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  • Writer's pictureAna María Vázquez-Catoni

Meet Dr. Renée Rioux, Assistant Professor in Plant Pathology

Between academia and industry tracks, Dr. Renée Rioux excels as a scientist and an advocate for herself and others.

Dr. Renée Rioux is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) in the Department of Plant Pathology. She has research and teaching appointments, as well as an administrative position with the Wisconsin Seed Certification Program (WSPCP). Dr. Rioux’s research focuses on seed potato production in the state of Wisconsin.

As a plant pathologist, her biggest role is to keep out pathogens that could be transmitted by seed tubers, whether those are bacteria or viruses. Her laboratory works on molecular detection methods for these pathogens, as well as understanding their biology and management. In particular, Dr. Rioux’s lab is working with the bacterial pathogen Dickeya dianthicola, which was recently reported in the US for the first time and has since spread to most potato producing states.

Soft rot on potato plant stems (Photo Credits: Extension at University of Maine)

Her lab also studies how the seed potato microbiome changes throughout the production process and ways this microbiome could be modified to optimize seed potato production. She mentioned that working with the WSPCP grants allows her to branch out and learn more about other pathogens she has not worked with previously, such as viruses. One of the most problematic viruses in seed potato production is Potato Virus Y, but other viruses and viroids, including Potato Moptop Virus, Tobacco Rattle Virus, and Potato Leafroll Virus, are also important.

From wanting to study human diseases to plant diseases

Renée grew up in Maine, US and her background might be somewhat different from other people in the agricultural sciences. Her family had no previous connection to agriculture. Both of her parents worked in a medical microbiology lab in a hospital.

I just didn’t know anything about agriculture or the possibility of plant pathology even being a field that someone could study!

This led Renée to explore other majors such as health sciences. At one point, she found out she disliked working with people in that particular context. Dr. Rioux decided to go through a basic sciences approach and get a Masters in biomedical sciences. Her goal was to learn basic molecular techniques and eventually pursue Ph.D. in plant pathology at UW, where she studied turfgrass pathology under the direction of Dr. Jim Kerns.

“I fell in love with plant pathology once I realized that it was a field of study and had an understanding of how important agriculture was. Until that point in my life, it had never occurred to me that we needed to be able to grow crops to clothe people, feed people and house people.”

Renée mentions the other factor that got her hooked on the field of plant pathology which was the ability to do fieldwork. One of the first time at the field harvesting and spraying fertilizer she expressed joy and she remembers saying This is awesome! I can get a workout while doing research! She enjoys herself while being outside, hiking, and being active.

Afterward, Dr. Rioux found an industry job opportunity in St. Louis that “fit like a glove”. She thought it would be a great moment to go into the private sector, see if she felt comfortable and then decide if she would stay there or go back to academia.

From Academia to Industry and Back

Before Renée started her assistant professor position, she worked in a startup company and in a global agricultural company, for five and a half years. She enjoyed being part of the industry sector, the exciting fast pace daily routine. Renée met incredibly motivated people from diverse backgrounds and developed valuable skills beyond research. However, Renée mentioned that at the end of the day, she always felt like something was missing because she has limited opportunities like to mentor others and on how deep she could delve into scientific details with her projects.

Renée’s Return to Research (In Academia)

Ultimately, her curiosity drove her back to academia! Other than developing mentor-mentee relationships and exploring research topics deeply, Dr. Rioux was looking forward to communicating her research more broadly.

Dr. Rioux had different challenges making the transition back into academia. She noticed how peers that, after finishing their Ph.D. and post-doc, had an easier transition into an assistant professor position, compared to someone that came from the private sector. She felt like she was starting from scratch.

"Figuring out how to set up a new lab can be a daunting task"

Renée highlighted skills she honed in the private sector that positively impacted her transition. For example, time management and prioritizing. And others such as, ‘interpersonal skills’ and the ability to give and receive feedback. Renée feels like these skills have been especially helpful with her administrative responsibilities for the seed potato certification program.

You don't want to sit there and defend yourself, even if you completely disagree. You want to accept the feedback people give, chew on it a little bit, and think about how you want to use it.

The Importance of Representation, Relatability and Role-Models

Renée believes it is imperative to increase diverse representation in agriculture. She mentioned that it is not only the recruitment of diverse individuals that needs to improve but to better understand how to act inclusively. Moreover, Renée is an advocate for the representation of women in agricultural sciences. She was also specific about women that aspire for positions in applied sciences that are seen as more appealing to males, such as extension.

By highlighting women in agriculture, it helps pave a way for us. It lets us open that door and, hopefully, we can chip away at some of the biases, both explicit and implicit, that may make it more difficult for women to get into certain positions in agriculture.

How scientists communicate to the non-agriculture/non-scientist public is another area that Renée considers a need for improvement in the agricultural sciences. "As a sector, we need to understand how to appeal across generations, educational background, different ideologies, etc."

When Renée was recalling role models in her life, she mentioned her undergraduate Capstone professor Dr. Mary Tyler. She did not only mention she was an amazing teacher but how her sense of humor and applicability in explaining science inspires her to do the same.

“...and I did what I had to do, even if I felt like I was getting way out of my comfort zone, to make sure that my voice was heard.”

Throughout Renée’s career, she faced, and overcome, certain difficulties. She learned to deal with difficult personality clashes or differences of opinions and priorities. She emphasize that the best way to overcome hard situations is standing up yourself and take action.

Sources of Support

Renée emphasized the importance of friendships as a graduate student, and how hers have persisted throughout the years. “We are able to use each other as resources and support each other!”. Secondly, Renée encourages the use of social media platforms such as Twitter, as sources for positivity, support and building collaborations.

Renée is a working mom. Being a mother is an incredible experience for her, but she admits it has changed everything about her life. She acknowledged her time as much more valuable. For her, it has been an exercise in learning how to balance work and life, without necessarily integrating them.

It was difficult when I was working a full-time job and going through the academic interview process while caring for a young child. In that situation, it made all the difference that I have a supportive spouse willing to truly split parenting 50/50. That has been incredible.
"Having a supportive partner made the transition from industry to academia while parenting a young child possible."

Renée’s experience as a mother who found it difficult to get the resources that she needed while working. So she encourages those that are comfortable being advocates to speak up and advocate for support working moms for now and the future.

Renée’s advocacy has also been demonstrated through her work in initiatives within the American Phytopathological Society (APS), a scientific society with a recent sustained female leadership and female presidential lineage.

Renée is involved in the “Family-Friendly APS” initiative (#FamilyFriendlyAPS). For the past three years at the annual APS meetings, the initiative offers a room where attendees can go with their children and have a safe space for kids to be kids, with books and activities.

Outside of work, Renée spends most of her time with her family. She enjoys being outside and being active, by exercising, hiking, and kayaking.

"A great part of being a parent is being able to share my love of plant disease and nature with my child."

Words of Advice from a Current Advisor

Renée encourages other people starting their graduate studies to not be afraid of seeking knowledge.

When I started, I really didn’t understand how to be collaborative, how to have a support network, or how to be vulnerable. I felt like I had to know everything and never show any sign of weaknesses. I wish someone had given me the advice starting out that my job is to learn and to seek knowledge from others. That it is okay to admit I need more help and that I don’t understand something. That there's nothing wrong with working with other people, being part of a team and not trying to find all the answers myself.

Thanks, Dr. Renée Rioux for your amazing advice and interview!

You can contact and follow Dr. Renée Rioux on Twitter.

This interview was transcribed and edited by WAGS co-founder, Ana Maria Vazquez-Catoni.



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