Strong and determined, Helena is paving her path as a plant pathologist one virus at a time.
Helena Jaramillo Mesa is a Colombian scientist who has developed an intricate passion for viruses and their effects on economically important crops. Viruses are a special case when it comes to studying their biology and pathogenicity. Therefore, molecular biology and bioinformatic tools are key for their full understanding. Initially driven by such interests, Helena pursued her Bachelor’s degree at Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín. There, she worked with detection and characterization of viruses affecting tropical crops that are relevant to Colombian agriculture. Falling in love with these organisms, she pursued a Master of Science in Biotechnology studying all the viruses that may be found in purple passion fruit, tree tomato, and lulo. This path brought her to the United States, to study viruses during her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Helena studies plant viruses and their potentially huge impact on the food we eat.
Understanding potential threats in order to be able to fight them
Viruses are quite famous currently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, plant viruses have caused dangerous epidemics on our food sources since forever. Viruses rely heavily on their protein production to be able to colonize, infect, and reproduce. Therefore, Helena´s work focuses on how the Triticum mosaic virus (TriMV) and other similar viruses, build their proteins. This will enable further understanding of how they infect wheat plants and cause disease. As Helena tells us:
“Understanding this would give us the information we need to manipulate the plant in order to make it resistant to the virus or to design tools that specifically target the virus so that it can no longer infect the plant.”
The impacts of a plant pathogenic virus range from distorted fruits to color and texture changes in different parts of the plants. Pictured: commercial Gulupa affected by a virus.
Doing science in a country that is not yours, comes with outstanding challenges
“The feeling of gratitude and fortune to be able to fulfill your career goals, but also the feeling of not fully belonging to the place where you live.”
If you’re an immigrant, you probably identify as much as I did with Helena’s words. As she so adequately addresses, doing science in a country that is not your own comes with outstanding challenges. Situations such as scholarships that you are not allowed to apply to, extra fees to pay, and sudden changes in immigration policies, are constant reminders of how that invisible but very tangible situation makes the process harder.
This triggered Helena to reflect about other issues like the disparities between countries like the USA and countries like Colombia when it comes to doing science. She expressed, “The accessibility to do science, resources availability, funding, scientific community perception, opportunities for aspiring scientist/academics, etc. which are gaps that I would like to help reduce somehow in the future.”
Teaching allows us to plant a small seed on someone else's journey
She believes in the power a teacher has on students because she experienced it first-hand: “I am here because I had great professors that I am lucky to call my mentors, and they made me believe I could be here.” This could be at an institution mostly focused on undergraduate training, or perhaps one that is more dedicated to academic research. Whichever the case, Helena seeks for the opportunity of giving something back and helping younger students focus on their own paths in science as others helped her do.
Studying and researching abroad can open one’s eyes to so many possibilities and also very different realities.
External pressure is hard, but internal pressure can be worse
Helena’s most important advice for younger scientists is to rest and take breaks when needed. This is an impactful and truly relevant issue that is sometimes overlooked in such a competitive and demanding environment like academia.
“Sometimes, especially in academia, we glorify overworking and feel guilty about taking breaks when you have so much to do. But it is really in everyone’s best interest (including your boss!) that you take breaks and that you find the time to do things that you love outside of your work.”
It is interesting though, how sometimes the pressure that drives us to make unhealthy decisions for ourselves comes from external sources but sometimes even more intensely, from ourselves. That’s usually where the famous impostor syndrome enters the picture. Helena’s view on this matter is as straightforward as it gets:
“We are all here because we all belong here, don’t let your mind be your own enemy”.
As scientists, we all have a social responsibility
In fact, as any responsibility it comes with power to influence and impact our society and environment. This implies the importance of understanding, valuing, and cherishing such capabilities:
“The agricultural sector is one with a clear and urgent need for improving. We need to improve yields, control diseases, prepare for environmental changes, guarantee food supply for a growing population, etc. and none of that will happen without the necessary research.”
Additionally, finding solutions to Ag-related problems in one’s environment is usually not enough. The world has transformed to a point of such globalization that the recognition and addressing of these challenges all around the world are key for achieving sustainable food production for years to come. This is where the field of International Agriculture comes in and demands innovative and effective solutions.
Helena had the opportunity of traveling to Guatemala as part of one of the courses she took over her Ph.D to “learn about different agricultural systems (industrial agriculture, indigenous agriculture, organic agriculture), their challenges, expected outcomes, impacts to society and the deep roots these systems have in how cultures interact with nature”. This stuck with her and has been motivating a growing interest in learning more and improving agricultural systems with that knowledge.
Nevertheless, such improvement won’t come until science itself gets closer to the general audience and creates a long lasting confidence that is so much needed.
“I think science needs to start improving too, to be able to work hand in hand with all sorts of audiences (e.g. by learning how to better communicate with a non-scientific audience) and to be able to better translate findings to applicable strategies.“
Visiting coffee field in Guatemala while learning about different agricultural systems
¨Don't let anyone cut your wings¨
Helena was raised by strong women. Her mom and sisters represent the true meaning of “sisterhood” provided a powerful referent when it comes to working for our dreams:
“My mom told me since I was a kid “don’t let anyone cut your wings” and I only recently fully understood the power of those words.”
Additionally, being conscious about how women have been traditionally told what they should do and whether they can do it or not, is key to changing it. Even when women play a big role in the food production and transformation across, they have restricted access to a stable and healthy place in such industry. Highlighting women and their Ag-related jobs is of outstanding importance for Helena. Not only because of the impact it has on women currently researching and working towards food security and safety but also because of the young girls:
“Do whatever you feel like you need/want to do. Blind yourself from outside pressure. Don’t let that pressure push you to overachieve or to underachieve. Make sure that whatever is that you do, you do it for yourself, your wellbeing and to try to find what drives you to wake up every morning with a sense of purpose.“
Helena’s proposal for her doctoral research project.
They say we travel when we read
Lastly, Helena’s main hobby is to read about different topics like history of science, art, among others, as well as fiction and non-fiction books. She also loves traveling and wishes she could do it more often! Having a hobby is an incredible way to preserve our well-being and mental health. Be sure to fit that into your schedule!
You can find more about Helena Jaramillo Mesa at
This interview is written by WAGS team member Juliana González-Tobón