HCS Alumni Spotlight: Gitta Coaker

Dec. 11, 2023
Gitta Coaker, Alumnus Class of 2003

Meet Gitta Coaker | OSU HCS Alumnus Class of 2003

Dr. Gitta Coaker is a Professor and the John and Joan Fiddyment Endowed Chair of the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis. She received her PhD (2003) focused on plant breeding and genetics from our department under the advisement of Dr. David Francis

Gitta's leading a remarkable career focused on plant science. She has been continuously recognized by her students, colleagues, and mentors as an outstanding leader. Most recently the American Phytopathological Society (APS) awarded her the Noel T. Keen Award for Research Excellence in Molecular Plant Pathology. We were honored to chat with Gitta about her career so far...

How’d you initially become interested in plant science?

I became interested in plant science as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona. I first took a course focused on human and animal genetics in my junior year. The next semester, I enrolled in Plant Genetics taught by Professor Dennis Ray. Professor Ray was a great teacher, and I found the topic fascinating. Without plants, human and animal life would cease to exist. The importance of plant sciences resonated with me, and I felt that advancements in plant genetics could have near-term benefits.

How did your time in HCS help prepare you for your career?

I started as a master’s student and after my first year decided I wanted to pursue a PhD degree. I appreciate the connections and mentoring I received as a student at The Ohio State University. My PhD advisor, David Francis, is a rigorous scientist and was generous with his time to help me develop as a scientist. I grew a lot scientifically during my PhD. I learned the importance of experimental design for both laboratory and field experiments along with how to analyze data. I learned how to interact and communicate with diverse stakeholders (scientists, growers, and members of industry). I also started to develop a network of other scientists, including students in my cohort, that I still rely upon today.

My PhD was an exciting time for both personal and professional growth. What most prepared me for my current career is an understanding of how to identify important scientific problems, critically analyze data, the ability to continually learn, and the importance of having a strong/cohesive scientific team.

Gitta celebrating a graduation in a traditional graduate cap and gown

What’s the rough career path that brought you to the University of California, Davis?

After I graduated with my BS from the University of Arizona, I worked in industry for two years on temperature sensitivity of pharmaceutical products. I realized I loved lab work, but wanted to be the one making the decisions and needed an advanced degree to do so. My time in industry also made me realize I was most passionate about agriculture. I was interested in Plant Breeding because you produce a product that people consume. I decided to attend The Ohio State University HCS’s program because I wanted to work with Professor David Francis and liked the different research programs within the department. During my PhD I realized that I found the interactions between pathogens and plants fascinating so I pursued a postdoctoral position with Professor Brian Staskawicz at the University of California, Berkeley. After my postdoc, I interviewed for faculty positions and accepted one in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis. I started at UC Davis in 2007 and remain there today.

What made you decide to pursue a career in academia?

I like the ability to guide my own research program and investigate scientific questions that I find most fascinating. I enjoy mentoring other scientists, watching them develop as scientists, and succeed in their chosen career after they leave my lab. I also like the diversity of the job which involves continuously learning, interacting with different scientists/students, teaching, and travel.

What’s a normal day look like for you

It depends on the time of year what my day looks like. I meet with people in my research group and discuss their experiments every day; we also have lab meetings weekly. I spend a lot of time writing- either writing grants to get money for my research program or helping my lab members write/edit papers. I frequently attend seminars and meet with other scientists/collaborators on joint projects. I teach ~5 months a year and during that time spend time planning curriculum and meeting with students. I run the Plant Pathology Graduate program and am involved in student recruitment and retention. I am also involved in several other university initiatives I enjoy, focused on best practices in mentoring and diversity initiatives for new faculty recruitment and retention. I love to travel so I am gone about 30% of the time to meet with collaborators, give seminars at other departments, and attend scientific meetings with my lab members to present results.

Gitta and the members of her lab at UC Davis posing smiling outside.

what do you most look forward to each day on the job?

I enjoy interacting with other scientists, presenting our research and teaching the most; I dislike administrative meetings that are not run in a productive manner.

What have been a few highlights of your career so far?

I think the biggest highlight of my career has been the opportunity to train and mentor the next generation of scientists and watch them succeed after leaving my program. I find it rewarding to see undergraduate students get excited about the possibility of a career in science and get hands-on training in the lab. I also really enjoy seeing a student or postdoctoral scientist give great presentations, take ownership of their projects, come up with new and better ideas, and interact effectively as a team.

I’ve received several scientific or mentoring awards, which are also career highlights. I received the Noel T. Keen Award for Research Excellence in Molecular Plant Pathology in 2022 (focused on career long excellence and leadership; I was the youngest awardee and only the second woman to receive the award). I was named as the John and Joan Fiddyment Endowed Chair in Agriculture in 2022. I have also been recognized for excellence in mentoring with the Graduate Student Mentoring Award at UC Davis in 2020.

Gitta smiling with two other while receiving the Noel T. Keen Award.

Any advice for students considering graduate school or plant science related careers?

My advice is that plant sciences is an important topic with strong job opportunities. I encourage prospective students to think about what types of research are most interesting to them, consider the breadth of research in different departments (Are there multiple faculty members with research programs you find exciting?), and carefully consider department culture as well as the mentorship style of individual faculty members before committing. It is a good idea to meet in person or virtually with prospective faculty members, ask them open-ended questions about their mentorship style/expectations, and separately meet current/former members of the research program to determine if this is a good fit for you.

To continue learning more about Gitta, you can visit the Coaker Lab Website or check out her publications on Google Scholar.

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