Mihail Kantor grew up in 1980s Romania, where there were limited options for children’s entertainment. Instead, Kantor spent his childhood wandering nature, exploring and learning about animals. He wanted to become a veterinarian, but after being diagnosed with severe allergies in high school, switched focus to gardening. He went on to secure his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in horticulture from the University of Agricultural Science and Veterinary Medicine in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Kantor began to network with other scientists after moving to the United States for his master’s degree in plant biotechnologies, such as Amnon Levi, who introduced him to the Vegetable Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). After he earned his master’s degree, the two started to collaborate. One of these collaborations was on plant-parasitic nematodes, microscopic worms that can severely damage crops. This project would cause Kantor to realize he was not only fascinated by nematodes but had a passion for studying them.
“While nematodes are not really the expected furry pets you would think of, this work has interestingly brought together my love for plants and animals,” said Kantor.
He wanted to expand his knowledge and pursue his new passion for nematology, so Kantor applied to be an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Research Participation Program fellow through ORISE. The USDA ARS Research Participation Program provides opportunities for students, postgraduates, established scientists and faculty to participate in programs, projects and activities at ARS-designated facilities to help ARS solve agricultural problems of high national priority.
Zafar Handoo, who Kantor had previously networked with, became his official mentor. The two studied nematodes together for the National Pest Identification Services branch of the USDA, located at Handoo’s laboratory.
The bulk of Kantor’s research project was to identify nematodes, particularly nematodes that were parasitic towards crops and plants, called plant-parasitic nematodes. He and his team received soil, plant clippings and even truffle samples from all over the U.S., and he then processed the samples for nematode identification. Kantor collaborated to help discover four new nematode species: Punctodera mulveyi, Paratylenchus beltsvilleiensis, Pratylenchus dakotaensis and Trichodorus marylandi, with a fifth potential species still under review.
Additionally, Kantor studied how taking plant extracts and using cover crops to protect the soil affected the nematodes. Plant-parasitic nematodes can impair the root growth of crops, making it difficult for crops to receive the nutrients they need. This makes the study of parasitic nematodes’ relationship to their food source imperative to crop health. Kantor collaborated with Susan Meyer from the Beltsville branch of the USDA on several projects, including one which looked at hybrid festulolium, a forage grass used for grazing livestock.
“The presence of high populations of plant-parasitic nematodes could cause serious crop losses in many economically important crops,” commented Kantor. “But for some reason, they are always the last ones that growers, extension agents and even researchers think of when planning for mitigation or interventions.”
Kantor and Meyer discovered that festulolium was a poor source of food for certain nematodes, such as the root-knot nematode M. incognita. M. incognita is one of the four most common species of parasitic nematodes, making Kantor’s research crucial to understanding this common crop pest. His research shows that festulolium is a useful grazing crop for framers who want to avoid root-knot nematodes thriving near their crops.
As a fellow, Kantor collaborated on over thirty peer reviewed papers and several abstracts. One such abstract, “Morphological and molecular characterisation of Punctodera mulveyi n. sp. (Nematoda: Punctoderidae) from a golf course green in Oregon, USA, with a key to species of Punctodera,” put a spotlight on the new species P. mulveyi which was discovered by Kantor and his team.
Kantor credits his time as a USDA fellow as being what pushed him forward in his scientific career. Being able to collaborate with experts, learn from them and put that learning into practice opened doors, said Kantor. He also served as an ARS Postdoc Advisory Council (PDAC) member, which helped him gain valuable leadership skills. Being a part of the PDAC was a “great experience” because it awarded him the ability to research alongside other fellows and top scientists from the USDA, said Kantor.
Kantor recommends the ORISE program and gave some advice to potential applicants.
“ORISE offers a unique opportunity to work and establish collaborations with some of the best experts in their fields,” he said. “The experience and training you gain by working for some of the world’s best research institutions coupled with the relationships you will establish will definitely help your career move forward.”
From admiring nature in Romania to studying plants in South Carolina and Virginia, Kantor has traveled far and learned a lot from his diverse peers. Today, he is an assistant research professor of nematology at Pennsylvania State University and will continue to use his knowledge for the betterment of agriculture across the U.S. and the globe.
The USDA ARS Research Participation Program is funded by USDA and is administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.