Meet Daniela Orjuela-Díaz, Soil Sciences M.Sc. and incoming PhD student
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Passionate and persistent, Daniela works closely with farmers and their needs in the field to make her research work useful and applicable when helping these communities.
Daniela Orjuela-Díaz is a Colombian scientist currently finishing her Master studies in the Department of Agronomy at Purdue University. Her family owns and works at farms in Colombia, which allowed her to get a first hand experience in the field at a very young age. Studying Agronomy at Colombia’s National University allowed her to pursue field knowledge, business instincts, and communication skills, as explained by Daniela.
During her bachelor's degree in Colombia, Daniela did a 6-month internship at Purdue University at Dr. Eileen Kladivko’s lab in the agronomy department. Before this, Daniela did not have the idea to pursue a Master’s degree in the United States. However, after experiencing how applied her research was and how much they could actually work with and support farmers, she decided that’s what she wanted to do. Following her internship, Daniela got her Master’s degree at Purdue at the lab of Dr. Jim Camberato very recently and is now heading to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue her PhD studies.
Improving corn production from the very first planting step
Daniela’s research at her Master’s focuses on crop management in corn. Daniela seeks to evaluate how much fertilizer “starter” will improve overall health in corn. Her work in the corn field plantations would help to understand the benefits of a small amount of fertilizer in corn growth and yield.
Daniela’s duties vary depending on the time of the year, since working with this crop depends greatly on the growing season . During the summer, when corn planting starts, she evaluates the different experiments in the field and collects different types of samples such as soil or plant tissue, to run different analyses in the lab. In the fall, these samples are mostly processed in the lab. The experiments performed with them vary depending on whether the samples come from the plant itself or from the soil. Later in the spring, her graduate work shifts to analyzing data and writing up results in front of the computer, while also teaching some agriculture-related courses to undergraduate students.
Corn, corn, and more corn! During the field season at Daniela’s research plot.
Preconceptions change but that shouldn’t push us back
Daniela’s research experience in the US has mostly been surrounded by women, all working in the field together and carrying their projects to the end. However, she reflects on how different this is to the preconception of agronomy being a male-dominant field. She talks about her experience of studying agronomy in Colombia, where agronomy is, indeed, mostly thought of as a man-related activity. She admires her internship’s advisor and how she navigated her way through a very different world:
“In her I saw the experience of being a woman in agriculture in a time where men were handling everything. So, if she could do it then, why couldn't any of us, or me, do it now.”
As well as her admiration for women inside of Academia, Daniela looks up to her mom as an example of what we, as women, are able to do. When her mom was younger she traveled from her hometown in the countryside of Colombia to Bogotá, a big city, all by herself. Daniela considers that to be an inspiration and a reason that pushes her to make her own decisions and construct her life where she needs it to be, even if that is away from home.
“You do it, then the world realizes it”
One of Daniela’s ideas is to make it more evident for aspiring students in Colombia, that there are indeed opportunities for students in the United States. Sometimes people are too scared to even look for them or automatically assume that they would be required to pay a lot of money.
“I think, at least in Colombia, there’s not a lot of information about international opportunities where you don’t have to pay anything. I would very much like to make this more public and tell people that they can come here! Or they can go anywhere! They just need to look at the right places”.
As well, Daniela recognizes and reflects on how the opportunities given to women and men in agronomy are not usually equal. Her take on this is to encourage other girls and women to approach this with a forward action. “Okay, they are not treating me equal. Well, I am going to try and do my best for them to see my qualities, what I am worth, and for them to treat me equal”. Instead of shutting down and away from opportunities because of these uncomfortable situations or feelings of rejection.
It has been all about pushing boundaries and getting to where she wants to be.
A piece of advice? The magic of learning while helping others
As graduate students, we always have to be writing. Whether it is our own thesis dissertation, applying for scholarships and grants, or even just writing down on a daily basis. Daniela tells us that one of the things she found most useful was to start writing about her thesis and results early on. That will surely make it easier when the time comes to finalize experiments and get the thesis done. Additionally, she emphasizes the importance of working on something people really want to do.
“If you don’t have anything clear, and it is your first experience, just try to do what you enjoy most because it’s going to be awful to work in something you don’t like”.
In relation to this passion for what one studies, Daniela tells us she has greatly enjoyed teaching. She learns a lot from her students while they learn from her. This makes it easier to internalize certain concepts that might be useful for her own research as well. Although it has been challenging to teach during a pandemic, she finds it very enriching and a possible future goal as a senior researcher, as well.
To be someone that can really help people
Daniela’s long-term ambition is to really make a difference in the lives of farmers and other communities. She would like her research outcome to be truly useful for them, to be able to tell them the exact information that would benefit their crop yields. “For example, it would be great if I can make a test that will allow them to know how much nitrogen to put into their soil, not more, not less, something like that”, as Daniela explains.
Coupled with this, Daniela reflects on how important it is to understand and respond to the world’s environmental problem, which motivates her to search for better or more efficient ways to produce the food that we need and to feed our planet in a more sustainable way. “Some people, even farmers, do not care. But you have to show them the numbers and explain why it is important to understand this”, referring to the impact of climate change on their jobs.
A sports follower in her free time
Daniela enjoyed playing soccer her whole life although that has become less common since she moved to the US. However, she closely follows soccer, tennis, and other sports that she very much enjoys. She also loves to dance and hopes to be able to dance and travel soon when the pandemic restrictions are relaxed. It's not the same to dance alone in the living room!
Being a grad student is more than only research! Go out and have fun.
Build your community away from home
Daniela tells us about her experience having a US family become her family away from home, spending time with them, and enjoying the country! As well, she tells us about the importance of using university resources for international students. Additionally, she tells us about the Colombian community at Purdue who is also a support system while being away from family. Lastly, Daniela mentions Zamoranos, a community that has an online support network connecting students going to Purdue, and other US universities, coming from Colombia.
You can find more about Daniela Orjuela-Diaz at
This interview is written by WAGS team member Juliana González-Tobón