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  • Writer's pictureJuliana González-Tobón

Meet Laura Andrea Cabrera, Plant Pathology Master’s Student

Visionary, dedicated and constantly growing, Laura Andrea Cabrera is approaching new frontiers by bringing nanotechnology into the plant pathology field.

Laura Andrea Cabrera is a Colombian scientist currently working in a revolutionary project that mixes both plant pathology and biotechnology. The path that led her to this awesome research started when she was admitted to study in the undergraduate program of Microbiology at Universidad de los Andes with a scholarship. The courses that she took during this period, as well as the mentors and professors that she met along the way, were determinant for her future as a scientist. After obtaining her B.Sc degree in microbiology, she decided to pursue a M.Sc in Biological Sciences also at Universidad de los Andes. Currently, she is about to graduate from her Master’s studies and dreams about the possibilities that her research opened for her so far.

Controlling the silent enemies that kill our crops

Laura’s research experience focused on postharvest plant pathogens, such as two common fungi, Colletotrichum sp. and Botrytis sp. These microorganisms affect produce after it has been harvested, as opposed to most plant diseases whose symptoms occur while the crops are growing in the field. Postharvest pathogens represent wide new challenges for farmers and producers. A very clear example of how alarming they are, is the impact they have in the flower industry.

Imagine a successful season of rose production. The grower will harvest perfect flowers, pack them carefully and sell them to distributors. This later will be shipped overseas or within Colombia. If the reproductive structures of a pathogen as Botrytis are present on the flowers, the packaging will provide a stable environment (high humidity, adequate temperature) for it to grow. Hence, a package of dead-looking flowers. This is the case for many food products. Laura explains: “I became interested in this area because many crop losses occur in postharvest and there are many strategies and methods that are still under studied to avoid this and maintain the same amount of fruits, vegetables, and flowers that are produced in the fields available for the consumers¨.

Nano...what? Using nanotechnology to achieve her goals

A nanometer is the 10000000th part of a centimeter. Imagine how small that is! This is what scientists call, the nanoscale. Nanotechnology is the discipline that conducts science, engineering and physics at the nanoscale! This area of study is super novel and promising. It allows for the use of materials at the nanoscale, that can perform certain activities in an easier way than bigger materials.

After studying the specificity of the host range of Colletotrichum for her bachelor's degree in the Laboratory of Mycology and Plant Pathology, LAMFU, Laura is now focused on searching for novel means to control Botrytis. She is performing this research at the laboratory of nanobiotechnology and applied microbiology, NANOBIOT, at Universidad de los Andes. There, she is trying to develop a method of controlled release of essential oils to control Botrytis cinerea in roses that have already been cut. This revolutionizing work has the potential to improve the management of the disease greatly.

This project is demanding but greatly fulfilling for Laura, as she mentions: This master thesis project makes me more independent and allows me to propose curious experiments and different procedures such as electrospinning, PCR, fungal isolation, and GC-MS. They all have been part of this trip, and learning these keeps me motivated”.

Laura's experiments with roses and Botrytis sp. in the lab.

The importance of learning by teaching others

Laura has been a teaching assistant for the plant pathology and mycology laboratory courses during her master studies. She mentioned that teaching others has been one of the most fulfilling experiences she has had as a scientist. “Being a “Teaching Assistant” (TA) has generated many challenges and has shown me that I can help in the process of transforming my students into better scientists”.

She believes that being a good mentor for her students is a priority and expects to become a helpful resource for her colleagues as a person and a scientist. This process taught her about independence, responsibility, and experimental design skills. She hopes that: “someday I can be one of those professors that continuously inspired me in this process”.

Field trip for the plant pathology laboratory course.

Sometimes the hardest obstacles are within us

We usually think that obstacles are external forces that prevent us from accomplishing our goals or, at least, make the process harder. However, more often than we think, these obstacles can reside within us.

“I have experienced many difficulties but most of them happen because, sometimes, I don’t feel enough self-confidence. This makes me doubt myself and my relationships with others. The biggest problem is to compare myself with other colleagues instead of feeling grateful for the process that I have had and appreciate each step in my science career”.

Laura explained to us that in the past she had no idea she could accomplish all the things she accomplished by now, such as: presenting posters in conferences, being a summer intern in a research lab and becoming the TA for lab courses. At the end of those projects, she feels tired and so she has discovered that having spaces, different from research, like hobbies, movies, rest time, family time, and time with friends are mandatory to reload energy.

Part of her hobbies are to cook and bake, visit new restaurants, and share new flavors with those she loves most. From these little things, Laura got the inspiration for her project ¨Solo por hoy¨ (Just for today,) where she posts motivational phrases and crafts as lettering and cross-stitch.

Be versatile! The key for interdisciplinary science

Laura’s project allowed her to learn techniques and gather experience in different disciplines as microbiology, engineering, and physics. She also had the opportunity of being a summer intern in the Food Safety Laboratory at Cornell University. This experience gave her “a completely different perspective of science, different work rhythms, different people working in awesome projects with the support of the industry. It opened my eyes to other fields”.

A network of support and mentorship with awesome women in your life

Laura’s biggest takeaway is the undeniable importance of building a supportive network around her. She finds amazing role models in other women researchers and hopes to become one in the future.

¨We can support other women to reach their goals. Including producers, teachers, scientists, and students. Also, having a network with other women in agricultural science allows me to ask how they reached their goals and to listen to their recommendations so that I can help others in the future¨.

A support network will uplift you when you are not able to uplift yourself. Laura told us how her friends, teachers, colleagues, and family have always been there for her.

¨Protect, support, love, and share time with those women in your life they are essential for you. We are stronger if we are together. Look at where you came from and who you are now, you will see how much you are growing each day.

Going one step further: sharing the lessons you have learned

Laura is invested in communicating science and the lessons she learned along the way. To do this, she is part of the science blog section of the newspaper El Uniandino. She shares the science developed in undergraduate projects making them accessible for everyone, so that research can be more visible for the general public.

On this matter, she wanted to give a shoutout to these projects of science communication in English and Spanish: Anaerobias/AnaMaPorras, Plantae, Ciencia Café Pa´Sumercé.

As well as The Bullet Journal method and Our Best Version, resources that have helped her during grad school and she'd like to recommend to others.

Botrytis sp. in crochet made by AnaMaPorras.

You can find more about Laura Andrea Cabrera at:

Instagram: @landrea_3

This interview is written by WAGS team member Juliana González-Tobón



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