Helping secure the nation’s food supply
Kate Fiedler, Ph.D. ’14, is a plant pathologist who has worked around the globe to help negotiate and regulate plant trade between the U.S. and its international partners.
Next time you visit your local grocer and see a Fuji apple from Japan, a mango from India, or a dragonfruit from Vietnam, you can thank Kate Fiedler Ph.D. ’14, one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s foreign service officers with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
For the past several years, Fiedler has worked in locations — including Vietnam, India, South Africa, and Washington, D.C. — to ensure the safe and prolific trade of fresh produce with the United States’ international partners. Next month, Fiedler will start a new job as deputy agricultural attaché for Japan, where she will work out of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to help regulate and negotiate plant trade between the U.S. and Japan.
A plant pathologist by training, Fiedler spent almost a decade working her way toward her “ideal job” with the Department of Agriculture that combined her love for plants, food production, and international travel.
“In graduate school at Virginia Tech, I thought that my career potential was as a professor or in the chemical industry,” she said. “I really thought those were the two options for a Ph.D. in plant pathology. As I’ve moved forward and explored agriculture as an industry, it’s amazing how much my niche degree and research can apply to so many different sectors.”
The daughter of a Coast Guard pilot and a science teacher, Fiedler grew up in Puerto Rico and Massachusetts. After earning her master’s degree in plant soil and insect science from the University of Massachusetts, Fiedler came to Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2010 to earn her Ph.D. in plant pathology.
Working under Professor Steven Rideout in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, Fiedler focused her dissertation on postharvest tomato disease, working on large commercial farms with one of the country’s largest tomato producers.
“To this day, I still chat with Steve regularly,” she said. “We have similar research styles and similar goals of how to help growers. Throughout my career, he has genuinely been there to help.”
Rideout recommended Fiedler for a Fulbright grant in Bangladesh, where she assessed the microbial safety of fresh fruits and vegetables in rural markets and on farms throughout the country.
Over the following years, Fiedler explored positions conducting chemical trials for a Bayer research facility, working as a junior Extension agent with the University of Hawaii, and researching and developing new vegetable crops for a startup company in Cambodia.
In 2018, Fiedler got her first taste of governmental plant safety research while working with Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia’s national science agency. As a horticulture industry engagement officer, she worked with farmers and trade partners on biosecurity research with state and federal governments.
When COVID-19 struck in 2020, Fiedler returned to the U.S. to work as a foreign program specialist with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
“All over the world, we dealt with trade barriers during the pandemic,” she recalled. “Ports shut down. There were value chain problems. We did not stop. Throughout more than three years of covid restrictions, the U.S. government was so committed to agricultural trade and the safety of the product, we were able to work through so many barriers to get food overseas and into our country.”
For the past 10 months, Fielder has been training for her new position in Japan, learning to speak Japanese alongside foreign service officers with the U.S. Department of State. Once in Tokyo, she will be responsible for agricultural trade negotiations, capacity building of local trade partners, and acting as a plant pathology expert for local and regional incursion of pests.
“Japan is an incredibly important trade partner for us — they are the No. 4 importer of American food products,” Fiedler said. “Even though they grow a lot of high-end products for local consumption, they use a lot of American products for processing and everyday consumption, such as feed for animals, and beans, wheat, and grain.”
Once in Tokyo, Fiedler plans to remain active as an alumna, as she has throughout her globetrotting career, by participating in lecture series, career fairs, and mentoring. Earlier this year, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences awarded her with a 2023 Celebration of Ut Prosim Award for her work as an outstanding alumna in the global community.
“I always wanted to help my country in some way,” Fiedler said. “It was astounding to find out that educated farmers like me can play a role in helping our government and the American people while being overseas. I’m always amazed to see how agriculture is applicable to so many careers and industries.”