and cons, but from physical comfort aspect, sitting in an air-conditioned room watching videos was more comfortable than being out in the hot sun and spending hours in the car driving from place to place.”