Meet Stephanie Cosme-Reyes M.Sc., Research Laboratory Technician at the USDA-ARS TARS in Puerto Rico
Updated: Jul 26, 2020
An enthusiastic microbiologist who unexpectedly developed a passion for agriculture
Stephanie Cosme-Reyes is a research laboratory technician in the Bean Breeding Program at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Tropical Agriculture Research Station (TARS) in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. By definition, plant breeding is the art and science of changing the traits of plants in order to produce desired characteristics (Sleper and Poelhman, 1995). Therefore, her lab focuses on common bean breeding through genetic improvement for adaptation and stress tolerance to the changing climate, specifically, heat and drought. They also look to improve the plants’ response to important fungal, bacterial, and viral diseases. Specific information on these can be found here.
Stephanie’s passion for the natural sciences rose from the image of strong female scientist role models whose contributions are still relevant today, specifically Dianne Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Rosalind Franklin. Stephanie mentioned that their discipline, passion, and determination in times where their fields were dominated by men was truly inspiring. “They served as guides and inspiration to pursue my studies in science”.
Her journey with USDA TARS was unplanned. After she graduated from her bachelor’s in Industrial Microbiology from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, she knew she wanted to go to graduate school, but she was unsure where to go and in what area to specialize in. She decided to take a break from academia and look for a job. A mentor had mentioned to her that the USDA’s TARS was looking for a temporary employee to work in a research lab performing some DNA extractions and routine lab work. Given that she had been in an undergraduate research program in population genetics, this motivated her to apply for the job. She got it, loved the place, and the research that was being conducted. Later, she was offered to do her master’s degree at the station in population genetics. ‘I am happy to serve the agency’, she said.
From cacao pods to bean pods
Stephanie’s master's was focused on the genetic characterization of the cacao plant and it involved traveling all over the island of Puerto Rico looking for samples. She learned the history of how the cacao plant made its way and established in her homeland and how it was now a relic waiting to be found again.
“My master’s was beautiful. I was able to connect with communities and listen to their stories about how their trees came to be, some dating three to four generations ago. Besides being able to characterize these individuals, I was also able to tell a story, contribute a peer-reviewed article, and a living collection of the most relevant and important trees from that study. It was a very exciting time in my life and a unique experience that I hold very close to my heart.”
The impact she made during her M.Sc. is the type she aspires to make throughout her career at TARS. She wants to contribute something tangible within her field, something besides knowledge. She loves that her current position allows her to do just that, to be able to contribute to her community and beyond. She feels blessed that her coworkers share the same sentiment, which makes the work enjoyable and motivational.
Currently, Stephanie works in the Bean Breeding Program that aims to provide good quality seed for farmers whose livelihoods depend on this crop. Stephanie’s role in the program is to assist with the establishment and maintenance of laboratory and greenhouse experiments, data collection, resource management, and operational support, which goes from preparing seeds for planting to screening for diseases using molecular tools. Therefore, the Bean Lab contributes to food security efforts because beans and other legumes represent a staple food in many countries. Specifically, the common bean is the most important food legume used for direct consumption in the world (Jones 1999). Annually over 12 million tons of dry beans are produced worldwide, where 81% is done in tropical countries (Jones 1999). Latin America is the leading producer and consumer while in Africa, it’s mostly produced as subsistence and exports are increasing in China. It’s a major source of dietary protein, folic acid, fiber, and carbohydrates in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia (Jones 1999). Consumption is high because it’s a relatively inexpensive food. Jones (1999) stated that ‘scientific advances that benefit bean yields, particularly in developing countries help feed the hungry and give hope for the future’.
A meaningful presence
As a woman in the agricultural sciences, she wishes to serve as an example for other women who are interested in the field. By transmitting the passion she has for her work, she positively impacts those around her and creates an empowering environment not only for women but to every soul that enters the Bean Lab.
“It would be an honor if my work and dedication inspired others, especially women, to pursue agricultural science as their field. The importance, the relevance, the endless opportunities this field offers is simply astounding. I wish more people could see that and for them to see it through our work would be amazing.”
Stephanie strongly believes that it is important to highlight women in agricultural science because it empowers other women to pursue their interests in the field. She feels that the field is still perceived as masculine.
“When you highlight female voices, you show our relevance as women in this field. We can create, we can innovate, we can improve, and we can contribute. We have to make our presence in this field meaningful. If we are not made visible, it will be difficult to motivate other women to pursue their interest and turn it into a career.”
Stephanie said that a career in agriculture is dynamic and rewarding because you are always learning. It connects you to the planet in many dimensions.
“Agriculture teaches you perseverance, patience, humbleness, and that we are all connected, humans and nature. My advice would be to pursue what moves you and do not be concerned or afraid to take up space. We are strong, we are capable, we can do it!”
Besides bean breeding, Stephanie enjoys music, watercolors, crocheting, and spending quality time with her toddler.
Stephanie Cosme is a hard-working, dedicated, and enthusiastic scientist who is always willing to share her knowledge and skills. She is driven by passion because it is what keeps her motivated and centered. At the Bean Lab, she will always receive you with a smile and positive energy because she loves her job. After a conversation with her, you might end up loving beans too!
If you would like to learn more about the bean breeding research and other research being conducted at the USDA’s TARS, please visit https://www.ars.usda.gov/southeast-area/mayaguez-pr/tropical-crops-and-germplasm-research/.
A special shout out to Janice López Muñoz, Public Affairs Specialist at USDA ARS for her collaboration on this interview.
Jones, A. L. 1999. Phaseolus bean: Post-Harvest Operations. Centro de Agricultura Tropical. Edited by ASGI/FAO. http://www.fao.org/3/a-av015e.pdf.
Sleper, D.A., Poehlman, J. M. 1995. Breeding Field Crops. 5th Edition. Blackwell Publishing.
Thanks for sharing your journey with us Stephanie. We wish you the best now and always!
This interview was conducted and written by WAGS team member, Patricia Marie Cordero Irizarry.