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Diversity and Inclusion

Alejandra Huerta Champions Diversity in STEM Education

Three women in a lab working
Photo by Krystal Lynch

Every year, North Carolina State University celebrates Latinx Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15-Oct. 15. And in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), our Latinx faculty make significant contributions to our diverse community both on campus and beyond.

Alejandra Huerta is among those Latinx faculty making a difference at NC State. Passionate about agricultural research and bacterial plant pathogens, Huerta is focused on broadening the university’s reach to better engage underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and math. 

Huerta was born in Michoacán, Mexico, but later immigrated to Salinas, California, the “Salad Bowl of the World,” with her parents, who worked on a strawberry farm. 

This first-generation college graduate is now an assistant professor of entomology and plant pathology in CALS. She is recognized for her work on the molecular mechanisms bacteria use to compete in the environment. She runs the Phytobacteriology Lab, which consists of two post-doctoral research scientists, three graduate research assistants and two lab technicians.

In recognition of Latinx Heritage Month, Huerta recently spent some time reflecting on her journey as a scientist and her dedication to opening more doors for more voices within the STEM disciplines.

A group of people standing against a wall smiling
The Huerta Lab group.

How did you become interested in plant pathology?

I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor, so I pursued a biology major at the University of California, Santa Barbara. However, I felt like a number in the undergraduate introductory science courses. Also, I didn’t receive adequate academic guidance and mentoring in biology. So, I switched to Spanish and Portuguese majors, a more welcoming community. 

After I graduated with a Spanish and Portuguese double major, I worked as a translator at a community college and as a library assistant. I clearly remember sitting before my computer and asking, “Is this the rest of my life?” I knew I could do more, so I completed my chemistry degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz. While a chemistry student, I earned an internship at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in plant pathology where I discovered the importance of experiential learning. 

At the age of 24, I discovered the science behind agriculture.

Kimberly Montalban, Katie D’Amico-Willman and Prasanna Joglekar using equipment in the Huerta lab. Photo by Krystal Lynch.

Why did you choose to teach at CALS?

As a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, I attended a conference and remember seeing the NC State cohort present and interact. Those students were demonstrating basic and applied work at the conference, and I liked how they worked as a cohesive unit.

Later, I learned about an opportunity at NC State for a phytobacteriologist position, including research, teaching and Extension. The opportunity was appealing. What sealed the deal for me was being assured by CALS leadership that NC State was ready for my unique qualifications and feeling empowered to initiate the change I was prepared to work toward. 

Four women and a man standing together smiling
Autumn Cano-Guin, Diana Urieta, Alejandra Huerta, Richard Bonanno and Cintia Aguilar at the 2023 National Juntos Convening.

What are some of the challenges you face as a Latinx professor?

Being a woman of color passionate about scientific research and broadening participation can be challenging. There’s a belief that you’re not a good scientist if you firmly advocate for diversity. I say I can be whoever I want, and I will demonstrate how I can be both. Being a dedicated mentor and educator and supporting diversity doesn’t mean my science is of lower quality.

Which organizations associated with Latinx culture do you participate in? 

I’m a Juntos supporter. The organization works with Latinx families to help them reach high school graduation and pursue secondary school. I believe that youth benefit significantly from this program. My research team is developing different learning modules and experiential training for Juntos students interested in STEM careers. 

I’ve worked with NC State’s Latin American Student Association. I’m also involved with the American Phytopathological Society, in which I strongly advocate for diversity in leadership roles. 

What do you enjoy most about being a CALS faculty member?

I enjoy investigating bacterial plant pathogens and how they interact with their plant host and other microbes in the environment while creating a safe space for diverse talent to learn to be themselves and become the leaders of tomorrow. I enjoy bringing people together and facilitating difficult conversations where people can express themselves. People are most productive when they’re in a happy environment.

Three women standing in a dirt field
Andrea Gomez Cabrera, Katherine D’Amico-Willman and Alejandra Huerta

The hiring of Latinx faculty at NC State is at an all-time high. Some of these faculty are eager and willing to work with Latinx students. However, many of these students are not ready to pursue a career in agricultural science because their primary association with agriculture is labor. I love my job, and I’m happy to be at CALS. It can be stressful, but it’s a privilege, given where I started. NC State has provided me with a platform I take full advantage of to share what I know. I get to do what I choose; few people have that privilege.