Meet Dr. Martha Malapi, Branch Chief at USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)
Profoundly motivated to reduce hunger, Dr. Malapi is paving her career working on national aspects of food security and helping in the development of technologies and policies to safeguard our food systems
Dr. Martha Malapi is a plant pathologist with more than 15 years of research and regulatory experience in academia and in the Federal Government. She recently joined the (USDA-APHIS) Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS) as a Branch Chief working on addressing potential plant pest risk of certain genetically engineered organisms to other plants in agriculture and to the environment. She received several awards for her work, including the USDA-APHIS-PPQ Outstanding Employee award and the MIT Innovator Under 35.
Martha’s responsibilities are to provide guidance and leadership and to serve as a subject matter expert on topics related to insect pests and pathogens and how modified plants should be handled under the USDA’s biotechnology regulation. In this position, she is heavily applying her genomics background in combination with her plant pathologist training to conduct risk assessment of novel products developed using genetic engineering. She mentions that her favorite part about the job is that she is continuously learning a lot and that as part of the regular job duties, she must study, read papers, and keep up with the current literature. Sounds like a grad school extension!
Her journey as a plant pathologist started by chance
Martha’s dreams were to be a mathematician. She simply loved solving math equations with her parents after school and weekends. At her young age, her parents thought that she would not have many job opportunities if she pursued mathematics as a career. Martha followed her brother’s steps and applied to La Universidad Agraria La Molina in Lima, Peru. She decided to study something related to biology and choose to become an Agronomist.
The plant pathology world is so amusing that is hard to escape once you start discovering the hidden gems. Martha took plant pathology classes and simply became fascinated with the biology of pathogens. During college, still, she was not sure that she wanted to become a plant pathologist. However, to fulfill one of her college requirements she decided to complete an internship at the International Potato Center (CIP), with a great Virologist, Dr. Luis Salazar, who became her very first mentor. At CIP, she got exposed to the importance of plant viruses, their effect on crop yield and global food security. She expressed that it was at CIP where she had the chance to work in a lab for the first time, and where she learned how to use different serological and molecular techniques for the identification of potato viruses and other related pathogens. It was during her time at CIP, where she realized that she wanted to become a true scientist, she turned that as her life goal.
“During this internship, I had the opportunity for the first time to interact with scientists from all over the world, and realized that I could also become a scientist, why not? Though, people thought that I had lost my mind! Regardless, I decided that I was going to become a scientist and it became my goal.”
Following her dreams overseas
To be experts and to fulfill our dreams, we need to separate from our families, our country and travel overseas to continue with our education. A friend, a cousin, or even you are familiar with this. It was no different for Martha who also realized that she needed to work very hard to obtain an assistantship to come to the US and complete her M. Sc. and Ph.D.
Martha completed her M.Sc. degree at the University of Tennessee. At the time, in the soybean crop system, a virus called Soybean mosaic virus (SMV) was widespread across the US, while Alfalfa mosaic virus (AMV) was an emerging viral problem in the Midwest because of the introduction of a new soybean aphid. Because of this, her thesis focused on studying the synergistic and antagonistic interactions between these two soybean viruses SMV and AMV.
Right after obtaining her masters, she pursued a Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, in the Plant Pathology Department, in Won-Bo Shim’s lab. Her research focused on further understanding of how the fungus Fusarium verticillioides perceive and respond to various extracellular stimuli and produce mycotoxins. Consumption of mycotoxins-contaminated food has been implicated in human birth defects and other detrimental health effects in humans and animals. Towards that goal, she characterized by functional genetics, a family of zinc finger transcription factors that are highly conserved among kingdoms. It was at Texas A&M, where her knowledge and skills in molecular biology, pathology and genetics were strengthened. Due to her perseverance and determination during her Ph.D., she was recognized as an Innovator under 35 by the MIT Technology Review.
