David Schmale

  • School of Plant and Environmental Sciences
  • College of Agriculture and Life Sciences


Little is known about the transport of microorganisms in air and water. The Schmale laboratory has developed technologies with unmanned systems to study the transport of microorganisms in the lower atmosphere and in water. New strategies are needed to detect, monitor, and control mycotoxins (fungal chemicals that are harmful to domestic animals and humans) in feed and food products. The Schmale laboratory uses gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) to detect and quantify mycotoxins in feed and food products. Popular Science magazine named Dr. Schmale one of 2013's Brilliant Ten. Features highlighting his work were published in Scientific American in 2017 and 2019.


Dr. Schmale was the first to develop an autonomous drone to sample microorganisms in the lower atmosphere. These drones are equipped with unique sampling devices to collect and analyze microorganisms during flight. Dr. Schmale and his colleague Dr. Shane Ross (BEAM, VT) were the first to document the transport of microorganisms along Lagrangian coherent structures (LCSs)—dynamic boundaries between air masses that shape atmospheric transport over long distances. Their initial translational work showed that a unique strain of a fungal plant pathogen collected with drones likely moved into the state of Virginia via LCSs. This landmark discovery engendered new hypotheses about the role of LCSs in the mixing of microorganisms in the atmosphere. Together, Dr. Schmale and Dr. Ross applied the language of LCSs to the transport of fungi in the genus Fusarium—one of the most important groups of pathogenic fungi in the world. Analyses of Fusarium collected with drones from multiple heights in the atmosphere suggested that some of these fungi had traveled at least kilometer distances during different seasons. This cross-disciplinary work has changed the knowledge of airborne biological invasions; LCSs are now considered to be an important mechanism by which microorganisms such as Fusarium can invade new territories, and potential sources and destinations of these threats can now be identified by tracking LCSs over time and space. Dr. Schmale has recently expanded this work to the study the transport of hazardous agents in aquatic environments using teams of unmanned systems operating in the air and water.

Dr. Schmale has an outstanding record of national and international service to students and early career professionals, to his discipline, and to agricultural stakeholders. His scientific expertise has been leveraged as a program manager for the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative (USWBSI), a grant panel member for NSF and USDA programs, and as a senior editor and ad hoc reviewer for journal publications. He is a tireless advocate for developing and including students and early career professionals in scientific workshops and societies. Dr. Schmale was awarded the University Sporn Award in 2010 (awarded annually to one professor across the entire University), and inducted into the VT Academy of Teaching Excellence that same year. He also was the recipient of a Favorite Faculty Award and named Teacher of the Week by VT’s CIDER. A high school lesson developed by Dr. Schmale is distributed throughout VA and has reached over 15,000 students in the last 5 years.