Meet Renata Belisário, Plant Pathology Ph.D. Student
Updated: Sep 16
An accomplished and enthusiastic scientist, Renata is determined to make a difference in the world one step at a time.
Renata Belisário was born and raised in Minas Gerais’ state capital Belo Horizonte, Brazil. She is currently a Ph.D. Student in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Kentucky and under the mentorship of Dr. Lisa Vaillancourt. Her research project focuses on how to control a fungus called Colletotrichum graminicola which causes anthracnose disease in corn. Common symptoms of this particular anthracnose disease can be observed as dark lesions and rot on the stem of the plant.
One of the first steps that Renata had to do for her research was to decide at what stage of the anthracnose disease she wanted to study. This is because C. graminicola establishes itself at first as biotroph, it feeds from the host's cells without killing it during the infection process. It then becomes necrotrophic, causing the host’s cells to die. She specifically focused on the initial disease stage and she studies the effectors produced by the fungus in corn. In this context, she is examining a C. graminicola mutant produced in the lab which is unable to cause disease in maize plants. The hypothesis to her research is that the mutant is not able to secrete effectors, and consequently, it does not shut down the plant’s defense system. In other words, she is interested in understanding how C. graminicola infects corn plants. Her research is of great importance in the state of Kentucky because it feeds 60% of its livestock with corn. In fact, every county of Kentucky not only grows corn but also its world demand for it continues to grow.
You never know where life will take you...
When Renata was eight years old, she asked her parents to buy her a microscope to see things that could not be observed with the naked eye. The turning point for her career as a scientist was her curiosity in wanting to know what a scientist looked like. As a teenager, she asked her father to visit the Brazilian scientific institution Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz). When she arrived, she was given a tour and was able to observe how a laboratory was and what type of routines scientists have. In fact, she says that she still remembers feeling so blown away with the experience that she knew that her career lied in becoming a scientist.
In college, Renata studied Biology as her undergraduate degree and during that time she grew interested in microbiology and botany.
“I realized that I could integrate microbiology and botany fields. The reason I say this is because I believe that each discipline works together and can help as a collective with the global food supply demand.”
After her undergraduate degree, she pursued a master’s in Brazil at the Federal University of Viçosa. Her research project focused on a disease caused by the fungus Neopestalotiopsis spp. in Eucalyptus seedlings within an important forest nursery in Brazil. She particularly investigated the biology of the Neopestalotiopsis spp. fungus by understanding what conditions favored disease and assessed the pathogenicity to different Eucalyptus clones. During her master’s degree, she became inclined to study biological control for her Ph.D. degree. She contacted various advisors in both Australia and New Zealand but funding for graduate students was unavailable at that point. Fortunately, she spoke to Dr. Lisa Vaillancourt after a workshop in Brazil. They kept in touch, and a few months later Dr. Vaillancourt mentioned having a partnership with the University of Kentucky on a USDA grant for Colletotrichum graminicola. Therefore, there was not only a Ph.D. position available for her but also that Dr. Vaillancourt was eager that she would apply to it!
It’s not always easy
Renata struggled with the prejudice of her undergraduate background from having studied Biology during her master’s degree. According to her, it’s pretty common in Brazil that if you pursue a career in plant pathology that your undergraduate degree would be in an agronomy field. Meaning that she was the “oddball” among the other graduate students in plant pathology.
“I remember moving from my hometown and arriving at the laboratory and feeling totally out of my comfort zone. The other students would ask me things like: “Are you a biologist? Are you sure that you have the same background as us? Did you have a Botany course?” And I answered by saying “Yes, I am a biologist and I had five botany courses during my undergraduate studies.” I could tell that they were unsure of my background. As a matter of fact, they didn’t realize that we had similar disciplines and instead, they preferred to judge me just by the type of degree I had.”
It saddens her that they were not interested in getting to know what her knowledge was and more importantly that she, like them, got into the same laboratory. For four months, she felt like she didn’t fit in but then decided to take part in a study group in plant pathology. Later on, she became the vice coordinator of the group and discussed a key point with her fellow peers:
“We have to become a multi-disciplinary department to deal with different people that have different perspectives around the same topics. We need to put into perspective that although I may be a biologist it does not mean that I am not ready to handle the difficulties or the challenges of food supply or any topic related to Plant Pathology.”
She emphasized how we shouldn’t judge anyone because of their degree. Her peers from the study group were able to understand that she was on the same boat as them and how she wanted the same things as they did.
The world is full of unique experiences!
Renata mentions how she could think of many experiences of not only places or specific times in her life, but also people that inspired her to continue to carve her own path. One of her first experiences was when she volunteered at an alternative prison (APAC Methodology) as an undergraduate in Brazil. Human value is the main focus of the Community of Restoration, in which the convicts are able to work for the community and get their medical, legal, educational, and nutritional needs addressed. Renata’s objective as being part of the volunteer group was to educate them about different topics in biology.