Martha’s secrets for fulfilling her goals: motherhood and support
Yes, Martha was also a mother of a beautiful girl while completing back-to-back her M.Sc. and Ph.D. Her daughter Alessia was 6 years old when she started her Ph.D. She mentioned that it was a constant struggle to be able to study, work in the lab, while taking care of her. But it is her daughter, the motor that keeps Martha succeeding in her career.
She expresses: “It made me learn (and quickly) how to be super productive with my time, and I think that has helped me throughout my career. There is no way though that without the support of my friends and family I would have been able to survive grad school.”
Her strength and determination have been supported not only from her family but the continuous help from her mentors and peers that she has had throughout her career. There have been many times where she wanted to quit, doubted if this was the right path for her but she found wonderful people that have made all the difference in her personal and career life.
“We the women can do it. It does not matter if you are a mother, a wife, married, divorced…Keep fighting, don’t be afraid of the crazy work hours. Find a good mentor and support system to help you through it. You can do it”
A plant pathology career in the federal government
Martha was profoundly invested in continuing to grow as a scientist. So right after her Ph.D. graduation, she started a postdoctorate (postdoc) at the headquarters of the USDA-ARS (Agricultural Research Service) outside Washington D.C. with Jo Anne Crouch. It was here at ARS, where Martha learned and developed her genomics skills and the place that opened so many opportunities in her career. At this position, she made the transition from doing basic to applied research, to provide immediate solutions to different agricultural challenges using cutting edge technologies. For example, by sequencing the genomes of new emergent fungal pathogens that threatened several industries worth millions of dollars, which translated into the development of diagnostic tools for their identification.
Embracing challenges with innovation!
With the goal to protect the US agriculture and natural resources, Martha joined APHIS as the Lead Scientist and Program Manager for one of the Federal Quarantine Programs. The Plant Germplasm Quarantine Program (PGQP) is the first line of defense in the U.S. against the entry, establishment, and spread of exotic plant pathogens that are not present in the U.S. and that could harm the agriculture. Shortly after joining PGQP, she learned that the program urgently needed to implement new technologies that would rapidly detect a wider range of high priority pathogens in imported plants in a faster turnaround time. Martha embraced this challenge and implemented a genomics laboratory in PGQP from scratch. With this technology, they identified novel pathogens and genotypes that otherwise could have been missed with conventional diagnostic methods. And once again, her efforts were not missed and her work towards implementing this new technology was recognized with the 2018 USDA-APHIS PPQ Outstanding employee award.
Martha expressed that one of the most gratifying aspects of her position at PGQP, was visiting my stakeholders across the country. “They will show me the fields, plots, etc. that were planted with the germplasm we processed making sure that they were free of exotic and harmful pathogens. I have to admit that every time I saw those fields and the impact of our work, it gave me goosebumps.”
There is no time to waste
Martha was born in Lima, the capital of Peru during a chaotic and historical moment in the country. As she grew up, it became “normal” to see kids and elders begging on the streets for food. During this difficult time, Martha retrospect that people being hungry should never become a normal situation in any country, rich or poor. Looking back, that is the actual main reason why she decided to pursue career in agriculture, to help reduce hunger. Martha expressed: “a career goal that I have is that I will work on international aspects of food security and help in the development of policies to safeguard our food safety systems. That is the impact that I would like to make. Food security needs to take priority and now, since we will need to be able to double our food production by the year 2050 to feed a 10 billion population. There is no time to waste.” Since then, Martha has been picking her battles and opportunities to fulfill the impact she wants to have in her career and world, and is grateful to have Dr. Michael Watson from APHIS as her mentor to guide her through this path.
“Believe in yourself, diversify your skills and find a mentor”
Martha expands on the piece of advice that she could have appreciated at the beginning of her career.
Believe in yourself, diversify your skills and find a mentor. I try to follow these standards every day: To do my absolute best in every task/goal I have (my absolutely 150%); to continue studying and learning (I only know how little I know); to network; and lastly and probably the most important one, to treat people with respect, the same way I would like to be treated.
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Thanks Dr. Martha Malapi, for the inspiring interview!
by Andrea Lugo-Torres, WAgS Co Founder and Editor in Chief