Early Career Alumni: Where are they now?

Graduates of our department end up in many different kinds of careers making an impact throughout the globe. Catch-up with these early career alumni to learn about their current role, their transition from life in the department to their role, and how the department helped prepare them for success.

Patricia Vaz Jauri

Ph.D. 2013
Advisor: Linda Kinkel

Plant Pathology Alumna Patricia Vaz JauriTell us about your current research or work responsibilities/duties.

I am currently a postdoctoral associate at the Departamento de Bioquímica y Genómica Microbianas (BIOGEM) at the Instituto de Investigaciones Biólogicas Clemente Estable, a National Research Institute, mostly devoted to basic biology research. Fortunately, I am working with an excellent group of people doing the kind of science I enjoy. The group works on plant growth promoting endophytic bacteria, and my line of research focuses specifically on unraveling the molecular interactions between a very particular plant-bacteria duet. I hope our results will give us the opportunity to find new ways in which plant and their endophytes interact.

My job includes a diverse array of duties, all of them very formative for me. I participate with my adviser and other researchers of the group in defining the questions and hypotheses we want to ask and test. Then comes the design of the experiments, which is also mostly my task, and carrying them on, which I do along with other students, whom I supervise. Thus, I get the chance to work in the lab and also to act as an advisor for undergraduate and MSc. students. Another important part of my work involves writing. I write both thinking ahead, as with grant proposals, and re-thinking past results, in manuscripts aimed at the publication of our work.

The biggest impacts of my work are not directly received by producers or industries, although in the long term they may benefit from it. My research is quite basic, and what I think is most important about it is, like all basic science, adding a small piece to the collective knowledge we have gained from our world. Secondly, living in a small and developing country, I find it fundamental to have our own science, which enables us to understand our own problems, find our own solutions, and help us connect with the great science that is done in more developed countries.

What was your biggest challenge in transitioning from graduate school to your current role and how did you successfully overcome this challenge?

I think the biggest challenge was having a student of my own. When I had to advise an MSc. student for the first time I was very afraid of doing something wrong that could affect her career. I still am a bit scared of not handling things correctly with my new student, but I am slowly learning to be a better advisor, trying to dissect what part of their success is my responsibility and what is theirs.

How did your education at the U of M help prepare you for what you are doing today?

My education at the University of Minnesota changed my life completely, it opened up my mind. My experience at the university cannot be separated from living in the U.S., and not just anywhere in the U.S., but among highly educated, stimulated and intelligent people. I gained a sense of responsibility different from the one I had before. I used to think being responsible was similar to being good, or responding to whatever task you were asked to do. Being at the university, and particularly being in the Kinkel Lab, I learned that I could aim higher and I that I have to be as good as I can with whatever I have at reach, and this is my new definition of responsibility. Of course, this is a very personal experience, because not all U of M students can be as lucky as I was with their advisors!

The university, and specifically the Department of Plant Pathology, to which I owe much, helped me even in small things. For instance, the Department of Plant Path granted me a fellowship for a stay at Dr. Jason Sello’s Lab in Brown University working with Streptomyces signal molecules. Thanks to that experience, I now still collaborate with another postdoc from Sello’s Lab, with whom we exchange thoughts and experiences often. This person is from Kenya, and collaborating with a Kenyan researcher would have been highly unlikely if it weren’t for the previous contact I had with Dr. Sello.

Most of all, during my education at the university I learned to ask questions, lots of questions, and not be afraid to keep asking. Many times there is no way you can answer those questions, but sometimes you find one you can answer, and that is awesome. I think this practice of asking very precise questions restlessly is something that needs to be taught, or rather than that, exposed and fostered to new generations of scientists. I hope I manage to pass on this good practice of asking and being strict and explicit about your question and your possibilities of answering.

Pablo D. Olivera Firpo

Ph.D. in 2008
Advisor: Brian Steffenson

Plant Pathology Research Assistant Professor Pablo OliveraTell us about your current research or work responsibilities/duties.

In 2017 I was appointed as a Research Assistant Professor at the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota. My research is conducted mostly at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Cereal Disease Laboratory, working in close collaboration with multiple international partners around the globe. My main research activities include the enhancement and diversification of genetic resistance to stem rust in durum and bread wheat, as well as monitoring the occurrence, spread, and evolution of new races of the stem rust pathogen with virulence to effective and widely used resistance genes.

