My Plant Path: Robert Alvarez-Quinto

When speaking with plant pathology Ph.D. student Robert Alvarez-Quinto, it becomes apparent very quickly how much farmers in his home country mean to him. They are who first inspired his journey to plant pathology, who motivate him each day during his studies, and who he is driven to bring research-based agricultural solutions to in the future.

Robert Alvarez-Quinto conducting MLN researchBeing from Daule, Guayas, Ecuador, a community rooted in agriculture, and having a father who is a farmer, being involved with agriculture is a way of life. This made it an easy decision to study agriculture and biology when he went off to university at Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL). Once he graduated he began a job working with viruses in cucurbits and it was this which ignited his fascination with plant pathology and virology.

“I really enjoyed studying viral pathogens because they are so different from other pathogens. With viruses you need to understand the entire picture and the epidemiology of the disease in order to manage them since there is no direct means of management for these diseases. Investigating how these viruses are moving around and discovering which vectors are involved in their spread, that's what I liked the most, to try to solve these mysteries,” says Alvarez-Quinto.

This interest in viruses, as well as his desire to be involved in both teaching and research in academia, were the catalysts in Alvarez-Quinto deciding to apply to graduate school. Alvarez-Quinto sought a scholarship from the Ecuadorian government through SENESCYT and says he decided to enroll in the University of Minnesota’s Plant Pathology Graduate Program due to both its prestige as well as the fact that he had previously collaborated with Professor Benham Lockhart on virology-related work.

Robert Alvarez-Quinto conducting research on maize lethal necrosis in Ecuador.

Now advised by Lockhart, Alvarez-Quinto’s research focuses on the discovery, characterization and epidemiology of viral diseases infecting corn in Ecuador, including the devastating disease maize lethal necrosis (MLN). The goal of this epidemiology work is to improve detection methods of these viral pathogens and help farmers develop better management approaches.

In the future Alvarez-Quinto hopes to go back home to Ecuador and be involved in academia as he is interested in both research and teaching. He aims to bring the combination of classical approaches in biology in conjunction with the cutting-edge tools he learned in graduate school to his research to improve virus testing and virus quarantine, while helping farmers more effectively manage viruses in Ecuador. In the classroom he wants to challenge students to think deeply and broadly about plant pathology in order to develop the next generation of plant pathologists in Ecuador.