Meet Sofía Macchiavelli-Girón, Plant Pathology PhD Student
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Passion, resilience and commitment distinguish Sofía, as she strives to impact agriculture through research, outreach and mentorship.
Sofía Macchiavelli-Girón is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working in the Vegetable Pathology lab under the guidance of Dr. Amanda Gevens. Her work focuses on improving management strategies for two blemish diseases of potato – silver scurf and black dot.
"Wisconsin currently ranks third in potato production in the United States and has been experiencing increasing blemish disease incidence and severity since approximately 2000. My proposed work will provide information about effective fungicide programs as well as the status of fungicide resistance to azoxystrobin, a common fungicide."
Sofía will initiate efforts to improve varietal resistance to silver scurf and will develop tools to improve our current diagnostic protocols, with the goal of making more informed management choices. Integrating these strategies will improve management practices and reduce the impact of the disease in potato production in Wisconsin and wherever the disease prevails.
When Sofía was an undergraduate sophomore in Biology at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, she experienced the all-too-common situation of not knowing what to do in the future. Looking to narrow down her options in a broad major, she searched for a research experience and eventually joined Dr. Dimuth Siritunga’s lab. With a focus on Plant Molecular Biology, she worked on cassava, a common staple crop in the world and in Puerto Rican cuisine.
"I was interested in this because I was looking at it from a food security perspective. Growing up I heard stories from my grandmother about how her family sometimes didn’t have enough food, so they went to bed hungry. I was lucky enough to have a great childhood, but I wanted to ‘feed the world’ in a sense because I didn’t want more people to go to bed hungry like my grandmother did."
Sofía loved the environment in her friendly and welcoming lab as well as her experience conducting research that was interesting and challenging. Later on, she participated in a summer research program at UW-Madison where she did field work related to stream ecology: "I really liked the ‘field aspect’ of this work, but I missed working on plants. Therefore, when I was looking for graduate programs, I was looking for labs that had basic and applied agricultural focus – that’s when Plant Pathology came up in my search."
After applying to six different labs in focuses such as Plant Biology, Plant Genetics and Plant Pathology all over the US, she decided University of Wisconsin-Madison was the right choice for her. Sofía says, "I mostly liked the fact that I could do lab rotations and the graduate student body was very welcoming and inviting. I wanted to make sure I was going to be happy in graduate school – I thought this was very important."
"A graduate student usually wears many hats."
Research and taking classes is only part of her work. She has given classes as a teaching assistant and as a lead instructor. Moreover, Sofía has presented her research in professional conferences as well as extension talks for Wisconsin’s potato and vegetable growers. Lastly, Sofía is active in outreach and mentoring efforts:
"I think this is an important way to give back all the help I’ve received to get here".
Sofía is interested in making a difference in the biological/agricultural sciences through impactful research and mentorship. She is actively involved in organizations like SACNAS, where she works to help increase diversity in STEM. She hopes to engage in mentorship of underrepresented students to reach their career goals.
Like most people in graduate school, Sofía has struggled with Impostor Syndrome and stress: "I felt like I didn’t belong in my program, that I was only accepted because I was Puerto Rican. Although I know the recruitment process from the other side and I know this isn’t true at all."
However, Sofía acknowledges her amazing support system in her cohort, her lab, her Department, her SciMed Scholars fellowship, her husband and her family: "Without them, I don’t think I could have handled the pressures that come with graduate school. I work on maintaining a good work life balance and trying to see progress every day, but it is a work in progress."
Part of maintaining that work-life balance, Sofía enjoys eating at different restaurants and enjoying different cuisines with her friends, hiking and going to Zumba classes: "It’s the way I work out, relieve stress and think of home because of the music." Sofia is also passionate about traveling and her homeland of Puerto Rico: "I love the beach, the food and the people. It’s where I belong and where I’m happy!"
As advice she would have wanted at the beginning of her journey, she encourages others to decide what they want for themselves: "Your career is not a race! You don’t have to move on to something just because everyone is telling you to. Take a step back, think about what you want to do and really take your time to decide. Ask everyone, research everything and then take a decision based on what YOU want."
Knowing Sofía's passion for increasing diversity in STEM and interest in mentoring, we asked her: What would you like to say to young female students out there?
"When you find something you are passionate about, just go for it! It’s important to surround yourself with good people – mentors, co-workers, teachers, etc. Find positive people that only want the best for you, it will be the best way to reach your goals.
Sofía believes in highlighting minority women in agricultural sciences as a way of peaking other young women's interest, showing that there is a space for them and their unique perspectives in this field.
Sofía's female role models during her academic journey are:
Dr. Linda Beaver: "Professor at UPRM that helped me with my science fairs when I was growing up. She’s helped me in every step of the way by providing advice and guidance as a role model in the plant sciences."
Her current advisor, Dr. Amanda Gevens: "She is an amazing researcher and person, and I consider myself very lucky to have her as my mentor."
Are there any institutions, groups or people you want us to shout out?
Science and Medicine Graduate Research Scholars (UW-Madison)
Yale Ciencia Academy
You can reach out to Sofia at firstname.lastname@example.org and following her on Twitter