Ana María Vázquez-Catoni
Meet Dr. Lina Quesada, Plant Pathology Associate Professor
Updated: Apr 1, 2021
Having one of the largest and most productive vegetable extension programs and empowering others through mentorship, Lina shares her impactful journey.
Dr. Lina Quesada is an Associate Professor at North Carolina State University. Her research and extension program focuses on diseases of cucurbits and sweet potato, very important crops for the state of North Carolina.
Lina sees her research and extension program as a continuum, and she works very closely with growers. She formulates research questions about vegetable pathogens from field observations and then, using a combination of greenhouse and lab approaches, she applies her findings to improve management practices, diagnostic capabilities, and further understanding of host and fungicide resistance to provide long term solutions.
Empowerment and mentorship go a long way
Born and raised in Colombia, Lina completed two bachelor's degrees in Microbiology and Biology at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá. One of her first impactful mentors was her mycology professor Dr. María Caridad Cepero. Dr. Cepero was passionate about mycology and was excited that Lina shared that passion, but was concerned that Lina’s abilities could be muted for being in a scientific community that is male-dominated. At her graduation ceremony, Maria Caridad told her: “You are brilliant and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. You are great, you need to follow your dreams and stop thinking that you can't do something just because other people think you can't, and just do it.”
Lina went on to work in Dr. Sophien Kamoun’s lab at The Ohio State University, who was also a supportive mentor. After, Lina went to pursue a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology at Michigan State University, advised by Dr. Mary Hausbeck. Dr. Hausbeck always encouraged her to pursue her goals and not let anything stop her. Lina believes these supportive environments and role models that helped her thrive during her graduate studies, will help her students too:
“I think seeing that people valued who I was and what I have to contribute, empowered me to have a very positive grad school experience. I always had mentors with high standards, which has with no doubt made me a better scientist, but they always mixed that with a supportive attitude. Ultimately these mentors helped me become not only a good scientist, but also confident in my abilities. I'm trying to be that person for my mentees now. If you feel that someone cares enough about you to make you a better scientist, that you have someone behind you cheering you on, it makes you so much braver to go through difficult things.”
She also explains how these mentor-mentee connections give you the freedom to talk about things that you truly are concerned about. These connections provide a “safe space to ask the hard questions and have the hard conversations." Lina feels very fortunate to still have a fantastic relationship with all her mentors.
Academia was the perfect fit for Lina
Essentially, Lina always knew she wanted to help people directly and she was sure that academia would offer her that opportunity, especially being able to have both research and extension appointments.
"I really admire the land grant system in the United States. I think the concept of putting cutting-edge research in the hands of U.S. citizens via Extension is a really neat idea. It helps develop rural communities, it makes them savvier (by teaching them) how to grow better crops, how to manage disease better, how to become economically more sustainable."
Lina’s training in genomics and bioinformatics would have allowed her to thrive in the industry sector. However, there was one more reason why Lina was inclined to go to academia: “The one thing industry could not offer me that academia could was the opportunity to train students. I love training people, I enjoy seeing them grow as scientists. I like inspiring them to try to change the world and make it a better place."
Lina has also become a mentor for her peers at a faculty level:
“Some assistant professors, especially those who are minorities, go through difficult situations and do not always have the means to handle a conflict that will not come at a political cost to their careers. Now that I have tenure, I have tried to be an advocate for faculty that feel they cannot say some difficult things to resolve a situation that is negatively impacting their career. I believe that we should not perpetuate things that are not good, we should make them better to retain excellent scientists.”
Challenges as an extension plant pathologist
Lina explains that some of the challenges are pretty standard, like trying to establish yourself as a scientist and develop fundable and useful lines of research: “There's a lot of need for research out there in agriculture but unfortunately there's not enough funding available. So, I think it’s pretty normal for everyone to find a spot where they can solve an important problem for humanity and then see if there's enough funding to be able to do it.”
Lina believes the biggest challenge in academia focused on managing epidemics is the funding situation. “When the land grant mission was conceived, that idea that certain universities of the U.S. were at the service of the citizens, the universities were funded by the states and the government. That allowed a lot of flexibility to react to disease outbreaks.”
However, this idea changed. If there is a disease epidemic in the state, she is responsible to get it under control and advise growers of the state on what to do. That becomes complicated if she has a grant to work on a completely different disease. If an epidemic occurs, there is no funding for her or her people to react to the situation. One of her challenges is to build up a program with enough funding and support from the industry, federal grants and growers themselves.
“If something important and serious happens, we want to be able to respond to it quickly to minimize the impact to our growers. So, I'm trying to fulfill everyone's expectations: the growers are happy with us and that their crops are healthy, the University's happy with our productivity as far as output of papers and serving the citizens from North Carolina, and that the students are also getting what they came to get, experience, publications, connections, good training. I think getting everyone what they need to get with the current funding model is the hardest part of this job.”
