Robertson at home in Iowa's corn, bean fields

2012-09-28T03:30:00Z Robertson at home in Iowa's corn, bean fieldsTim Hoskins, Lee Agri-Media Farm and Ranch Guide
September 28, 2012 3:30 am  • 

Despite the exotic experiences of camping in national parks with wild elephants and giraffes, one Iowa State University Extension plant pathologist is just as happy to explore plant diseases in a hot Iowa field.

Alison Robertson grew up in Zimbabwe on the African continent.

Her mom was a radiologist, and her dad worked for Kodak.

Robertson's parents were from England but moved to Zimbabwe when it was still a British colony.

While growing up, Robertson and her family would camp in national parks surrounded by elephants, giraffes, rhinosceroses and other wild African animals.

She recalls one camping excursion when her mother told her to stay in the tent because an elephant was just outside straddling the guide ropes.

Robertson attended a public elementary school. However, after Zimbabwe won its independence in 1980, she was a day scholar at a private all-girls school after enrollment in the public schools soared.

She became interested in genetics while taking high school biology.

That led Robertson to enroll as a plant-breeding major at University of Natal in South Africa.

"They didn't have human genetics," she says.

However, after starting college, she heard a lecture by a plant pathologist and became interested in the field.

Robertson quickly changed her major to plant pathology.

She met her husband, Malcolm Robertson, at the college. He graduated from the college with a horticulture degree and eventually earned his master's degree in ag economics. He now works for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU and teaches horticulture.

The couple came to the United States on a student exchange trip. Most of the students on the exchange trip worked a ski resort. However, the Robertsons worked a motel "on the wrong side of the tracks" with another student on the exchange.

The motel was surrounded by a convenience store and trailer parks. Her job was to collect the rent and pack up renters' belongings if they didn't pay. She remembers cautiously picking up some of the belongings between her fingers to shake out the drugs.

"I have some wild stories about that place," she says.

After that, they purchased a car and toured the United States.

Robertson says they had a gas fund and a $500 emergency fund. But, they budgeted to spend $25 per day and mostly camped.

"If we spent the $25 for the day, we would go hiking. You can't spend any money at 10,000 feet," she says. "That was awesome."

The couple visited 26 states before traveling to England. There, they worked in a fish-and-chips shop in England before returning to Zimbabwe to earn money to repay their parents, who financed their U.S. trip.

Robertson then studied for a master's degree and worked as an Extension plant pathologist at a tobacco research station.

"That is where I developed my love of helping farmers."

Robertson says they had saved enough money to purchase land to build a house. However, they could not get a loan to build after the currency of Zimbabwe was devalued.

The couple decided to come to the United States. Robertson earned her doctorate in plant pathology at Clemson University.

Upon graduation, she applied for several Extension jobs and was hired by ISU.

While she misses her African home, Robertson enjoys Iowa as well. She says one factor is the dominance of agriculture in Zimbabwe just like in Iowa.

She also appreciates the opportunity being in the United States offers her two daughters.

Robertson has traveled internationally to swim and participate in triathlons. She says the pool is one of her happy places.

"Being in a 95-degree Iowa corn field looking at spots on the plant is another one of my happy places to be," she notes.

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