NC State University plant pathology Ph.D. student Mariana Prieto Torres has always been interested in science, earning degrees in both biology and microbiology in her home country of Colombia. However, after spending hours listening to lectures and working in the lab, she became curious about how research in the lab benefits the outside world.
“Sometimes when you are taking many of the required core courses for a STEM major, such as organic chemistry or calculus, you can lose perspective of why you’re doing what you’re doing. My first undergraduate plant pathology course showed me how we can take what we do here in the lab and bring it to people who need it,” says Prieto Torres.
Because of its strong tie to practical solutions and outreach, Prieto Torres developed a new fascination with plant pathology, along with agriculture, so she began volunteering at her university’s plant pathology lab.
“I wanted to learn more and wanted to help people,” says Prieto Torres. “I realized I enjoyed what I was doing and the topic overall.”
Through her work in the lab, she learned about NC State’s Kelman Scholars program. The program offers research internships during the summer to undergraduate students interested in the biological sciences.
Prieto Torres was accepted and spent her summer of 2019 here at NC State. She was also quickly introduced to NC State Extension.
“It was a great experience. I enjoyed it so much and the idea of connecting our research to growers and stakeholders. We don’t have extension in my country,” says Prieto Torres. She says the universities in Colombia do a lot of research, but there isn’t a specific process of getting it to producers.
During her undergraduate internship, Prieto Torres had the opportunity to work with Lina Quesada of the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, who also recruited Prieto Torres for her graduate program after a successful internship.
“I was encouraged to apply and thought ‘why not give it a shot?’ And that’s what I did,” says Prieto Torres. “Dr. Quesada has an extension appointment and I just love everything we do with Extension. She loves doing all of this translational research and providing solutions for growers.”
When Prieto Torres learned she had been accepted into the Ph.D program, she was a little hesitant to say yes since she didn’t have a master’s degree.
“Dr. Quesada had confidence in me, and that’s why I am here today,” says Prieto Torres.
While working in Quesada’s lab, Prieto Torres learned about the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and a funding opportunity through the Rockey FFAR Fellowship Program.
“Dr. Quesada thought the FFAR Fellowship would be a good opportunity for me, being an international student, to get exposed to how things work here, not only with Extension but also with legislators and government,” says Prieto Torres. “It gives a broad perspective on that, plus we get exposed to industry.”
Prieto Torres says there are several fellowships for graduate students here, but most require a student to be a U.S. citizen.
“You see a really good opportunity and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this sounds amazing,’ and then you click on it and under eligibility it says you have to be a U.S. citizen. Sometimes it can be discouraging, especially when you’re looking for funds and opportunities,” says Prieto Torres. “But luckily, the FFAR Fellowship doesn’t have that requirement.”
Prieto Torres is part of the 2022-2025 cohort and her sponsor is Pickle Packers International, a growers association that Quesada has worked with before.
As a FFAR Fellow, Prieto Torres will also have the opportunity to be mentored by her industry sponsor. She’s excited for the experience and the additional knowledge and skills she’ll gain through the program.
“The fellowship is going to give me more perspective and broaden what I already know about agriculture here in the U.S. and how government decisions affect what we do here in industry,” says Prieto Torres. “We don’t get exposed enough to soft skills or how best to communicate our work. For me, it’s very important to be able to communicate what I do to people who are not in my field and to those who will benefit from what we do in the lab.”
This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.