Juan Zalapa and Amaya Atucha
Tulsa, Oklahoma, via St. Louis, Missouri
Undergraduate: University of Missouri-Columbia
What is your research about and what is the impact? How does it relate to the horticulture industry, what is the goal?
With big-picture goals of water conservation and land restoration, reducing agricultural runoff is vital. My research in cranberry agroecosystems studies the effects of a group of highly specialized beneficial root fungi already living in the soil: ericoid mycorrhizal fungi (ErMF). Evidence that ErMF increase nutrient uptake and mitigate environmental stress responses could reduce the excess fertilizer usage that leads to toxicity in waterways.
What was the path you took to work in plant sciences? And then what advice would you give to your younger self to get into the field/career you are in today?
Although I grew up surrounded by plants, I didn’t consider it a possible career path until after earning my undergraduate degree. At first it might appear difficult to draw connections between my undergraduate studies in linguistics and anthropology to the work I’m doing now. However, I’d argue that learning how human beings communicate with one another has been a huge asset in graduate work and research overall. I cannot stress enough that no scientist is an island; we have to make connections in order to produce meaningful results, be it with community members, growers, or other researchers. As graduate students in particular, we depend on each other to learn new skills and share ideas, and you can’t learn everything you’ll need from a book or in a classroom.
My advice for my younger self would be to stay flexible. Everything changes around us, regardless of whether you invite that change. Plans fall apart and priorities shift. Make sure that you give yourself the mental elasticity to accept and learn from these changes because the world’s gonna turn whether you’re ready or not.
What groups or initiatives or hobbies are you working with on campus or in Madison?
I work with several groups on campus at present, including the Horticulture Equity & Diversity Committee (HEDC), the Plant Science Graduate Student Council (PSGSC), the Plant Science Anti-Racism Coalition (ARC), and Mentorship Opportunities in Science and Agriculture for Individuals of Color (MOSAIC).
For the HEDC, I serve on the Advising & Mentoring branch of our Anti-Racism Working Groups. We are currently working with WIScience to lay groundwork for what we hope will be a longstanding series of mentorship training for the Horticulture Department, as well as all interested MOSAIC mentors.
Along with Korede Olugbenle, I co-facilitate Plant Sciences ARC, which is a weekly “incubator,” sounding board, and problem solving environment, where students can bring for discussion ideas for change, or any issues of racism they might be having with their department/program/PI/etc. We hold space and discuss what has worked and not worked in our anti-racism efforts in each of our departments. This has proved an effective way to share ideas, in particular on pushing faculty forward.
I’m also the 2021 Journal Club Chair for PSGSC. The purpose of Journal Club is to foster an environment of collegiality for new students, engage graduate students in scientific, professional and personal development topics.
Additionally, I am an administrator of the nascent MOSAIC effort alongside Korede Olugbenle and Jenyne Loarca. We have been working since summer 2020 to bring together mentors of color to create a network for BIPOC students in CALS. Our goal is decrease the virtual space between students, peers, and potential mentors on and off campus, forming beneficial relationships and increasing a sense of community and belonging that Korede found to be sorely lacking. MOSAIC is currently organizing mentorship training (in tandem with the Hort Department) and a “Lunch & Discuss” series led by mentors, with attendance to be open to all BIPOC students across the UW campus. The next step for MOSAIC is advertising to students as we continue to build our mentor base.