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  • Writer's pictureAna María Vázquez-Catoni

Meet Dr. Melissa Muñoz, Postdoctoral Researcher in Phytopathology

Enjoying the process and flourishing in her profession, Melissa develops high-impact solutions for farmers.

Dr. Melissa Muñoz is a postdoctoral researcher at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center at North Carolina State University. She is studying the physiological aspects of stress in apple trees, specifically water stress such as drought and flooding, and aims to determine how to improve the response of these trees to stress. One of the aspects Melissa enjoys most about her work is being part of a multidisciplinary, multi-state, and multi-university project that allows the research to have a greater impact.

  • "Rapid apple decline (RAD)" is an increasing problem, especially for young apple trees. The demand for greater productivity has led to the development of "dwarf" or "semi-dwarf" cultivars of low vigor, which, as their name suggests, are smaller to facilitate higher planting densities and easier management. High-density apple planting in systems with poor management makes these trees more prone to stress.

  • With stress, these trees start producing ethanol, which attracts certain insects like ambrosia beetles that create tunnels in the wood. It is not known for certain whether the insects are responsible for the decline and death of the trees, if there is a pathogenic component involved, or if it is the physiological damage due to stress that causes the death of the trees.

  • In any case, this leads to the trees experiencing a sudden and rapid decline.

From Colombia to Clemson

Before starting her undergraduate degree in Agricultural Engineering, Melissa did not feel a calling towards agriculture until she began taking courses specific to the field and became more enthusiastic about it each day. In her last year and a half of undergraduate studies, she fell in love with research while working in Dr. Juan Gonzalo Morales' laboratory on phytoparasitism in potatoes and cocoa. During that time, Dr. James Faust from Clemson University was looking for a student, ideally Colombian, to work on a floriculture project in Colombia. Floriculture is the second most important product for Colombia, after coffee. Melissa applied for the position, was accepted, and in 2016, she moved to Clemson. There, Melissa began a master's degree on a phytopathology project focused on managing Botrytis in cut roses. During her master's, Melissa determined that there were problems with the development of resistance to fungicides and that it was essential to focus on other management alternatives.

"It was an incredible process and full of learning. I had never worked with that fungus before. I immersed myself in the project and completely fell in love with the world of floriculture. I have always felt a great affinity for phytopathology; I find it extremely interesting."

At the end of her master's, Dr. Faust offered her the opportunity to continue with a PhD. During her PhD, Melissa evaluated various tools to manage Botrytis, focusing especially on the use of calcium.

"In Colombia, the climate is very favorable for flower production, but that same environment is also conducive to Botrytis. If we rely solely on the climate, we would have to apply fungicides every week due to the constant threat of this disease. However, we face several additional challenges, such as the resistance of Botrytis strains to the fungicides we evaluated. In this situation, we asked ourselves: 'What now?'"

Melissa worked closely with producers, conducting applications both in Colombia and at the university's facilities to evaluate the effectiveness of the treatments. For Melissa, entering the world of floriculture was a learning process.

"I was very surprised to discover the high level of technology and education that floriculture farmers possess. It is a sector that really impressed me, as many people tend to think that farmers have a low educational level, which is a misconception. For example, many of the large flower producers have their own laboratories to evaluate pathogen levels and conduct tests rigorously and systematically. This shows the high level of internal work and research in the sector, which also strives to foster cooperation and growth for the industry."

For a long time, Melissa has expressed a strong inclination towards academia. She enjoys conducting research, thinking about how to evaluate treatments, determining the experimental conditions, and seeing the results. In addition to that, Melissa greatly enjoys teaching, whether through extension programs or teaching classes. For Melissa, scientific dissemination plays a crucial role in bringing research to light and advancing the field. Through extension, Melissa has had the opportunity to engage in this work, which is essential for communicating research findings.

"It is important to learn to move forward and handle difficult situations."

One situation that has impacted Melissa is participating in meetings where most attendees are older men.

"Sometimes I feel a certain hesitation, as if they doubt my ability to face the challenges. It’s not outright rejection, but rather a sense of skepticism about my skills."

Melissa emphasizes that in such moments, it is important to believe in our convictions and have confidence in our abilities, even though it’s not always easy.

"Sometimes, we encounter misconceptions, like the idea that some people won't believe in or respect our work. However, there are always people willing to believe in us, to listen, and to highlight the importance of what we do."

From a personal perspective, Melissa shared that she has had moments where she lost confidence in herself and felt uncertainty and doubt. She found comfort in learning that she wasn’t alone in her feelings and having a support network made up of friends, family, and her husband.

"Even when I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, just knowing that I had someone by my side was comforting. It’s essential to identify the right people and seek help if necessary. There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it. It’s important to learn how to move forward and manage difficult situations."

Melissa encourages everyone to enjoy what they do. “Everyone is going to have difficult days, everyone is going to encounter roadblocks. We’re not going to pretend that everything is fine, but you should enjoy the process and also learn from those around you.”

Why Do You Think Agriculture Is Important? 

“We have to eat every day. Without agriculture, we wouldn’t have food. It’s also about aesthetics; flowers, for example, although not edible, bring happiness to spaces. Without agriculture, we wouldn’t have flowers. I believe this impacts many areas of life, and many people don’t realize it. Those who enjoy golf, for instance, wouldn’t have the courses they have without agriculture, horticulture, and turf management. Everything around us, all the green architecture that contributes to our emotional stability, depends on plant science. All this requires people working in planning, horticulture, agronomy, postharvest, and other fields.”

Melissa's Life Outside of Work

Beyond work, Melissa enjoys mountain biking (though she admits she’s not very good at it), dining out and trying different foods, watching TV and series, spending time with her cats and husband, and traveling.



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