Contributed by Taylor Chalstrom | Agricultural Science | Folsom, CA
At Cal Poly, students often think faculty members are only here to teach the curriculum for a class and go home. While this may be the case for some, other faculty members spend their time contributing even more.
Dr. Shashika Hewavitharana is one of these members. She joined the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES), specifically the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, in 2019. She studied plant biotechnology and pathology at the University of Columbo in Sri Lanka and at Washington State University before coming to Cal Poly. Here, Dr. Hewavitharana is not only an assistant professor but also a Strawberry Pathologist and researcher at the Cal Poly Strawberry Center.
“My Ph.D. advisor, who is a USDA scientist, put me on a collaboration with UC Santa Cruz researchers about apples and strawberries, which is the reason for my link to strawberries,” Dr. Hewavitharana said.
Dr. Hewavitharana’s time at the Strawberry Center is split between university research and the Center’s strawberry disease diagnostic service, a free service where San Luis Obispo county growers send in samples to be tested. She explains the diagnostic service and how it helps benefit her research.
“When growers send in samples, I usually help with testing,” Dr. Hewavitharana said. “I then let them know what is wrong and what they can do to prevent it again. The testing helps me discover new things, too, since I’m able to isolate pathogens from the samples and use them for my research.”
Dr. Hewavitharana’s current research is with above-ground, soil-borne pathogens in strawberries. Even though she hasn’t made any specific discoveries yet, she and her team are optimistic about the future.
“We are close to a discovery and will hopefully have an answer by May 2020,” Dr. Hewavitharana said. “The project I’m working on involves fumigation that looks to find microorganisms flourishing afterward to help strawberries continue to grow. Basically, we want to know if these fumigations kill the good and bad things in the soil or just the bad things.”
Research such as this has the ability to revolutionize the way how not only strawberries are grown, but also how other crops involving fumigation grow. Utilizing the future results of this research and continuing to run the strawberry disease diagnostic service, Dr. Hewavitharana can help fumigation companies create better products and protect growers in the process. She mentions how this aspect of her job, the ability to help others, is her favorite part.
“All of my work here carries a unique spirit that allows me to help growers and do things for the problems we have,” Dr. Hewavitharana said. “It gives me a reason to get up in the morning.”