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Interns learn valuable life lessons while studying tropical plant pathology in Costa Rica

Mary Lewis spent six weeks in the summer of 2012 traveling around Costa Rica working on research designed to shed light on one of the most important diseases affecting bananas. While her focus was the fungal disease black sigatoka, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences student says the experience taught her just as much – or more – about what it takes to work in a foreign country and to interact with people from other cultures.

Lewis was one of seven students selected to participate in last year’s Global Plant Health Interns program. CALS’ Dr. Jean Ristaino, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, directs the program. The goal, she said, is to immerse students in the subject of tropical agriculture research.

“It’s about getting them excited about doing science and about doing work in the developing world,” she added.

Ristaino, who is off campus this year while she serves as a Jefferson Science Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development, gets support in running the program from co-director Dr. Margaret Daub, head of the Department of Plant Biology and also a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor. Three-year grant funding comes from the International Research Experience for Students in the Global Plant Health program of the National Science Foundation.

Most of the participating students are from N.C. State, but the program is open to any upper-level undergraduate or graduate student with an interest in tropical plant health.

Ristaino said the internship program not only benefits students, it also has implications for U.S. agriculture and U.S. consumers.

“The program has significance for American agriculture because many of the pathogens that the students are studying are problems both in Central America and the United States,” Ristaino said. “And some are on products, such as bananas, that we import as food into the United States.”

Ristaino began the internship program in 2011. Selected students take a graduate-level tropical plant pathology course in the spring. They learn about diseases of various tropical crops while also gaining an understanding of the political and social issues farmers in the developing world face.

The interns then spend six weeks in a fully funded, hands-on summer research internship in Costa Rica before finishing up with a fall special problems research course.

Faculty mentors from the University of Costa Rica and N.C. State begin working with the students before the students set foot in Costa Rica, Ristaino explained. With their mentors’ help, the students write up a research plan before their summer internships begin and then at the end of the internship they write a research report and do a presentation that is shared with their fellow interns and the University of Costa Rica and then posted on the program’s website.

The research topics vary, depending on the students’ interests and the expertise of their mentors. Topics chosen by the 2012 interns included nematodes affecting Costa Rican crops, Panama disease of bananas, water relations in bean cultivars and downy mildew races on cucurbits.

Ristaino chose to collaborate on the project with the University of Costa Rica because several faculty members and administrators had earned degrees from N.C. State. “I’ve had three graduate students who are on the faculty now, and the dean of the college is an N.C. State graduate,” she said. “We have this Wolfpack South and Central America connection there.”

With the support of her contacts at the university and with agricultural companies such as Dole Food Co., Ristaino has for years offered a weeklong study-abroad trip as part of the tropical plant pathology course. The trip includes tours of coffee, banana, pineapple, tropical fruit, cacao and vegetable farms throughout Costa Rica.

More than 50 undergraduate and graduate students, as well as county Cooperative Extension faculty members, have participated in that tour, including, now, the global health interns. For Mary Lewis, the trip was a highlight of her Costa Rican experience. So, too, were trips to beaches and other tourist areas away from the university campus in San Pedro.

Lewis spent her internship working with Dr. Luis Gomez Alpizar, who earned his CALS Ph.D. in plant pathology under Ristaino in 2004. With his help, Lewis said, “I learned how to do fungal culturing from infected bananas, which was something I hadn’t worked with before.”

Lewis’ internship came between her May graduation from N.C. State with a degree in plant biology and the start of her graduate degree studies in plant pathology, also at N.C. State.

The other interns are still undergraduates now but all would like to go on to graduate school, Ristaino said. “Through the internship, these students become engrossed in the science, and they really enjoy it,” she said.

As Lewis did, the other students learned life lessons beyond their laboratory work.

“Some of these students have had travel (opportunities) before, but many had not been out of the country before. They learn a lot about the culture and the people of the country, plus they are learning plant pathology and issues involved in doing agricultural research in a developing country,” Ristaino said. “I think it’s a big eye-opener for many of the students who haven’t left the United States.”

Lewis had done two summer internships before the one she did in Costa Rica, but she’d never been to a non-English-speaking country.

“I thought it would be good to step out of my comfort zone. Now, having experienced the culture shock that comes with going to another country, I feel like I can handle myself better when going other places,” Lewis said. “I know how to cope.”

— Dee Shore

For more information on the Global Plant Health Interns program, contact Bridget Lassiter ( or visit the website at

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