SEEDS Newsletter Alumni Highlight
Where do you go for graduate school and what will be your degree and program?
I am in the Frontiers Master’s in Ecology program at the University of Michigan. The Frontiers program differs from a Traditional Master’s in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology because its mission is to diversify the field of ecology by sponsoring students of various racial, cultural, ethnic, and non-traditional backgrounds pursuing careers in academia. The goals of the Frontier’s program are very closely aligned with that of SEEDS.
What drew you to this school and degree program?
The University of Michigan and SEEDS have a strong relationship. UM’s commitment to SEEDS is what drew me to the school and the department. I met the chair of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department, Deborah Goldberg (ESA Vice-President), at a SEEDS event during the ESA Annual Meeting of 2009. Active/alumni members of the UM SEEDS chapter, Serge Farinas and Zac Brym, also helped to recruit me. In addition, the department hosts weekend visits for undergraduate students interested in the program, which I attended during my sophomore year of college.
Please describe your research.
My research uses the global production of coffee as a model to understand the ways in which industrial agriculture affects populations of food-associated fungi and spoilage molds. We are using molecular tools to investigate the ways in which geography and different methods of agricultural production (organic and conventional, on shade and sun farms) affect fungal community assemblage on green coffee beans. Some of the fungal species found on coffee are human pathogens or produce mycotoxins which are carcinogenic and mutagenic. We will use population genetic analysis to understand how the production of coffee in various countries and the movement of coffee beans all over the world have affected the population genetic structure of these mycotoxigenic fungi.
What have been some of the most helpful things along your career path?
Two things in particular that have really helped my career were research experience as an undergraduate student and building self-confidence. In undergrad there was not a single summer that I did not do research. Getting my hands dirty in the lab, greenhouse, or farm, designing questions, collecting and analyzing data, and learning how to give present the findings has helped me tremendously. Through my experiences with REU, UMEB, and the SEEDS Fellowship, I was able to know without a doubt that doing ecological research is what I love and intend to do as a career. Those research experiences also helped me to build confidence. Taking the time to find myself, question my beliefs, and love who I am has helped me to also be able to face challenges in my career. Simply knowing that ‘I am capable’ gives me the motivation to persevere through the obstacles.
What are your hopes for the future (in ecology, or more broadly)?
My hopes for the future are to address issues of food inequity in America and abroad by understanding the ‘ecology of food’. Future research projects may focus on sustainable agriculture, agroecology, host-pathogen evolution, and urban farming. I want to understand the ways in which food is produced, distributed, and lost, and how this affects societies. I believe that issues related to malnutrition, hunger, and exposure to food-borne diseases could be arrested by promoting environmental-sound and culturally-appropriate farming practices, in both rural areas and within metropolitan cities. I would also like to be involved with policy-making that addresses the intricacies of global food production and acknowledges the inextricable link between human rights and access to food.