Meet Yazmin Rivera,Assistant Laboratory Director at USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
Dedicated to protect USA agriculture by developing and implementing advanced molecular methods to detect plant pathogens.
Yazmin Rivera is a Molecular Biologist at the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Plant Protection and Quarantine Program (PPQ), Center for Plant Health Science and Technology in Beltsville, Maryland. Her work mission is to develop, adapt, validate, and implement advanced biochemical and molecular methods for the detection of high consequence plant pathogens.
Collaborative efforts on pathogen detection that threat the agriculture
For the last four years in this role, Dr. Rivera has worked on projects developing and evaluating methods for the molecular detection of fungal and viral plant pathogens. She also led efforts to generate genome sequence data for organisms of regulatory concern for which very little genomic information is available. These efforts include several species of the fungal pathogens and downy mildew pathogens from the USDA Select Agents. Yazmin constantly engages in dynamic and international collaborations for projects regarding downy mildew pathogens on maize. Dr. Rivera’s lab relies heavily on collaborations with scientists in academia, industry, and international institutions as well as scientists in different programs within PPQ.
Convinced to follow the agriculture pathway
Growing up in the mountains of Puerto Rico, Yazmin was inspired to study agriculture. Her love for science started in High School by witnessing her science teacher's passion for research and science. Yazmin expressed that being in her class was fun and challenging. “We got to do research projects and ended up putting together a report that I think was very impressive for our age (at least back then)”. Even the details of commuting by the coast and observing farms on the island motivated her to be involved in agriculture. At that time, her parents were convinced that studying agriculture was not an option, so she started a bachelor’s in chemistry. After some semesters at the University of Puerto Rico, she went against her family's wishes and changed her academic major to study agriculture. Yazmin Rivera completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Agronomy at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus.
While doing her bachelor’s, Yazmin had diverse opportunities to do research in different areas. Her master’s focus was evaluating sorghum germplasm collections for resistance to anthracnose caused by two plant pathogens. As a true scientist, Dr. Rivera truly enjoyed doing research, asking questions, and designing experiments.
During times of doubt, try things out!
Yazmin expresses that she questioned whether agriculture was right for her and after finishing the master’s fieldwork, she took a position as a Research Assistant at the National Tropical Rainforest El Yunque in Puerto Rico. She was in charge of identifying over 150 tree species. While there, Yazmin realized that she wanted to go back to school. Her persistence led to the completeness of a Ph.D. at the College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry at the State University of New York.
During her Ph.D. Yazmin worked analyzing the genetics of ectomycorrhizal populations in northeastern forests and its involvement in the establishment of invasive coniferous forests in Puerto Rico. Right after this, she taught at a community college followed by a Postdoctoral opportunity at the USDA-ARS Systematic Mycology and Microbiology Laboratory under Dr. Jo Anne Crouch. It was in her postdoc position where she strengthened the molecular skills.
Without hesitation, Dr. Rivera explored different areas of agriculture. This system is not about growing or maintaining a farm but evaluating and working with different aspects of the crop production system itself. Yazmin definitely helps the United States agriculture free of devastating pathogens.
“Looking back at my journey, it is not a straight one, and this is because at many points I paused and doubted my skills and abilities. I’m forever grateful to people that believed in me (more than I did at times), those that took a chance and gave me an opportunity without knowing if it would pay off.”
Exploring opportunities led to outstanding networking
Dr. Rivera’s enthusiasm to explore more interdisciplinary research and enhance her leadership skills led her to participate in the “Integrated Clinical, Extension, Regulatory, and Research Internship”. During this opportunity Yazmin mentioned that she worked alongside brilliant women with different expertise. Dr. Rivera worked at the University of Maryland Diagnostic Clinic with Dr. Karen Rane, at Rutgers University in Extension with Dr. Ann Gould, at APHIS National Identification Services with the National Mycologist Dr. Meghan Romberg, at the US National Fungus Collections with Dr. Amy Rossman, and at USDA ARS with Dr. Jo Anne Crouch. At the same time, she participated as an American Phytopathological Society (APS) Public Policy Board collaborating with others to advocate for important issues in plant pathology in Washington DC. “These experiences showcased many of the different aspects of plant pathology and allowed me to develop my leadership skills. The networking opportunities were incredible, and I ended up feeling more comfortable talking about plant pathology to different audiences.”
And yet gender equality is still a challenge
Yazmin expresses that through her professional career she experienced both discrimination and harassment. Even in a professional environment people judge you for being a woman or a mother.
“I’ve been told to not wear pink, or makeup, that my kids will negatively impact my career, and that I had no chance of getting the job I currently hold. I’ve learned to filter some out but also, I have gotten better at confronting it when I see it, though the latter is the hardest one.”
Impostor syndrome is everywhere. It is in academia, industries, agencies, and again everywhere. Even though Dr. Rivera has made amazing contributions to science, she deals a lot with imposter syndrome. “Sometimes this is triggered by my own high expectations and unfortunately, other times this has been triggered by others. Over the years I have learned to deal with it, look at the bigger picture and not let others influence how I feel about myself and my abilities as a scientist.”
Find a safe place, for you and for others
As a woman and a Latina, we represent the minorities in science. We need to push and look harder for opportunities even when we have no one to follow. It does not matter how hard the journey will be, we strive for more and higher, right? During the interview, Yazmin expressed that one of her goals is to hold a leadership position in which she can make a difference for science and agriculture but that would also allow her to serve as a mentor and an agent of change to other minorities interested in science.
It is an instinct to find people like you wherever you go. It helps you challenge yourself, have the motivation, and even inspiration. Well, in the sciences this person or group serves as support too. Dr. Rivera explains that it is really important to find the people you can look up to. “Being a student can get tough as we are trying to find our way but having the right people beside you can make a big difference. Whether it is a group of friends, family, a hobby, or a sport. It is very helpful to have a place where you can clear out your mind.”
Comparing yourself to others won’t take you anywhere
It does not matter how “cliché” it may sound but “Be the best version of yourself”. It would be ideal that at the beginning of every journey we have someone right next to us telling us what to do or don’t. But only we can find what is needed to strive in our life. A piece of advice from Yazmin is the following:
“We all have different strengths and weaknesses and we must work on identifying them and getting better each day.”
Why do you think it is important to highlight minority women in agricultural sciences?
“As a first-generation college student, in Hispanic men-dominant culture, I had a tough time finding role models and believing that it was possible for me to be successful as a scientist. This shouldn’t be the case anymore and we shouldn’t be quiet about our struggles and triumphs as scientists in agriculture.”
Discover what you are passionate about outside of science!
Yazmin not only loves biology and agriculture but gardening! She loves growing plants and she expresses to have somewhat of a green thumb. She also loves being outside, visiting parks, hiking, going to the beach, and much more. These days you can find Dr. Rivera running after her twin daughters and her son, she expresses.
Thanks for an incredible interview Dr. Rivera!
You can find Yazmin Rivera at:
Linked in: Yazmin Rivera
This article was written by WAGS co-founder, Andrea Lugo-Torres