Wheat stem rust is a re-emerging disease. Severe epidemics and localized outbreaks in East Africa, Central Africa, and Europe in the past few years are evidence of a strong comeback of this devastating disease. The research I am conducting has a global scope and it is part of an international effort to develop and deliver wheat varieties with durable stem rust resistance to farmers.

In addition to my research responsibilities, I have been involved in training international wheat scientists on cereal rust prevention and control through programs and local workshops on St. Paul campus and abroad in Ethiopia.

What was your biggest challenge in transitioning from graduate school or your postdoctoral position to your current role and how did you successfully overcome this challenge?

Being a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Plant Pathology has facilitated my transition to my new position. I have to acknowledge the entire faculty body and staff for helping me during this transition process. The main challenge in my new role has been incorporating responsibilities other than research into my working routine. In particular, advising an international Ph.D. student. To overcome this challenge, I invested time in further educating myself and defined my mentorship style to efficiently and effectively meet my student’s needs.

How did your education at the U of M help prepare you for what you are doing today?

In 2003 I joined the department as a graduate student with a strong background in agronomy, but no exposure to plant pathology and fungal diseases. The project that Brian Steffenson involved me in provided me with a solid foundation to work with wheat fungal pathogens as I conducted research with seven of them in field, greenhouse, and laboratory settings. Most importantly, I got to learn about work ethic in science and what it takes to become a respected scientist.

As a plant pathologist, my main interest has always been on international agriculture and on applied research that impacts farmers in the developing world. Fortunately, in both my graduate and postdoctoral research projects at the U of M, I was able to conduct collaborative research with several international universities and research institutes. Our department has a very strong international connection that allowed me to gain the right skills and experience to conduct international research on campus and overseas.

Adil Essarioui

Ph.D. 2016
Advisor: Linda Kinkel

Plant Pathology Alumnus Adil EssariouiTell us about your current research or work responsibilities/duties.

Currently, I work for the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA-Morocco). My main duty is conducting research on “Bayoud disease”, a vascular wilt caused by the pathogenic fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. albedinis on date palm. Specifically, my research aims to concoct an integrated strategy for managing this disease based on early detection, prevention/exclusion measures, field-disease management, and selection of resistant varieties. My other responsibilities include training technicians and students from local universities, diagnosing diseases of date palm and occasionally other crops, and providing farmers practical recommendations for crop disease management.

In addition to spreading scientific knowledge through peer-reviewed scientific papers and fact sheets, the most direct impact for me is felt in palm grower communities who for years were feeling helpless in the face of a lot of plant health issues that affected their crops. Bringing assistive services to impacted farmers using the knowledge acquired from foreign experiences or context-specific research has helped them better manage phytosanitary constraints and improve their revenues.

What was your biggest challenge in transitioning from graduate school to your current role and how did you successfully overcome this challenge?

Before starting my Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota, I had been working for the same institution (INRA-Morocco). As per contract terms between the U of M and the sponsor of my Ph.D. program as an exchange visitor, I had to regain my position upon completion. Therefore the transition from graduate studies back to work was rather smooth. 

How did your education at the U of M help prepare you for what you are doing today? 

The solid training, combining both coursework and research, I received at the U of M has helped me in many ways in my duties. Specifically, my research on microbial ecology, antagonism, nutrient competition and pathogen suppression has provided me with theoretical knowledge and practical tools to study and understand why Bayoud disease has differential geographic distribution in date palm growing areas in Morocco. In addition, the skills I learned from my internship in the Plant Disease Clinic has profoundly helped me to diagnose crop diseases. Moreover, courses such as plant-microbe interactions, plant genomics, microbial ecology and epidemiology, and statistics endowed me with the skills to implement the understanding of plant-microbe and microbe-microbe interactions in disease management and conceiving research projects. Finally, my graduate studies at the U of M have been significantly impactful on my writing and communication skills in the English language. Today I feel more confident in redacting scientifically sound research projects and speaking effectively in scientific settings.

Matthew Bakker

Ph.D. 2011
Advisor: Linda Kinkel

Plant Pathology Alumnus Matthew BakkerTell us about your current research or work responsibilities/duties.

