SLU news

Malin Elfstrand – new Professor in Forest Pathology

Published: 02 May 2023
Portrait photo of a woman outside. Photo.

Malin Elfstrand is the new Professor in forest pathology at the Department of Forest Mycology and Plant Pathology. An overall goal in her research is to understand molecular mechanisms that help trees defend themselves from pathogenic fungi.

Malin Elfstrand studied biology at Uppsala University and for a long time, she thought that her calling was to work with plant systematics. However, a rainy and windy September day at Gotland this changed.

– We were attending a systematics course and the other students climbed down the Grogarn mountain to see a rare fern growing on a rock shelf. Here, I felt that it was not worth risking my life in the hunt for rare species. After that, I focused on plant physiology and plant molecular biology instead, says Malin.

Counteracting damage to forest trees and preserving diversity

On May 1st, Malin started as the Professor in Forest Pathology at the Department of Forest Mycology and Plant Pathology at SLU. Malin’s goal as a professor is to generate new knowledge that helps us counteract damage and disease to forest trees and preserve diversity in our forests.

– I look forward to developing new ideas and projects, through collaborations within the group and department and with other groups at SLU and elsewhere. I have always collaborated a lot, and I think that it is the key to success. I also think that I as the new professor in forest pathology group has a specific responsibility to ensure that the group, which has been a very successful research group at SLU, continue thriving in the future.

Malin is born in Västervik and today she lives with her family in Uppsala. During her free times she enjoys reading, spending time with family and friends, baking, gardening and to engage in different crafts. Occasionally, she still enjoys wandering around with a flora and investigating interesting plants.

The importance of the research group for success

After the studies at Uppsala University, Malin’s next step was to do a PhD at the Department of Forest Genetics at SLU. In 2001, she defended her thesis on defense-related genes in Norway spruce. Here, she showed that if you overexpress genes encoding defensin and peroxidases in transgenic spruce, it can increase the spruce plants' ability to defend themselves against Heterobasidion root rot.

– In retrospect, I can say that I had an insanely difficult and unrealistically large project for a Ph D student, but also an equally insanely good and supportive group of supervisors who encouraged, supported and helped me replan when I got stuck in a dead end. Without them, I would never have got that project off the ground. So, the most important thing I learned as a PhD student was how important the group you work in is for you to succeed. 

Malin did a post doc on molecular interactions between plants and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi at Basel University. After that she has been a post doc, an assistant professor, and an associate professor at SLU working with plant-fungus interactions.

Mixed groups lead to better student learning

Malin like interacting with students and has spent a lot of time developing the teaching at SLU’s programs and courses. At the Department of Forest Mycology and Plant Pathology, she has been the director of undergraduate studies.

– I did not study at SLU and was quite surprised at how homogeneous the student groups were when I started teaching here. Therefore, one topic close to my heart is to broaden the recruitment to SLU's courses. A more mixed student group leads to more interesting discussions and better learning for the students!

Improving forest health

Malin conducts basic and applied research on physiological and molecular aspects of tree-fungus interactions to improve forest health.

– Through my career I have moved along the symbiosis to pathogenesis continuum and between annual to perennial plants analysing genetic variation and phenotypic variation of plants responses to fungi. I have also moved along the continuum ranging from basic curiosity driven research to applied needs driven research.

An overall goal of Malin’s research is to describe and understand molecular mechanisms that help plants to respond appropriately to pathogenic fungi, and more explicitly to understand and use functional diversity in these traits.