I had a lot of great mentors throughout my career that really inspired me and helped me get to where I am right now, which is why I am very excited to serve in this same role at St. Mary’s College.
In Colombia, our bachelor’s degree takes five years and in the last year of the program, it is required that all students do a research project. Some of my favorite courses were genetics, ecology, evolution and botany. Early as an undergraduate, I performed small ecological research projects with birds and marine invertebrates, but I knew I wanted to be able to apply molecular techniques while still having the chance to do field-based ecological studies. I wanted to perform a conservation-related project in my final year. My professor of population and quantitative genetics -who later became my research advisor- suggested a research project with the American bamboo, a plant species that is an important forestry resource in my home country, but due to the expansion of agriculture its natural populations had been decimated. This was a collaborative project with multiple institutions and the bulk of the molecular work was done at the Tissue Collection and Molecular Biology Laboratory of the Alexander Von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute (IAvH) located at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT-CGIAR). Here, I had the chance to interact with scientists from all over the world and gained all of my molecular skills. I got even more interested in understanding how patterns of gene flow could modulate the maintenance of genetic variation in natural plant populations and crops, and how environmental conditions could shift these patterns. Purdue University had a strong connection with CIAT and in one of their recruitment sessions I got very interested in their PhD program with the EEOB cluster. My graduate work focused on estimating the interaction between local selection pressures and patterns of gene flow that determines the potential for species to adapt in situ to novel climate regimes. I used as a model system Lasthenia fremontii, a non-model plant species adapted to the variable conditions of seasonal wetlands in California. Throughout my PhD, I was a teaching assistant in different courses and trained multiple undergraduate students. This is how I discovered that I enjoy mentoring and teaching through research, so when I saw the opportunity to be a Teaching Postdoctoral Fellow at Tulane University, I immediately applied to this position. At Tulane, thanks to one of my faculty mentors, I learned about the fascinating connection between plants and soil microorganisms and decided to do more research-intensive postdoctoral work on this topic. At the University of California, Riverside (UCR), I investigated the evolution of specificity in mutualistic interactions between leguminous host plants (Acmispon spp) and soil bacteria. The host plants are legumes that have diversified and are adapted to arid and nutrient poor conditions in Western United States. The goal of understanding the genetic basis of host- specificity is to translate this knowledge to sustainable agriculture practices. At UCR, I also collaborated in different projects aiming to understand the role of domestication in symbiosis traits of Cowpea (Vigna unguiculate), an important African crop.
- What classes are you planning to reach this coming fall semester? Is there one in particular you are most excited about?
I will be teaching Plant Physiology (BIOL 435) and Principles of Biology I lab (BIOL 105L). I am honestly very excited to teach both courses, but I am putting my soul and heart to the plant physiology course with the hope that students can fall in love with plant biology the same way I did as an undergraduate student.
- Please describe your line of research
My research focuses in understanding how plants adapt to variable/extreme climate conditions to predict their evolutionary trajectory in response to climate change. Global warming is projected to bring more extreme and unpredictable conditions and some species might not have the capacity to withstand these environments. In comparison to animals, plants do not have the capacity to move and pursue more suitable environments. The only means by which plants can “move” is via seed dispersal and in some plant species the seeds do not disperse long distances. Therefore, their only chance at surviving novel environmental conditions is by adapting in situ, evolving to be more plastic in response to the environment or developing associations with soil fungi and bacteria that can promote their growth under stressful climate conditions. Throughout my career I have studied these different eco-evolutionary strategies and it is my purpose to continue doing so at St. Mary’s to ultimately create well-grounded conservation strategies for the survival of native plant species.
- Do you have a favorite type of plant and why?
The American bamboo (Guadua angustifolia). It was the first plant species that I focused my research on. I developed the first microsatellite molecular markers for this remarkable species. The American bamboo was widely used by the indigenous people in Colombia for building hunting tools, aqueducts, houses, cooking utensils and it is still an important forestry resource in my home country. The “stems” which are called culms are made with silicates that allows them to be very flexible and resistant. This characteristic has made the bamboo an important scaffolding material for houses and buildings in areas that are prone to earthquakes. Bamboos are gigantic grasses; they reproduce mostly vegetatively and most forests are likely to be the result of a single genotype that spread through an underground root structure called rhizomes. The natural bamboo forests are just beautiful and one of my favorite things is the peaceful sound of the leaves as the wind passes through them.
- Besides being a professor and researching, what else do you like to do for fun?
I love exploring nature, hiking, and camping. In my free time, I find new gardening projects. I also enjoy dancing salsa music as a good native of Cali – the capital of the salsa music in the world!
- What else would you like the St. Mary’s community to know about you?
I am here to share my knowledge and I welcome anyone to contact me at any time with questions, projects, and ideas of all kinds related to plant conservation and agricultural practices. I hope I can be of help to everyone and inspire the future generation of plant biologists.