How I Became A Plant Pathologist

Feb 1, 2017 By Dr. Erika Rojas
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I was born and raised in Costa Rica, a tropical country in Central America.

Costa Rica is very small, but it has an enormous variety of landscapes -- from rainforests to mangroves, to large or small farms with many different crops, like bananas and coffee. It is hard to grow up in a place like this and not appreciate its biodiversity. As a kid, I spent a lot of time outdoors and I remember always being fascinated by plants and all sorts of insects.

Good Advice From My Mom

Before college, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to study. I disliked the thought of an office job and I wanted to work in something that would help the environment and involved being outdoors.

When I told my mother that I wasn’t sure how I could do both of these things, she suggested that I look into agriculture because people will always need to grow food. She 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. I loved the idea of studying plants (plus, this could also guarantee time outdoors!), so I went to college to study agronomy.

I didn’t know plant pathologists existed until my second year in college. My class took several field trips to different farms to understand how major food crops are grown. We studied what plants need to grow better and what types of things can hurt or weaken them such as insects and plant pathogens. A plant pathogen is pretty much a “germ” that causes plant diseases. We also learned that to avoid plant pathogens from damaging crops, we 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 I realized that farmers need people like me, who love biology, and can use science to solve problems in agriculture. 

Going to Graduate School

After college, I went to graduate school and I learned how to set up experiments to study plant pathogens and test new methods of controlling them. I studied a deadly plant disease caused by bacteria that infect and eventually wilt and kill melon, cucumber, and squash plants. What’s really neat about this bacterium is that it moves from plant to plant inside beetles that already feed on these plants. The bacteria are just hitching a ride in the beetles’ mouthparts and gut for free!

But can you guess how farmers stop the disease from spreading in their fields? They kill the beetles by spraying a chemical that can be harmful to bees and other pollinators. But farmers need these bees to pollinate their plants! My work helped farmers stop the disease with fewer chemicals (and hopefully less damage to pollinators) and helped other scientists understand how the bacteria can infect plants and spread in a field year to year.

I became a plant pathologist because I wanted to help farmers prevent plant diseases more effectively and protect the environment. There are many different plant diseases that can only be controlled by using harmful chemicals or methods that are too expensive for most farmers to use. So my job is always challenging and very exciting.

Today, I study very different pathogens, mostly fungi, which infect and make cranberry plants sick. Read more about my work in the series.