Dr. Chinchilla-Soto is a multifaceted agronomist that is centered on the importance of human relationships.
Dr. Cristina Chinchilla-Soto is the director of the Center for Investigation on Environmental Contamination, (CICA), ascribed to the University of Costa Rica (UCR). She conducts research related to the soil-plant-atmosphere relationship, water-use efficiency, and carbon flow through agroecosystems. She teaches the Agroecology and Crop Physiology course in the Agronomy Department at UCR.
In the classroom, as a student
Cristina selected Agronomy as her major at UCR because she wanted a career where she wouldn’t be limited to an office. She was inclined towards a major in Biology, but after choosing Agronomy, she knew it was the right choice. “Agronomy is applied biology”, she said. She continued graduate studies in the Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources Program, specializing in Soil Science at UCR. During her master’s, she worked in the Ecophysiology Program at the Agricultural research station of the Agronomy School and realized that her two passions were Agronomy and Soil Science. Towards the end of her M.Sc., she worked as the Quality Manager at CICA, a completely non-agriculture related job, but then moved to follow her Ph.D. degree. She pursued it in Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences from The University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.
A change in mindset
During Cristina’s Ph.D., she learned how to balance her work-life load while living in Scotland. Her mentor stated that she would have a work schedule and advised her not to work past it. So this allowed her to explore other things like community service. “When we do things for others, it helps us manage our stress”, she expressed. This is when she realized the importance of having a life outside of academia.
“The lifestyle I learned in Scotland was counterproductive with what I had been taught to be a successful scientist, i.e. working non-stop, even on the weekends. Community service helped me understand that it’s not only about me and my work, it’s about others as well.”
Cristina confronted difficulties entering her Ph.D. program due to funding. She couldn’t work in the project she initially wanted, nonetheless, this experience led her to restructure a new research project. Her doctoral investigation was funded thanks to the L'Oreal-UNESCO Scholarship for Women in Sciences. She conducted part of it in her country, Costa Rica, which turned out to be a better plan.
“When we truly have a passion, we will pursue it no matter what. Sometimes, life itself changes the plan we have in our mind, but that doesn’t mean that it will not work out.”
The classroom, as a professor
After Cristina finished her Ph.D., she returned to UCR and started teaching with Dr. Marco Gutiérrez, probably one of her first mentors one of her past professors. She wanted to teach the same way as he did, but she realized each person has a genuine teaching style.
“We have to develop our style, as professors and researchers. It’s great to have mentors, to be inspired, and want to be like them, but when we imitate others, we stop being ourselves”, she said.
Cristina admitted that hands-on teaching is what truly moves her, which is why she loves fieldwork and field trips of her Agroecology course. “Field trips are beautiful. I love being outside and feeling the soil with my hands. It’s a time where I can destress while I’m at work”, she said. However, mentoring graduate students and guiding them through their research projects gives her the utmost satisfaction.
“Seeing my first graduate student defend her thesis filled me with great pride. I felt like I was her mom! It was one of the best moments of my career.”
New responsibilities, new challenges
Amidst the pandemic, Cristina became the director of the CICA. It’s been challenging balancing out her new position, her ongoing research projects, her students, and adjusting to the changes caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike before, her workload as a director is mostly administrative. She tries to maintain the “Scottish lifestyle”, but it’s been troublesome. However, she still dedicates time for herself by doing yoga and taking violin lessons. Besides nurturing her musical side, she feels that the pandemic has taught her a lesson about family.
“Sometimes, worrying about others can be rewarding. With the CoVid-19 pandemic, I’ve enjoyed being closer to my parents. We tend to forget how valuable this is when we work all the time. I think the pandemic is trying to teach us that sometimes we just have to stop working and focus on family.”
The old ways in modern society
Recently, the agronomy program at UCR changed its modus operandi; it went from theoretical to more practical. Female students are now more exposed to the physical aspects of the field, which can represent an institutional effort to make a change upon the erroneous general thinking that women can’t do agriculture because they lack physical strength. This made Cristina reflect on what the first generation of women in agricultural sciences confronted as students.
“I think women back in the day had a harder time as agricultural students than we do today”, she said. Before, there weren’t as many campaigns to raise awareness of women’s rights issues as there are now. Over time, they have increased but there’s still work to do. Educating ourselves on these issues helps us be aware and speak up.
Distinctly from Cristina’s generation, she noticed that today almost half of the agronomy student population at UCR is female. She observed a similar tendency with female farmers, who are now occupying more leadership roles in the farms than before. This brings hope that the old ways are slowly starting to change. However, sexism is still present.
“Imagine you’re going to the field and you’re with a male driver that doesn’t know anything about agriculture, and the farmer chooses to speak to the driver because he is a man. These are the moments we need to speak up and say, I’m the professional here and I deserve respect.”
Words of wisdom
The support of Cristina’s female role models has prevented her from feeling limited as a minority within the field. One of them is Dra. Elizabeth Carazo Rojas, Cristina’s predecessor in CICA, and the other is Cristina’s mother, who set the example of a hard-working woman. Cristina deeply values human relationships. She strongly advocates for them, especially within academic environments where the intense workload tends to distance us from others.
Cristina doesn’t see herself making a scientific breakthrough, especially now that she’s not a full-time researcher. For her, what matters are the moments she feels that she’s positively impacted someone else. She wishes to instigate on others the value of agriculture because it’s a discipline that daily impacts humanity on a local and global scale.
“We depend on agriculture for everything that we eat.”
Lastly, she wishes to thank her alma mater, the University of Costa Rica, for her professional development and financial support throughout her career, as well as The University of Edinburgh.
Dr. Cristina Chinchilla Soto can be contacted through:
Thank you for sharing your journey with us Dr. Chinchilla! We wish you the best.
This interview was conducted and written by WAGS team member, Patricia Marie Cordero-Irizarry.