Student takes top prize in state research competition

Joseph Creanza, a junior soil and crop science major at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, scored first place at the recent 2020 Student Research and Innovation Showcase for his project, “Plant Essential Oils as Natural and Safe Pesticides for the Control of Soybean White Mold Disease.” The event featured 15 students from across the UW System and was sponsored by WiSys, an independent, nonprofit organization that advances scientific research throughout the UW System by assisting with grants, patents and licensing processes. Creanza will receive a cash prize of $750.

According to Creanza’s background research, plant diseases cause up to 25% yield loss in the field, with an additional 10% post-harvest loss. While chemical application is the most common method to control plant diseases, it comes with drawbacks, including the high cost incurred by farmers on pesticide sprays, their environmental impacts and the rising threat of pesticide-resistant pathogenic strains.

While essential oils have been used for hundreds of years, they are most commonly associated with personal care or aroma therapy, but have also been used as antimicrobial agents. Creanza’s research aims to use essential oils as anti-fungal agents for the control of soybean white mold disease.

“Now is the time when sustainable ideas and innovation is really needed, and everyone is interested in the topic,” said Creanza, a native of Whitewater, Wisconsin. “People are usually surprised and interested when they hear about how essential oils can be used in sustainable plant disease management.”

Creanza focused his research on three stages: identifying the smallest concentration of essential oils that would inhibit fungal growth in culture plates, identifying the concentration of the oil with the least phytotoxicity to prevent detriment to the plant, and identifying essential oils that are highly effective in preventing and controlling the disease in plants. This work is a part of the research project funded by WiSys Technology Foundation as Applied Research Grant to Dr. Muthu Venkateshwaran, associate professor of crop physiology and molecular biology in the School of Agriculture (PI), and Dr. Raja Maunnamalai, associate professor of chemistry (Co-PI).

“The results have been really interesting and very encouraging, and we continue to move on with our research and hopefully develop marketable products,” said Creanza.

Creanza joined Venkateshwaran’s research group as freshman in fall 2018. Since then, he has been working on multiple research projects studying plant-microbe symbioses. His involvement in this most recent research project on sustainable plant disease management is part of UW-Platteville’s Summer Undergraduate Scholars Program, which offers students the opportunity to spend the summer engaged in research in their area of interest while mentored by a faculty member. Through the program, he has been able to work 40 hours a week in the lab, and said this hands-on experience is crucial in order to pursue graduate school, which he hopes to do in the area of plant breeding and biotechnology.

In addition to gaining this important research experience, Creanza said the project, and potential results, have a personal value to him as well.

“My inspiration for going into soil and crop science came from a lifetime of growing up on my family farm and working alongside my parents,” said Creanza. “One of the main reasons I chose to study agriculture is so I would be able to have my community and neighbors benefit from my knowledge. I really appreciate and value those principles of the UW System and Wisconsin Idea.”

To read more about the WiSys Student Research and Innovation Showcase, and view Creanza’s presentation, visit