I am a Research Microbiologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). I run a research program that is self-directed but also connected to that of several other scientists. Together, we are aiming for an improved understanding of the development of Fusarium head blight, and ultimately enhanced control of this disease and the associated food safety hazard created by mycotoxins that accumulate in the grain. My role on the team is primarily to consider all of the other microbes that inhabit the same space as the pathogen, or that may be useful in constraining disease development in some way. The microbiome concept has really captured the public imagination in a compelling way, so this is a fun space to be working in. Eventually, this work will lead to new management targets or approaches for controlling Fusarium head blight, as well as new insights into microbial community ecology and species interactions involving Fusarium. Next summer, I plan to start as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Manitoba, which is in my hometown of Winnipeg. I expect initially to continue my research along similar lines to what I am doing now.

What was your biggest challenge in transitioning from graduate school to your current role and how did you successfully overcome this challenge?

I felt very ready to initiate my own research program, and have been able to get off to a good start. However, I struggle to balance my desire to maintain a broad view and wide interests, with what I have come increasingly to see as the benefits of very narrow specialization. I’m not sure that there is a resolution to this tension. I am always finding new angles on a problem that requires a different background than I have. It has also been astonishing how easy it is to allow service activities to crowd out time for research. I’m getting more comfortable declining requests for manuscript reviews, for instance, although I still have to talk myself out of agreeing much of the time.

How did your education at the U of M help prepare you for what you are doing today?

An opportunity to incorporate microbiome profiling by amplicon sequencing into my thesis research, at a time when interest in microbiomes was just beginning to build, has had a very positive impact on my professional trajectory. Early entry into an emerging field can be quite helpful, and I continue to use these techniques routinely today. However, I’m very aware of the transience of technical competence. More valuable than particular bench techniques has been the example Linda and others provided in how to formulate questions clearly, and how to take an idea ‘in the rough’ and work it into something precise. I also appreciate now the wide latitude I was given as a student, which was sufficient to allow me to make some mistakes that were painful at the time, but that I think have also contributed to my competence and perspective.

Jon R. Menke

Ph.D. 2011
Advisor: Corby Kistler

Plant Pathology Alumnus Jon MenkeTell us about your current research or work responsibilities/duties.

As senior scientist at Rebiotix, a clinical stage biotechnology company founded to revolutionize the treatment of debilitating diseases by harnessing the power of the human microbiome, my primary role is to work with a team of scientists focused on continued development of the Rebiotix Microbiota Restoration Therapy™ (MRT™) drug platform. MRT is a standardized, stabilized drug technology designed to rehabilitate the human microbiome by delivering a broad spectrum of live microbes into a patient’s intestinal tract. This technology has the potential to improve human health.

What was your biggest challenge in transitioning from graduate school or your postdoctoral position to your current role and how did you successfully overcome this challenge?

The four years of postdoctoral research following my degree provided me the opportunity to engage in primary research, exploring different hypotheses with the goal of either characterizing plant-microbe interactions; unraveling the biochemistry and cell biology of fungal secondary metabolite biosynthesis; or improving host resistance to fungal pathogens. Much of this work was performed in state-of-the-art laboratories with leaders in their field, and the purpose was to provide proof of concept or add to the existing literature on a specific topic.

As a scientist in a non-academic environment, the purpose of research and development is much more specific and time-sensitive. Research is done to develop new products or approaches, often within a specific budget and to a specific deadline. Scientists in this realm are not free to pursue thought experiments but are, instead, expected to contribute to solving business problems. In addition, the resources available to scientists in a corporate setting are, like everything else in business, constrained by budgets.

Adapting to this different environment requires the ability to look beyond the basic research that often characterizes academic research and think in terms of the impact one’s research will have, both on the company’s products or services and on the end consumer. In this setting, researchers do have the chance to see lasting outcomes of their work.

How did your education at the U of M help prepare you for what you are doing today?

Clearly, the training and mentoring I received, both in my bachelor’s studies and as a Ph.D. candidate, helped me develop my skills as a solid scientist and researcher. In particular, the deep experience I gained in sequencing and bioinformatics analysis prepared me well for my current position. In general, the work I did at the University of Minnesota, as well as the number of projects I worked on, gave me the credentials and publication record needed to pursue a career outside of a university setting.

The experience gained through basic academic research at the university provided me with a skill set that I apply daily in my work and continues to provide a perspective on research that is sometimes unique in the business world.

Just as important, however, as the knowledge I gained and the skills I developed as a scientist, was the writing and presentation skills I honed. Since leaving the university in 2015, I have been called upon to make professional presentations, write reports, provide training documents and create summaries for my employers. I have consistently been commended for the quality and thoroughness of these projects, and this is due to the sheer number of documents and presentations I prepared during my Ph.D. program.