Women in Ag Science Team
Meet Krystel Navarro-Acevedo, Plant Pathology Ph.D. Student
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
As a thriving scientist and mother, Krystel is an amazing example of self-empowerment and perseverance against all the odds.
Krystel Navarro-Acevedo is a Ph.D. student in the Plant Pathology Department at The Ohio State University (OSU). She currently works on various projects at the Soybean Pathology Lab, advised by Dr. Anne Dorrance.
Her research aims to understand the effects of temperature, host genotype and agricultural practices on the oomycete population in Ohio using molecular tools and microbiome approaches.
In addition, she studies the molecular interactions of Phytophthora sojae with soybean at a population level.
The research conducted by Krystel and other members of the Soybean Pathology Lab will help advance the soybean industry by providing growers with quality cultivars, knowledge, and management tools that will continue to increase yields and profitability.
Connecting to her roots
Knowing she liked Biology and other life sciences, Krystel enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez (UPRM) as a Microbiology major. After taking classes associated to human biology, she found out it was not her calling.
”Something was missing, it was hard to focus and study. That’s when I decided to explore other careers”.
Agriculture has always played an important role in her upbringing. Her dad owned a hydroponic business with her brother, who is an agronomist. She would notice her dad’s frustration when plant diseases would cause huge losses with harvests, preventing them from being sold. Adding to the frustration, agricultural extension could only provide limited information on how to control diseases in aromatic plants when using a hydroponic system in the tropics.
(Extension educators) had limited technical information on what the problem was or how to solve it. They would visit the greenhouses and usually could not identify whether it was a bacterial, nematode or fungal infection due to the limited diagnostic laboratories in the Island or technical information about the crop and their diseases. I think that was the first time I became inspired to pursue a career as a phytopathologist.
In Krystel’s second semester, after exploring other careers and learning more about plant pathology from the Dean of Plant Pathology at the UPRM, she was convinced that studying plant diseases was her passion and transferred to the program.
During her undergraduate studies, she had the opportunity to work with farmers who will constantly approach her to seek information on how to manage diseases in their plantations. Seeing the necessity of these farmers, and their excitement to finally know what is going on with their crops, kept her motivated and focused on a career in plant pathology.
Krystel explored careers in agriculture early on
Since she began in the plant pathology program at UPRM, she traveled every summer to the United States to participate in internships in academia as well as the industry: University of Illinois, Pioneer, and Natural Resources Conservation Service.
These experiences provided insight into fields from plant breeding to soil sciences. Finally, she arrived at OSU and participated in the Summer Research Opportunity Program, which provides minority groups the opportunity to explore a graduate career. From that experience, she solidified her interest in research and decided to apply for graduate school upon completion of the bachelor’s degree.
First-year undergraduates tend to underestimate themselves or firmly believe that there are no internship opportunities available for them because of their lack of experience. However, this is not entirely the case and Krystel is an example of striving towards your goals, no matter the expected outcome:
My experience as a 4-H member, allowed me to travel to various conferences and build an energetic attitude towards the beginning of my academic career. When I attempted to apply for an internship in my first-year, a faculty member advised me to not apply due to my lack of experience as a freshman. I still applied because I knew that I could learn about the interview process. I still remember I was very nervous inside a group consisting of one more freshman and the many senior students. I thought only senior students will be chosen since they were closer to graduation, but I was granted the opportunity to begin thinking about graduate school at an early stage in my career.
Krystel felt excited, as well as grateful, for the opportunity the director of the plant breeding center at the University of Illinois, Dr. Rita Mumm, gave her. After this, she continually encourages herself and others to put yourself out there, even if you think you won’t accomplish what you expect: “If they had not chosen me, then I learned about the interview process, an experience I had never been through before.”
One of the biggest lessons Krystel has learned is that you should always take advantage of any opportunity that you come across, even if you don’t see any obvious benefit:
I often say “I was really lucky”. However, someone once told me that luck comes because of the first step you gave, that another person did not. When you have the courage to take that first step, more odds are in your favor. It’s like playing the lottery. Sure, you want to win, but do you have the courage to play it? (She laughs)
In 2013, she graduated from a bachelor’s degree in Agronomy, with a minor in Plant Pathology, from UPRM.
Definitely, my experiences with my undergraduate mentors Drs. Lydia Rivera and Merari Feliciano, greatly impacted me. Their enthusiasm was reflected on their students and they always had their doors open for their students. They both gave me the opportunity to do research and taught me scientific skills.
