Weeds seem to work their way into agricultural and domestic scenes the world around. They rob plants that humans find desirable of moisture, nutrients and habitat. Farmers spend millions of dollars each year combating weeds in their fields. Home gardeners put in countless hours digging and pulling up unwanted weeds in their vegetable and flower beds. To many of us they are, simply, the enemy.
But to Carol Mallory-Smith, weeds are intriguing plants in the wrong place. One of the newest faculty members of OSU's Crop and Soil Science and Horticulture departments, Mallory-Smith describes her research on weed biology in crops as "endlessly fascinating."
"Studying weeds is great because nothing ever stays the same," she said. "They are much more interesting than studying crop species to me because weeds respond to the environment so readily, whether it be to cultural practices such as plowing or herbicide application. There are so many weeds that do such interesting things.
"And we know so little about weeds," she continued. "We haven't studied them like we have our crop species. We know so little about their genetics, their breeding systems. We don't know about their pollination biology. They just haven't been looked at."
Her route up the career ladder has been circuitous. Growing up as a farmer's kid near the base of the Blue Mountains in the remote corner of southeastern Washington, Mallory-Smith married and had two children after high school. During graduate school she remarried and gained two more daughters.
It wasn't until her kids started school that Mallory-Smith began college, earning her bachelor's degree in plant science in 1986 at the University of Idaho. She became so fascinated with the ecology of weeds in crops that she went straight on to earn her doctorate in weed science at Idaho in 1990. She worked as a post-doctorate researcher and a research scientist there for four years before she came to OSU in 1994.
Mallory-Smith also loves working with students. She has been so effective teaching and advising undergraduate students that last year she was selected to fill OSU's newly endowed George R. Hyslop professorship for undergraduate teaching and research. Every three years a new faculty member in the Department of Crop and Soil Science will be chosen to fill the professorship, funded by the Hyslop family and the grass seed industry. She is the first.
With her research program for the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station, her work with the Hyslop professorship and her teaching, Mallory-Smith keeps extremely busy. Her major activities include:
-Running a research program, along with two technicians, in weed management ecology for western Oregon's major crops, including grass seed, wheat, peppermint, meadowfoam, clover and alfalfa. She studies weed control methods for these crops including the use of herbicides, and growing practices that discourage weeds such as fertilization, row spacing and crop rotation. Many of these weeds have become somewhat resistant to the herbicides used to control weeds, posing even more of a challenge for a weed scientist.
"Multiply a long list of weed species for each of these crops, and you can see it would keep me pretty busy," she said with a laugh.
-Investigating interbreeding of wheat and its weedy cousin, jointed goatgrass.
"There are huge implications for the wheat industry with the spread of jointed goatgrass," she said. "We can't find an herbicide that will get rid of jointed goatgrass but not the wheat crop. So far, crop rotation is the most effective control for jointed goatgrass."
-Organizing undergraduate education in her department, including orientation, classroom and research experience for the students, including running the Hyslop professorship activities. She has six graduate students. She also works with other weed scientists at OSU to develop a weed science curriculum across departments and disciplines.
-Providing weed information to growers through the OSU Extension Service system in western Oregon, short courses and other educational events.
She also has plans to tackle more weed problems that plague growers in western Oregon including: hairy nightshade in snap beans, grass seeds in wheat, annual bluegrass in perennial ryegrass and herbicide resistant weeds in mint.
Growing up in a rural, agricultural region of the country has made Mallory-Smith quite comfortable with her surroundings in Oregon, at OSU and with her students.
"Oregon is still rural in many ways," she said. "We have lots of students who come from small towns. It is hard for them to come to a big school. We pay lots of attention to our undergraduate students in our department. Because of our strong first year programs, our retention rate is really high. Crop and soil science students have a real home here at OSU."