Bob Harveson didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. He certainly never imagined becoming a plant pathologist.
“I don’t think anybody goes to college and says, ‘I want to be a plant pathologist,’” Harveson said.
Yet, here he is, not only working in plant pathology, but earning significant recognition for his work.
In August, Harveson attended the American Phytopathological Society’s North Central Division’s meeting in Cleveland where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award.
“I didn’t know that I had even been nominated,” Harveson said. “I was very surprised.”
Growing up, Harveson would watch farmers working in their fields and he’d wonder what a life like that would be like.
“I kind of wish I would have grown up in that type of family,” Harveson said.
Even though he’d occasionally look at the fields with longing, he never considered a career in agriculture. When he started attending Trinity University, a liberal arts college in San Antonio, he didn’t know what he wanted to do.
“I played a lot of sports,” Harveson said. “So I was interested in sports and being a coach.”
He knew he’d likely have to be a teach as well and decided his subject would be history.
“I never really thought about science,” Harveson admitted. “I thought science was for really smart people, like rocket scientists.”
Once he started attending classes, he realized he wasn’t really interested in physical education. He ended up graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history.
“I had fun for those first four years, but I graduated with a worthless degree,” said Harveson.
At that point, he still had no idea what he was going to do with his life. He was sure of one thing: He didn’t want to end up behind a desk in a suit and tie.
A man in his church congregation worked in soil conservation, which piqued Harveson’s interest, partially because no suit and tie were required.
“He said I’d need a degree in soil science or agronomy,” Harveson said. “I didn’t even know what agronomy was.”
He decided to attend Tarleton State University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s in plant and soil science.
Despite that, he struggled to find work - he lacked real-world experience. Eventually he took a job in an oil field.
“I was pretty miserable,” Harveson said.
He heard about some assistantship openings at Texas A&M and was offered a position with a virologist.
“It was intimidating,” he said.
Through that gig, Harveson found his passion for plant pathology and eventually obtained a masters degree in the subject.
He realized he enjoyed diagnosing plants with diseases and eventually applied for a position at a Florida experiment station where he’d work in the diagnostics laboratory.
When Harveson applied, there were two openings: One for someone with a masters who would run the lab, and one for a supervisor position that would oversee Harveson and other parts of the program. Harveson filled the master’s position prior to the supervisory position being filled. He found himself completing the duties of both jobs.
“It hit me, why be the assistant?” Harveson said. “I realized I could do this.”
He just needed a doctorate. He headed back to school, earning a Ph. D. in plant pathology in 1999 from the University of Florida. Prior to graduating, he was offered a job with the Panhandle Research and Extension Center under the condition that he graduated.
He spent 14 hours a day, six days a week working on a dissertation about a type of fungus that he discovered was feeding on another fungus that had infected a plant.
“It’s a form of biological control,” Harveson explained.
In June of 1999, Harveson got married and a week later he successfully defended his findings. Not long after, he and his wife were on their way to Nebraska so he could begin his new job.
This year, Harveson and his staff have conducted more than 25 projects with diseases of nine difference crop species.
Harveson’s job also includes a lot of writing.
“That’s probably the easiest part of the job,” Harveson said. “I’ve always just had this innate ability to do that.”
He’s written books, chapters, journal and technical articles, extension publications and news articles. In total, he’s written 291 publications in the last five years.
His first book, “The Bacterium of Many Colors,” was released in 2015 and he’s currently finishing up his second book about the history of plant pathology in the area.
His writings were cited as his most remarkable contribution on his nomination for the Distinguished Service Award.
Now in his 20th year at the Research and Extension Center, Harveson feels grateful for the way things have come together.
“If I had to write a job description of a job that would be perfect for me, it would be this,” he said.