“We would answer simple scientific questions such as “Why do some babies have blue eyes and not brown?” For people in this type of prison, it was very helpful for them to be taken seriously and accepted for who they are, human beings. This taught me the skill of teaching but also to be humane by doing something that was helpful in society. It may sound cliché, but I really want to make a difference in the world.”
Another significant experience, as an undergrad, was when she got a scholarship to study in China for a month. This abroad experience was through the program Top China which is a partnership through the Santander bank with China. Although it was a short period and she did not speak any Mandarin, she was still able to immerse herself in the rich culture of China and make good friends. A vivid memory that she has from the internship was when she broke her leg in the subway.
“No one spoke English and yet, through mimics I was able to find help. This left a large impression on me of how even when people may not be able to communicate, they are still wanting to help each other.”
The last experience that she wanted to share is when she won another scholarship as an undergrad from the government of Brazil to participate in a sandwich program at the Biodiversity Institution in the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. This means that she started her bachelor’s degree in Brazil, then went abroad and then came back to Brazil to graduate. She spent a total of fourteen months living abroad which was helpful for her to become accustomed to leaving her comfort zone and family in order to pursue her dreams.
“Never give up, never surrender” is her motto!
If there are a few words that she can give as advice to everyone is:
Her future goal is to obtain a quality of life. She considers herself a hard worker in the lab, but she also knows that she must also find a balance between her travels, family, and friends.
“I realized that I could integrate microbiology and botany fields. The reason I say this is because I believe that each discipline works together and can help as a collective with the global food supply-demand.” people who they confide in. An example of this could be: If my sister says, “I want to be a singer” and I tell her “You don’t have a good voice. Also, you do know that the market is very competitive, and you need to try to develop a plan B just in case.”
It’s not all about work...
Renata is also passionate about aerial silk which is a type of performance that is seen in the circus business. It consists of two pieces of fabric that hang from the roof and performers climb, wrap, swing or suspend themselves from the fabric.
She says, “What attracted me to it was how challenging it is because you need to learn each movement, practice it and then repeat this process until you get the hang of it.”
Other hobbies that she has are swimming and Yoga. She is confident about how they have helped her to have a balance between work but also to feel more grateful for each day she is given in her life.
Her future goal is to obtain a good quality of life. She considers herself a hard worker in the lab, but she also knows that she must also find a balance between her travels, family, and friends.
“We all need to have a good balance between our hobbies, family, friends and work in order to be happy and healthy.
For Renata, it is important to highlight women in agriculture sciences because in many fields, a small percentage of women take higher positions. By presenting different careers and disciplines such as plant pathology or ag science there can be an increase in the visibility of women and younger women to realize that they can also be leaders.
Because women can...
Renata has three female role models. The first one being Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author who speaks about minorities and prejudice. Renata’s favorite book by her is “Americanah”. Another of her role models is Dr. Jane Goodall, who works with chimps and has more than 40 years in her career. She also worked with local people and raised the visibility of Africa. The last one is a politician called Áurea Carolina de Freitas e Silva. She is from Renata’s home state, Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais and is an advocate for minorities and LGTBQ+. Áurea was also the person who received the highest percentage amount in votes in 2018 for the federal chamber of deputies at Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais and is doing an amazing job.
Apart from her hobbies, she is also vehement about communicating science to the general public.
“It all started in 2017, when I became part of the Plant Pathology study group. I had incredible opportunities to not only go into the community and explain what the discipline of Plant Pathology is but also to be part of competitions and workshops.”
As a matter of fact, Renata founded the Instagram page called Mulheres na Fitopatologia. This initiative's mission is to spread science and empowerment of Brazilian women in plant pathology by having them share their stories.
Renata wants to give a shout out to the following organizations:
The first being the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC) which are known for modulating topics such as climate change, food supply, global warming, and anything that is related to current large problems.
“What I find very interesting is that they combine voices such as farmers, scientists, communities, non-specialized groups, and business groups. I find it very hard to do this because each person in each field has a different perspective on the issues around the world. They also establish solutions using simple strategies and what can be done every day.”
In Brazil, there are a few organizations similar to USC that communicate science to people who have never heard of scientists and the procedures they perform in a lab. It is mainly related to the STEM field and it's called Nunca vi Um Cientista.
“I’ve never seen a scientific organization become as popular and trendy as they have in Brazil and it is mainly in Portuguese.”
Last but not least, is the Center of Effective Altruism which talks about how to educate and module careers in science. So, if you want to pursue a career in science, they can help you develop strategies in solving problems. This organization is also straightforward on what careers you can pursue through topics that you are interested in.
You can find more about Renata Belisário at:
Instagram Personal account: @rebelisario
Mulheres na Fitopatologia: @mulheresnafitopatologia
Twitter: @Rebelisario https://twitter.com/Rebelisario
ResearchGate: Renata Belisario
Thank you, Renata, for sharing your story with us!
The Women in Ag Science Team