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  • Writer's pictureAna María Vázquez-Catoni

Meet Katherine Rivera-Zuluaga, Plant Pathology Ph.D. Student

With sheer tenacity and contagious excitement, Katherine transmits her passion for science and self-empowerment.

Katherine Rivera-Zuluaga is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Purdue University (PU). Advised by Dr. Anjali Iyer-Pascuzzi, she works on the tomato plant’s resistance to Ralstonia, a soil borne bacterial pathogen. Using a Ralstonia strain endemic to the United States, Katherine seeks to understand the tomato root-mediated defense mechanism against Ralstonia solanacearum at the genetic and molecular level.

Steps in the right direction

Katherine studied biology at the Icesi University in her hometown of Cali, Colombia. Like many people, she had a narrow perception of the various fields of biological sciences. “I just wanted to be a field biologist. The kind that saves whales and turtles. Like the ones on the Discovery Channel!" However, it was her undergraduate botany professor, Dr. William Vargas, who showed her another world at a microbial scale. During her freshman year of college, Katherine went on a field trip where the professor showed them a Gunnera, a plant that has a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria that fixes nitrogen. Katherine's curiosity propelled her to study interactions between microorganisms and plants and hence began working with medicinal plants in the professor's laboratory and in the field

Then, she worked with Dr. Thaura Ghneim-Herrera. The professor has a collaboration with PU where every year they send five students for internships and thus, Katherine had the opportunity to work at PU during her third year as an undergraduate student.

Up to that point, Katherine had never done anything other than research, but she had no doubt that it was her passion. In 2016, she arrived at PU, to the laboratory where she later began her doctoral program. Her initial relationship with her research professor, Dr. Iyer-Pascuzzi, laid the foundation for an excellent mentor-mentee dynamic and for Katherine, an example to follow.

My boss is more than a mentor, she is an idol. She is a working mother and is supported by her family, something that is not seen much. She was always there to support me. She has never treated me differently for being Latina.

At the end of her internship, the professor offered her to return to work in her laboratory. Katherine returned in 2017 to do another internship for six months and in 2018, she began her doctorate.

As Katherine reflects on her journey, she says:

There have been many opportunities that I have had to do research and it all started with the professor who passed on his love for plants and changed my perspective of what I wanted to do as a biologist. Thanks to him, I learned to be passionate about my career. I really appreciate it.

Katherine’s love of teaching

The clearest goal that Katherine has is that she wants to teach and achieve a 100% teaching appointment, in other words, a faculty member where she only dedicates herself to teaching. Being able to be a laboratory teaching assistant has been an excellent opportunity for Katherine. Katherine's energy is contagious and every week her students arrive excited. She loves to set up classes, use humorous examples, and create an interactive environment. Katherine seeks to get her students excited about life sciences beyond the human body.

I like the interaction with the students and being able to share knowledge and passion for science. It's something that motivates me and makes my heart a little bit happier.


Katherine has never been in environments where she has perceived macro or microaggressions towards her because of her gender. However, when she arrived in Indiana, she felt a very strong culture shock. She faced a hostile environment, accompanied by microaggressions and xenophobia for being Latina. “I didn't feel safe going out on the street. Emotionally, it affected me a lot."

Katherine emphasizes the difference in the research environment due to access to resources.

In Colombia, we say that we do research “con nuestras uñas” (with our nails) because we hardly have the resources to conduct research or to publish. In academia, the value of the research program is measured by how much is published and it doesn't have to be. There is a lot of research being carried out in Colombia that cannot be in Nature because there is no money to publish.

However, Katherine has managed to find a community of personal and professional support through a common entity: the lunch break.

That time at noon helps me get motivated to keep working. Little by little, I got my close colleagues to do the same and it helped me to meet other people, connect on a cultural and professional level and create new traditions.

The importance of being a woman capable of making her own decisions

For Katherine, being able to be an independent person has been one of her greatest personal accomplishments. In her upbringing, she felt like the black sheep of her family. “I never agreed with the cultural traditions tied to misogyny. It has always been very frustrating not receiving support from my family." However, she emphasizes that being able to learn more about her role as a woman, Latina and scientist, has driven her to do things that she did not know she could do, like how to do research, teach, make an impact in the community, even give an interview!

It seems very positive to me because it leads me to think that if I set my mind to it, I can achieve it. That has been something that has enriched me, emotionally and personally.

Katherine wishes to motivate her colleagues, especially her female colleagues, to find that independence and to break away from misogynistic traditions.

Many times you might think you are enough. If you are different, it does not mean that life does not work in your favor. You are special and you can achieve what you set out to do.

Other passions

Katherine loves to cook and bake. She is even passionate about photography, especially in nature. She also enjoys hiking, reading, and dancing.

"Even if we have different stories and different ways of achieving success, we can inspire other people"

Katherine believes it essential to highlight women in science.

We have an audience that is watching us. We have someone who needs idols. We have to make ourselves visible so that a person who does not know that this is possible, knows that they can dream.

You can reach Katherine by email and follow her on Twitter.



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