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Lynn Sosnoskie: Weed specialist, but not ‘that kind of weed’

Lynn Sosnoskie can’t help but laugh when she thinks of some of the famous landmarks and breathtaking sights she and her husband have seen over the years — the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Colosseum in Rome, and Torres del Paine National Park in Chile’s Patagonia region, to name three. It’s not that she finds those iconic locations funny. It’s what Sosnoskie, a weed scientist at Cornell AgriTech, focuses on when she is near them.

Lynn Sosnoskie

“Whenever we travel, it doesn’t matter where we go. I will say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at that (weed),’,” Sosnoskie said during a recent phone interview. “People don’t understand how highly universal weeds are. You can find one here in New York and find the same one at the base of the Eiffel Tower, or outside the Colosseum.

“I have thousands of pictures of weeds from around the world,” she said with a laugh. “It’s gotten to the point where my husband will say, ‘Everyone else here is taking a picture of the Colosseum and you are taking a picture of a dandelion in front of the Colosseum, so he has started taking pictures of me taking pictures of dandelions in front of these great landmarks.”

It is that humorous outlook on life, as well as her expertise when it comes to weed control, that has made her a “social media star” in her field. Her Twitter and Instagram accounts have thousands of followers.

“I have Twitter accounts exclusively for weeds and agriculture, and another for a slice of life — like, where can I get good tacos?” she said. “It sort of humanizes things… and lets people know there is a person behind the job.”

Sosnoskie grew up in the central Pennsylvania community of Shamokin and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from nearby Lebanon Valley College. She went into the horticulture industry at first, but later earned a master’s degree in plant pathology from the University of Delaware and a Ph.D. in weed science from Ohio State University.

“I just realized I was much more interested in the plant than the pathogens,” she said. “For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to weeds. They are such dynamic organisms and they are fighters.”

Before coming to Cornell about three years ago, Sosnoskie worked as a research scientist at the University of Georgia, the University of California, Davis, and Washington State University. Her work has focused on a variety of crops and controlling — or eliminating — the weeds that go along with them.

Sosnoskie joined Cornell AgriTech in September 2019 as a professor of weed ecology and management in specialty crops in the School of Integrative Plant Science’s horticulture section. She said the chance to come to Cornell was too good to pass up.

“I have moved around. I think I’ve worked on every weed and every crop in the U.S.,” she said with a laugh. “Cornell University and Cornell AgriTech are an amazing school and organization. Obviously, the Cornell name and the opportunity to be part of a really exceptional agricultural legacy was a draw.”

“When I was interviewed, it was just a welcoming experience. All the people I spoke with were very welcoming and there are a lot of collaborative opportunities here,” Sosnoskie added. “In a sense, it was also coming home. I grew up just three hours away. I felt I was coming back to the region I grew up in and was very formative for me. I’ve had so many great experiences in this part of the country, and this is my chance to repay that to this community.”

Sosnoskie has worked with area farmers like Rick Pedersen and Paul Tomion on weed-control measures. That includes new technology like electronic weeding and vision-guided spraying, as well as new and traditional herbicides — although, she noted, weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to those herbicides.

“It comes down to looking for new ways to manage weeds in our crop system,” she said. “We’ve been growing crops for a very long time in this country, and weeds have been a problem in our crops for a very long time… and they will continue to be. My job is understanding why weeds are still problematic and working to identify and evaluate novel technology for weed control.

“I think there is a real focus across the discipline to develop and evaluate weed-control strategies that reduce or eliminate the need for herbicides. I love seeing the innovation in automated, precision technology. Using herbicides doesn’t solve the problem. Worldwide, we have more than 500 species of weeds that are resistant to herbicides. Herbicides is not a silver bullet strategy, so we are investigating novel technology such as electric weeding, or precision weeding, where we only target certain weeds so we don’t have to apply herbicides over a wide area or disturb the soil.”

If it sounds like Sosnoskie has a love-hate relationship with weeds … well, she does. She also refers to herself jokingly as a “weed specialist, but not for that kind of weed” — a reference to marijuana. “I am fascinated by weeds and get excited when I see them, but I have to control them,” she said. “As part of my job, sometimes I have to kill them.”

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