Lina has encountered other challenges more associated with being a minority in a male-dominated field. Currently, the growers of North Carolina that benefit from Lina’s program have been very supportive and she has never had issues with her growers. However, Lina says:
“There’s still a little bit of expectations from some people, on how an extension specialist should look, speak, or be. I have experienced some pushback from colleagues because I am a Hispanic, female in agriculture, a white male-dominated area. Now, I am a mom. So, I have the trifecta.”
Lina has encountered peers that will be supportive and empowering as well as people who will be the opposite. She narrows this situation to whether someone will perceive you as a threat. During her time as a graduate student, all the way to her postdoc, she did not perceive negative situations until she became a faculty member. “It was quite an interesting thing to observe. Once I became faculty and I started being successful, publishing papers and getting grants, some of the negative comments and behaviors started. I think it was an easy way for people to use those things to put me down.”
She explains she received backhanded compliments like:
“You give the best presentations! Too bad that you have that accent.”
“Oh, Lina, it would be great to have you in this project but we did not include you since you really can't stay after hours because of your baby.”
Lina shares that we still have a long way to go when it comes to these types of behaviors, but one can learn how to be savvy handling these situations in a positive way, as opposed to antagonizing others if possible. In the end, those are the people you're going to have to work with.
“It has been surprising to me how some people use your family against you, as an excuse to take opportunities away from you. It sucks because the way they phrase it is like “You're so busy and so stressed with your baby, so we did it for you.” I correct them and tell them “Well, I appreciate your gesture. If I felt that I was overwhelmed, I would ask for help but by you doing what you're doing, you're just making me feel left out because I had a child.” Once people are put on the spot like that, they immediately back out and then say “Oh, we didn't mean it that way, of course, you're welcome to be part of this.”
But you have to be willing to stand up for yourself, and that is an extra burden and stress that minority faculty always face. However, none of this has stopped Lina from pursuing a successful career. Lina is a Hispanic female with a baby in a tenure-track position in an R1 Institution doing cutting-edge research and extension. She has one of the biggest labs in her department and one of the largest and most productive vegetable extension programs in the entire U.S. Some of Lina’s accomplishments include: being awarded tenure a year early, receiving the American Phytopathological Society Hewitt Early Career Award of and the Schroth Faces of the Future of Mycology Award, as well as the NC State University Faculty Scholars Award (that people usually get when they are already associate professors).
“That's why you have to believe in yourself and push through. There will always be challenges and difficult people, but always remember why you became a scientist, let that motivate you and surround yourself with good mentors and a positive support system.”
Working together to improve the ag sector
Undoubtedly, we will always need food and any resource that originates from farming. Lina believes that agriculture can be improved via new technologies to feed the world population with less land usage, water usage, and pesticide inputs. She mentions that more research is needed to understand how to effectively respond to emergent pathogens in a globalized world and in the face of climate change. Lina encourages researchers to think more about the interplay between basic and applied science, and how these can work together rather than separate.
“I would like to see a more balanced scientific community where we have some people doing really good applied work, making sure the crops are being grown healthy, that our farmers stay in farming and they have appropriate support to farm. But also, have a sector that is innovating and thinking how are we going to solve these problems in 30 years. We need to look into the future but we need to be looking into how do we save the crops this week. Both components are important and that is not always recognized.”
Because Lina works in both applied and basic research realms, she has seen first-hand the benefits of a translational approach. But, she also recognizes that there could be more collaboration between basic scientists and extension scientists.
Passions outside of work
Lina enjoys reading, being outdoors, going kayaking with her husband, board games, video games, and spending time with her daughter: “She's my life.”
Importance of highlighting minority women
Lina knows that diversity, whether it is financial, gender, racial, ethnic, provides different experiences and perspectives that can enhance science. However, she explained how there is an issue for minorities not accessing higher positions.
“I think it's a disservice to humanity to not take advantage of those minds. We are losing them after pouring so much into training them and it’s a problem. I think if you look at this as a business decision, it's really dumb to have invested all those years and money training all these really great people and then not get to enjoy them in these leadership positions.”
She highlights as one of the reasons for this problem is the lack of better support for families. Financial decisions when it comes to families can end up in a situation where one of the parents decides to not continue working and take care of their child.
Look for positive, experienced mentors
For Lina, knowing you're not alone and that there is someone out there that has more experience than you do in certain situations, helps you feel comfortable enough to talk and receive guidance on smart choices to move forward. “When I have undesirable experiences in my career, the fact that I can still call my Ph.D. advisor and just tell her what happened is great.”
Lina’s advice for others is to believe in yourself, no matter in which stage of their career they are
Lina’s journey involves support from her family, mentors, and a support network. She encourages others to be empowered by themselves and with the help of a strong community.
“It doesn't matter that everyone will tell you what you can’t do. If you want to do it, just believe in yourself, do the work, and achieve your goal. Surround yourself with good role models, good mentors and good friendships, with people that are making you better not people that are holding you back or bringing negativity into your life.”
Lina recommends being involved in scientific organizations, like the American Phytopathological Society and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science to build a network of colleagues and friends.
You can learn more about Lina and her work by visiting her lab website and following her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
This interview was transcribed by Ana M. Vazquez-Catoni.