I joined the Entomology and Plant Pathology Department in August 2012, as the field crops pathologist located at the West Tennessee Research and Education Center in Jackson, TN. Prior to coming to Tennessee I was born and raised in Florida, where a plant pathologist will never be bored. I received my B.S. and M.S. from Florida State University where I developed an interest in plant sciences  and became the herbarium manager and project leader for the campus tree inventory. After receiving my M.S. I started working as a Biological Scientist at the North Florida Research and Education Center for the University of Florida, where I came to know and love plant pathology. My dissertation, Biology of Phakopsora pachyrhizi, the causal agent of soybean rust in Florida, introduced me to the wonders of epidemiology and how amazing it is that different factors such as hosts, vectors, and meteorological events, such as hurricanes, can influence disease development and establishment.

At the University of Tennessee, I have a 70% Extension and 30% research appointment. As an Extension Plant Pathologist, I discover and address the major disease challenges of Tennessee producers. This information is gathered from agricultural county agents, crop consultants, industry and Extension cooperators, producers, and field observations. Solutions to these challenges are sought from the literature and internet searches or through applied research designed to find effective, economically viable and environmentally sound solutions to these disease management issues.  This information is distributed to the growers through county agricultural agents, the UTcrops.com website and news.utcrops.com blog, IPM Newsletters, stakeholders and agent in-service meetings and/or Web-based Extension publications.

My Extension/research appointment works well in addressing producers problems. I educate producers, county agents, crop consultants, and other agriculture clientele on fungicide resistance management strategies which include using multiple modes of action, cultural practices, and good stewardship of fungicide application as well as other non-chemical management strategies like resistant varieties and crop rotation. To have a successful disease management program, I promote teamwork and cooperation, not only within my program of research specialists and students, but also across disciplines and institutions. Cooperating with and leveraging the skills of many exceptional county agricultural agents, extension specialists, and researchers are valuable in solving today’s complex problems and providing the best information to producers.

Research Focus

As an Extension Plant Pathologist with a research appointment, I mainly focus on research that will address current and emerging issues. This includes identification and management of seedling and foliar diseases caused by fungi, bacteria, and viruses and developing/revising best management strategies based on research. For example, I conduct disease trials to test varieties, seed treatments, and efficacy of foliar fungicides based on modes of action and application timing. In addition to yearly testing of these management options, my program also targets emerging disease issues such as fungicide resistance. I have initiated research on fungicide resistant pathogens, in particular, quinone outside inhibitors (QoI) or strobilurin fungicide resistant Cercospora sojina, the causal agent of frogeye leaf spot (FLS). I am involved in multiple projects which will result in more information about how to better manage this emerging issue. These projects are team-based and include my employees and students as well as collaborations with other colleagues at UT, USDA-ARS, and other universities. I have also initiated projects on pathogen population dynamics during a season, across years and across spatial scales (i.e. on a leaf to across the Mid-South). These will provide knowledge that will be used to guide cultural and chemical management practices. My research discovery of precise environmental conditions that trigger disease epidemics will enable more accurate forecast models to be developed. These models will in turn support management programs for effective fungicide application timing.

Another aspect of my research program involves using the best research technologies and equipment to further advance the agricultural research society. For example, I have initiated a program using molecular research to identify pathogens. I am using this information to test applications of molecular techniques including qPCR for quantifying disease threshold levels for yield loss and tracking the level of inoculum over a season using spore traps. I also plan to utilize geographic information systems (GIS) and imagery technology to further define disease gradients across a field and presence of diseases across the state.

