Alison Thompson returns

Photo of Alison Thompson, USDA-ARS
Alison Thompson, USDA-ARS research biologist

If you were to ask Alison Thompson, she would say Pullman is the perfect place to study wheat and barley.

“It’s a great location, not only because of the university and ongoing collaboration with USDA, but because of the stakeholder engagement and continued support by the Washington Grain Commission,” Thompson said.

Since 2015, Thompson has been working as a plant geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) at its Plant Physiology and Genetics Unit in Maricopa, Ariz. Her research has focused on developing and validating fieldbased, high-throughput phenotyping methods and data processing pipelines for the cotton prebreeding program. But her scientific work has not always focused on cotton.

The USDA-ARS objective is to deliver scientific solutions to American farmers, producers, industry and communities to address national and global agricultural challenges. ARS laboratories across five regions of the country provide the fundamental and field research to
support this aim.

The Wheat Health, Genetics and Quality Research Unit, based in Pullman, is part of the Pacific West Area of the USDA-ARS. Thompson was recently hired to this team as a research biologist to work on the low falling numbers problem in wheat, as well as characterize adaptation responses of wheat and barley to changing environmental conditions.

“Alison’s research experience and expertise are a tremendous asset to the research unit’s work on falling numbers in wheat, and we are very happy that she decided to return to Pullman,” said David Weller, research plant pathologist and USDA-ARS unit leader in Pullman.

“Wheat has always been a part of my life, and I wanted to work with it again in a way that would benefit my family and community,” Thompson said. What attracted her to the job in Pullman? Several things, she says. “The crop, the location, and the team.”

Thompson was born and raised in Pendleton, Ore., where her family grows wheat. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Seattle Pacific University, and her Ph.D. in crop science from Washington State University (WSU). Her graduate work focused on identifying and developing wheat germplasm with resistance to root lesion nematodes and other soil-borne pathogens common to the Pacific Northwest. Following her Ph.D., she served as a postdoctoral research assistant in the crop and soils department at WSU, where she studied the biochemical mechanisms of resistance in wheat against soil-borne pathogens. From there she landed at USDA in Arizona studying cotton.

“I’m hoping I can take what I learned during my time in Arizona and apply it to provide solutions for low falling numbers and other problems associated with changing environmental conditions, to our stakeholders,” Thompson said. “I already knew about the excellent team that is in place here. I am excited to be able to work with them again and bring something new to the team.”

She also hopes to develop an integrated program with stakeholders, breeders and other researchers that identifies potential problems early on, “so we have solutions ready to go.

“Overall, I hope to be part of a team that enables our growers to produce excellent quality grain for export on the global market and fosters strong relationships within our community,” she said.

Thompson anticipates engaging and collaborating with Washington’s wheat and barley growers through grower-attended meetings, tours and workshops organized by WSU and the Washington Grain Commission. For example, she plans on participating in field days and
grower tours held during the early summer months this year.

“In the future, I hope to be invited to growers’ fields to learn about their operations and future needs and maybe even conduct some experiments on their farms. I would encourage growers to email me and introduce themselves or would be happy to meet them at a field experiment location to talk,” Thompson said.

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