Dr Joey Hulbert broke new ground when he became the first candidate at the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute to complete a PhD study incorporating citizen science. Citizen science is an approach that involves members of the public as active participants in scientific research. Dr Hulbert founded Cape Citizen Science, an initiative that encouraged members of the public in the Western Cape Province to become “pathogen hunters” despite their age or qualification. He encouraged “citizens” to report sightings of diseased or dying plants or, after some training, to submit samples, isolate microorganisms and extract DNA.
Dr Hulbert engaged with workers at nurseries, nature reserves, municipalities, botanical gardens and national parks as well as school groups. He also travelled to festivals in the province to spread awareness about plant diseases and the threat of Phytophthora species to the Cape Floristic Region’s unique fynbos biome. This approach contributed to the collection of hundreds of isolates and the sequencing of genes.
In his study, he found 18 Phytophthora species (one of which has only been informally described) and three putative hybrids. Seven of these species were not known to occur in South Africa. As FABI and the world observe the International Year of Plant Health, this study highlights the potential of public engagement in enhancing biosecurity and protecting plant health. It also highlights the role that public spaces such as botanical and urban gardens play in baseline data collection and in the detection of novel plant-pathogen interactions.