Erika Rojas: Learning What Bugs Plants!

Feb 22, 2017 By Deepa Gopal
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Massachusetts is where cranberries were first cultivated and it’s still one of the top three cranberry-producing states in the U.S.

There are many cranberry farmers who depend on help from scientists like Erika Rojas to grow healthier cranberry fruit.

For Erika, combining her passion for the outdoors, saving plants and helping farmers is a dream come true. But, she did not figure out her career on her own. She had a little help!

Finding Her Passion

Before college, Erika Rojas didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to study. She disliked the thought of an office job and wanted to work in something that would help the environment and involved being outdoors. When Erika told her mother that she wasn’t sure how she could do both of these things, her mother suggested she look into agriculture because people will always need to grow food.

Her mother was right. Almost everything we eat comes from farming and it is becoming more difficult to grow enough food for humans without harming our natural resources. Erika loved the idea of studying plants (plus, this could also guarantee time outdoors!), so she went to college to study agronomy.

In her second year of college, Erika's class took several field trips to different farms to understand how major food crops are grown. They studied what plants need to grow better and what types of things can hurt or weaken them such as insects and plant pathogens.

Studying Plant 'Bugs'

A plant pathogen is pretty much a “germ” that causes plant diseases. They also learned that to avoid plant pathogens from damaging crops, scientists first need to understand what kind of germs (like bacteria or viruses) are causing the damage, where they live, how they survive, and which environmental conditions they like best. This is when she realized that farmers need people like her, who love biology, and can use science to solve problems in agriculture. 

You may be wondering -- how exactly do plant pathologists study diseases and pathogens, especially if most plant pathogens are microscopic.

Well, many times they will bring sick plants back to the labs and observe them directly under the microscope. Other times they will try to make the pathogen grow in Petri plates that have a jelly-like substance called culture media, which is basically pathogen food. There are some pathogens that are too small to even see under a microscope or some are too fussy to grow on Petri plates, so to study these pathogens they may have to extract their DNA or keep plants diseased with the pathogen growing in a greenhouse.

How does Erika use what she learns from the diseased plants to help farmers? Read Erika's three-part story by clicking on - 

MEET OUR EXPERT - ERIKA ROJAS

You will then have the chance to ask Erika questions.