• Reduce text

    Reduce text
  • Restore text size

    Restore text size
  • Increase the text

    Increase the text
  • Print

    Print

Cindy Morris: distinguished for her contribution to society

Cindy Morris is Director of the Plant Pathology Research Unit at INRA’s research center in Avignon, a unit that focuses on diseases of horticultural crops. On May 9th 2009 she received the Distinguished Alumni award from Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University for her research contributions as a scientist, but also for her atypical career path, her energy, her world experience and for her contributions to society.

Cindy Morris is Director of the Plant Pathology Research Unit at INRA’s research center in Avignon, a unit that focuses on diseases of horticultural crops. On May 9th 2009 she received the Distinguished Alumni award from Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University for her research contributions as a scientist, but also for her atypical career path, her energy, her world experience and for her contributions to society.. © INRA, Anne Glemin
By Emmanuelle Manck, translated by Emily Divinagracia
Updated on 06/23/2017
Published on 05/11/2009

“The natural sciences pursued me.”

Cindy Morris remembers the environment of her childhood where nature was an integral part of daily life. “We lived on abandoned agricultural fields on the shore of Lake Michigan, on sandy soils that continued to produce fruit trees, blue berries and strawberries in abundance. Bird song cradled the whole of my childhood! An important memory was that we lived near the world’s largest open-air fruit and vegetable market. I never decided per se to pursue the natural sciences – they pursued me.” Enamored with botany and animal sciences, at 18 she enrolled at Michigan State University to pursue biology and in particular the study of animal behavior and development, and eventually plant pathology. During her school years she managed to get jobs as a laboratory assistant in waste water treatment plants and as a research assistant in plant pathology.

The China years

When she began her doctoral thesis in 1979 at the University of Wisconsin, Cindy was “shocked” that competence in a foreign language – even simply at the reading level – had been eliminated among the requirements for students in the sciences. “Wasn’t that a bit arrogant? I discovered that American research had a sort of superiority complex.” Especially curious and open-minded, Cindy had no intention at the time of “closing myself up as a professor at a university.” She wanted to “see other things”. Together with her French husband Philippe Nicot who shared her perspective, the two of them applied for scholarships for research in China proposed at the time by the US National Academy of Sciences. “We were successful in obtaining funding for a one-year sojourn in the Department of Plant Protection at Beijing Agricultural University, but we found the means to stay for an additional three years. My husband, a mycologist, and I a bacteriologist, had submitted complementary projects on soil-borne and aerially-disseminated diseases in inter-cropped vegetable systems, a subject somewhat related to by current research.” How did they feel “at the other end of the world” in a culture so different from their own? “We were very aware that we risked cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world, but we were not much concerned about that risk. Life in China was much more interesting than difficult. I have no regrets; we had a fabulous experience.”

Return to France amidst a revolution

In 1989 the couple heard about two job openings at INRA-Avignon that corresponded to their competence. Their departure from China was amidst turbulence. “In March we bought plane tickets for our departure on June 10th. But on June 9th we were repatriated by the French Embassy because of the events at Tian-An Men Square.” Two weeks later Cindy, who was 7-months pregnant at the time and whose French was rudimentary at best, was interviewed for the job. Somehow the language obstacle did not stop her from “questioning the questions” of her interviewer, as she remembers with astonishment.

A pathogen of cantaloupe that causes rain?

After several years of work on diseases in greenhouse and the microbiology of ready-to-use salads, her research since 1995 has focused on an important disease of cantaloupe. “This disease could destroy up to 100% of the harvest, especially in the Southwest. Agricultural catastrophes have been officially acknowledged in two departments because of the damage caused by this disease. Samples were brought to my lab because a bacterium was suspected to be the culprit. In working with the causal agent, Pseudomonas syringe, we realized that our strains were ice nucleation active, and at temperatures as warm as -2° or -3°C. Given that this plant pathogen has also been found in clouds, we have been intrigued by the possibility that it is involved in forming rain.” This bacteriologist is very enthusiastic about research concerning the impact of micro-organisms on the atmosphere. “There are atmospheric processes that could not happen without these biological catalysts. Over the past several years I have worked to build a network of physicists, microbiologists, meteorologists and agronomists to give new life to this research question. We have the appropriate tools to address it now. This work will probably keep me busy to the end of my career. “ Since 2008, Cindy Morris is the director of the Plant Pathology Research Unit. The motivation for her research work seems unlikely to burn out. “Even if I must retire one day from INRA, I’ll find a means to continue working on this subject ! “ she says with a hardy laugh.

Honor to an individual more so than to a scientist

It was a surprise for Cindy when Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University named her a distinguished alumnus in 2009. But after thinking about it “this award is meant to honor the ensemble of activities and contributions of alumni. I suppose that they see the values of the College reflected in those that are expressed by my professional and scientific activities, and in particular the importance of keeping a link between philosophy and history of science and basic scientific research. Science becomes particularly exciting when we understand the role of history and culture in our perception of nature, and when we pursue these interactions for the benefit of society.”

Contact(s)
Scientific contact(s):

  • Cindy Morris Plant Pathology Research Unit
Associated Division(s):
Plant Health and Environment
Associated Centre(s):
Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

Curriculum vitae in brief

  • 52 years old
  • married, 2 children
  • training: Bachelor of Science in Biology from Michigan State University, PhD in Plant Pathology from the University of Wisconsin