man holding a circle

Extension and outreach focus

Overall, my philosophy for covering the disease problems across multiple crops is to utilize teamwork and cooperation. An example of this philosophy in action, and one of the largest components of my program, is plant disease management for soybean. This includes evaluation of disease resistance in commercially available soybean varieties and fungicide efficacy as well as transfer of this information to growers and county agents. Frogeye leaf spot (FLS) is one of the major disease issues in Tennessee and Mid-South soybean production. While there are resistant soybean varieties available, many high yielding susceptible varieties are planted across the region, and producers need fungicide applications to manage the disease. Quinone outside inhibitor (QoI or Strobilurin) fungicides have become one of the dominant classes of fungicides used in field crops. These have a site specific mode of action that is effective against multiple diseases. Cercospora sojina, the causal agent of FLS, has developed resistance to QoI/Strobilurin fungicides. The first documented report of QoI fungicide resistant strains of C. sojina was documented in Tennessee in 2010. With fungicide resistance being a new, emerging issue for many producers they rely on Extension to provide valid information on effective methods to manage and help reduce the development of fungicide resistant pathogens. Hence, I have worked with other colleagues to help develop the ‘Soybean Fungicide Resistance Hub’ housed at the plant management network and contributed the webcast, “Management of Frogeye leaf Spot and Fungicide Resistance.”

Another large aspect of my program is monitoring and reporting the presence and severity of diseases across the state so producers can make more informed management decisions. One such program is the annual soybean sentinel plots which are monitored for soybean rust, frogeye leaf spot, and other damaging diseases and invasive pests to soybean. To conduct a successful management program on a state-wide level and to use it as an educational tool, I utilize the agricultural county agents as well as knowledgeable consultants. This monitoring effort is an invaluable tool for Tennessee producers to have unbiased information to make management decisions throughout the growing season.

green, blue and orange circle

Teaching focus

Educational programming is a key part of my role as an Extension Plant Pathologist. To best manage a pest, one first has to correctly identify it. Much of my educational programing includes disease identification as well as team-teaching (odd years) the Plant Health Diagnostics. With more use of mobile devices, I have developed and will continue to build onto a mobile-friendly field guide (guide.utcrops.com), which contains general information about specific diseases, management options, images, and short videos describing the disease and management options. I also design active and challenging programming for formal and informal learning, because I believe that these are crucial for the student or stakeholder engagement which is necessary for effective learning. Within my extension program and with students, both graduate and undergraduate, I utilize hands-on, ‘inquiry-based’ learning. Encouraging learners, whether extension agents, farmers, or students, to ask questions about pathogens and disease management and then brainstorm possible solutions creates an environment that not only engages the learner but also promotes better retention of knowledge. The main aspects of my teaching philosophy that I promote in my program include engaging learners with hands-on, inquiry-based teaching, promotion of critical thinking skills, and assessment of concept understanding and retention.


EPP 508: Plant Health Diagnostics –  Practical experience diagnosing plant health problems caused by insects, nematodes, microbial pathogens, and abiotic stresses. Students will use modern plant health diagnostics tools and techniques, both in the laboratory and field, in diverse ecosystems including field, vegetable, and orchard crops, forests, and urban landscapes. Contact Hour Distribution: One week summer workshop.

heather kelly

office (731) 425-4713
EPP main office (865) 974-7135
fax (731) 425-4760

West TN Research & Education Center
605 Airways Boulevard
Jackson, TN  38301

B.S., Biological Sciences, Florida State University
M.S., Science Teaching, Florida State University
Ph.D., Plant Pathology, University of Florida

UT Crops

30% Research, 70% Extension

Graduate program concentrations
Sustainable Disease and Integrated Pest Management Systems

Areas of expertise
IPM in Field Crops
Fungicide Resistance
Epidemiology of Plant Diseases

Key Words
field crops, soybean, corn, cotton, wheat, sorghum, fungicide resistance, disease epidemiology, disease forecasting, IPM

Creative Art Microscope image

Research questions in our laboratory

  • Can molecular techniques be used in an applied, disease forecasting model to better guide management decisions in field crops?
  • What factors are most efficient for disease forecasting?
  • Can a more site specific disease management plan be formulated using multiple factors including: cultivar and fungicide selection, field history (i.e. cultivation, previous crop, previous disease pressure, etc.), weather, and disease forecasting?
  • What are the best practices to increase the longevity of fungicides in field crops?
  • What factors increase and/or increase the rate of development of fungicide resistance in field crops?
EPP People Icon

Current lab members

  • Wesley Crowder, Research Technician
  • Shelly Pate, Ph.D. Student
  • Elias Zuchelli, Ph.D. Student
  • Jackson Adcock, Ph.D. Student
  • Autumn McLaughlin, Ph.D. Student
  • Peter Tandy, Ph.D. Student