Student researcher races to save apple trees from raging disease.

Share story

Are you looking for a way to make a real impact in the world or in Washington state? A graduate degree could provide you with the knowledge and opportunity to tackle problems facing society — or even looming threats to the state’s signature fruit.

Moreover, combining top-notch instruction with on-the-ground research increases the positive effects of a graduate degree and, in turn, your impact on the world.

Just ask Sarah Kostick, a horticulture doctoral student at Washington State University who’s racing to find a solution to fire blight, a devastating disease of fruit trees.

Named for the crooked, blackened branches it leaves behind, fire blight can wreck entire Northwest apple orchards in a single season. Growers depend on antibiotics to contain the disease, but the pathogen has already developed some resistance.

“Fire blight is one of the few diseases that can cause serious problems for Washington apple growers,” said Kostick. Minor outbreaks strike every year, but significant damage was reported in the last four years. Nationwide, the disease costs apple growers about $100 million annually.

Working in WSU apple breeder Kate Evans’ program at the Wenatchee-based Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, Kostick is experimenting with hundreds of apple cultivars in the search for genetic resistance to the disease.

Kostick spent the last two years inoculating more than 1,600 trees with fire blight bacteria, then measuring the resulting infection. She’s analyzing the results to determine if trees will stand up to the disease.

“Once we find them, we can develop DNA tests so that breeders can test for resistance with a simple tissue sample,” Kostick said. “If we’re successful, breeders will know years earlier if a promising new apple variety will be tolerant of fire blight, or susceptible to it.”

Originally from Minnesota, she joined WSU’s apple program two years ago. As an aspiring fruit breeder herself, Kostick is thankful for the opportunity to work directly with growers.

“I love being in the heart of the apple industry,” said Kostick. “I have so many opportunities to talk with growers, share my research and connect with the industry. Growers aren’t afraid to ask hard-hitting questions, which is really good for a student — it challenges you to really focus your ideas.

“I’m a student and at the same time I’m a researcher working on a real problem,” she adds. “There’s just something so fascinating about food, genetics, and putting it all together.”

Washington State University offers 127 graduate and professional degree programs at five locations across the state: Pullman, Tri-Cities, Vancouver, Spokane and Everett. The Global Campus delivers degree programs online. Explore locations and programs at