Seven Questions with Walt Mahaffee

  1. What is your position at the USDA/OWRI?

I am a Research Plant Pathologist with the Horticulture Crops Research Unit in Corvallis, courtesy faculty in Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University, and a Core member of the Oregon Wine Research Institute

  1. What do you enjoy most about your work?

Solving problems and the accidental discoveries that occur when talking with growers.

  1. When you’re not working, how do you enjoy spending your time?

Not sure that I don’t always work – at least mentally. I am always thinking/dreaming about our research.  Outside of the lab, I am a fairly active soccer referee with AYSO, USSF, and High School and involved in mentoring and training of new referees particularly youth.  This requires that I jog a fair bit so that I can keep up with players. I am also a lead mentor for Crescent Valley FRC Robotics team, soccer coach, and on the board of a foundation. At home, I am into woodworking, home renovation and gardening. I also write some poetry – of sorts.  My family (Caroline [wife], Hunter [son] and Adelaide [daughter]) and I try to spend as much time as possible in the snow going as fast as we can.  We are also into biking and backpacking when the other activities allow.

  1. What inspired you to choose your career path?

I do not remember it being conscious choice.  I stumbled into it.  I started college in pre-vet but found that the rote memorization still required in the classes was not for me.  College, like high school, was a chore until something clicked when I took my first microbiology class.  I was hooked on trying to understand how something so tiny could alter civilizations and even planets.  I could have studied anything related to microbes but accidently met my Master’s major professor while playing Pictionary with his 6 year old daughter – long story.  During my MS degree, I worked on project that resulted in two commercial biological control agents for seedling diseases of cotton and peanuts.  The realization that I could use my passion for microbiology to benefit agriculture sealed the deal.  I also learned during this time that the corporate world was not for me.  I hate dressing up; so much so that I have turned down significant pay increases over the years purely because of the dress code.

  1. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

There are two things that come to mind.  One I am not sure you would call it advice.  My grandfather would always ask me a question whenever he heard me say “I can’t”.  “How do you know?” or “Can’t you think of something else.”  He taught me to aim high, dream bigger and accept no limits.  It also taught me to always challenge authority.  Something my children seemed to have learned.  My other grandfather used to tell me “whenever you meet someone, give them a firm hand shake, look them straight in the eye and remember you are no better them and they are no better than you”  From this, I have learned that everyone can teach me something and I am better off if I learn it.

  1. Which three people (living or dead) would you invite to dinner?

Steven Hawking, Roger Waters, Elon Musk and the subject of conversation would be whether time exists.

  1. What is your vision for the future of your research?

I do not really have “a vision”.  I see the world in probabilities with numerous potential outcomes.  So I am constantly chasing multiple visions.  Currently, I consider the most probable outcome of my group’s and our collaborators research (hopefully before I die) is the development of a risk management system that encompasses autonomous robots and simulation environments to bring unprecedented fine scale resolution to risk management in agriculture, not just wine grapes.  To do this we must work with computer scientists, engineers, physicists, sociologist, economists, and many others and quit thinking about why it can’t be done and start thinking about what will it take to do it.  After all, this is how the Oregon wine industry got its start.