In February 2014, she started as a research technician at Dr. Chris Taylor’s lab at OSU in the Plant Pathology department. In August that same year, she began her master’s degree in plant pathology in the same laboratory. Here she studied biological molecules for the control of the soybean cyst nematode. Other gratifying experiences she had while working in the Taylor lab included the mentorship of three undergraduate students and teaching the laboratory portion for the plant pathology and mycology courses.
Even though Krystel was exposed early-on to groups such as 4-H and having family members directly affiliated to agriculture, she was faced with the all-too-common question about agriculture: “Will I have any job prospects after I graduate?” This question arises from a frequent stigma towards agriculture:
I grew up in an Island where most of the food is imported and where agriculture is not often perceived as career path. “The stigma is that you have to study engineering or biology in order to be successful.'' Agriculture has many different focuses and there are many opportunities that many people don’t know about including pursuing a Masters or a Ph.D. Doing internships during my summer break gave me the opportunity to explore different career paths, and encouraged me to pursue my graduate degree.
Throughout these past five years, Krystel has faced various difficulties that in turn have helped her “mature as a woman and a human being”
The first difficulty she encountered was a culture shock. Krystel was faced with the fact that it was the first time she interacted for a long period of time with people from diverse backgrounds and personalities. She acknowledges she had to adjust to her new settings.
Another obstacle Krystel encountered once she started her graduate degree was to rapidly adjust to a different educational system. During her bachelor’s degree, most of the knowledge learned was applied, while a more molecular focus was given at the graduate level: “My first semester was hard and took some effort to adjust to the teaching methods and style, but after this experience subsequent semesters were easier to follow”.
Another experience that made Krystel a better person and a more efficient researcher was becoming a mom. However, she also had to deal with some stigmas often encountered when becoming a mother as graduate students.
Some people ask me: How are you going to finish your degree? Or, who will take care of the baby? At times these questions will make me think about whether or not I should be pursuing a graduate degree while being a mom.
This is a constant stigma that Krystel, as well as other women in her field and beyond must constantly battle. It is implied that women, whether in relationships or with children have to choose between work and family.
However, Krystel has expressed that becoming a mother gave her a reason to continue her degree and have given her many joys after stressful days of research.
Your most important mentors can be from
your own family
At a time where Krystel was encountering some difficulties in her graduate career, her brother told her something she always remembers:
He told me: "Krystel, always look forward never look back. Learn from your mistakes and difficulties and use them to grow as a person and a professional no matter how many difficulties you encounter”.
Krystel was raised in a working middle-class family in Puerto Rico where graduate education was encouraged but difficult to pursue due to economic constraints.
Having to move from my country, adjust to the language, culture, and educational system was not easy, but definitely made me a better person and professional. This is when I realized that every success I have, is worthy of celebration.
Women, put yourself out there!
Krystel recognizes that as women, we tend to limit ourselves.
Even if we go through many difficulties, we should always expose ourselves and get things done. And definitely not wait for things to fall right out of the sky.
Additionally, Krystel actively seeks insight from others, starting from discussing negotiation techniques with other senior peers, to asking about specific experiences from her colleagues and groups within her professional association. This is the principle of networking.
Other than being a plant pathologist a wife and a mom, Krystel enjoys reading and learning more about neuroscience, listening to TED Talks in the mornings and in essence, expanding her knowledge about other topics different from plant pathology.
Next step: Translating science
Throughout Krystel’s doctorate, she has learned to like the basic part of the science involved in making discoveries about the biological functions of organisms. Now, she is more prone to transferring that knowledge, to policy-making or developing agricultural management practices to increase crop production.
To young female students out there…
When Krystel was pregnant, she expressed that she went through hormonal changes that at first, she did not accept. It was only until after she gave birth, that she understood that these changes are ok and natural.
We need to love every aspect of what makes us women, it is upon recognition of these beautiful qualities that we learn to love ourselves more and accept who we are. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
As a last piece of advice:
Don’t be afraid to talk to others, even if it takes you out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid of being you, and to accomplish your goals the way you would like to accomplish them. Don’t let stigmas and biases determine who you will be in the future.
You can follow Krystel on Twitter at KrystelNavarro2 or contact her via email firstname.lastname@example.org
This interview was transcribed by Ana M. Vazquez-Catoni.