Soledad’s research focus, tenacity, and captivating motivation move the field of plant pathology to a newer and sustainable direction.
Dr. Soledad Benítez-Ponce is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at The Ohio State University. Her research program focuses on studying the diversity and function of soil and plant-associated microbial communities and their contributions to plant growth. In other words, she studies beneficial bacteria interactions with plants at a community level, instead of one pathogen - one plant at a time. Currently, her lab is focused on studying microbial communities in diversified agricultural systems. Additionally, Soledad volunteers in the Office of International Programs as well as the Plant Health Instructor from the Education Center of the American Phytopathological Society. She also is an Associate Editor for the Phytobiomes Journal. Soledad is the chair of the Academic Affairs Committee where she contributes to discussions regarding the plant pathology curriculum at the department level.
From Frogs to Plants:
How Scientific Skills are Transferable
Soledad’s interests in biological sciences started from a young age. She was always in touch with the outdoors and traveling. Her parents played a huge role in cultivating her interest in science since both parents are in biology fields:
“My dad is a physician and my mom has always been a life science teacher. She was the first person to teach me about the scientific method and similar concepts.”
However, it was not until Soledad won a biology contest in high school, that she considered Biology as an undergraduate major to pursue. Her biology teacher, who prepared students for the contest, contributed to cultivating Soledad’s interest in biology by presenting biological concepts in a different and engaging way. Ultimately, Soledad began studying biology for her undergraduate studies in Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Ecuador (PUCE, Quito) in Ecuador.
During this time, she was largely exposed to field biology, but she began asking questions that will eventually shape her interests in microbial ecology and how microbes might be influencing plant growth, development, and community composition:
“At some point, I started thinking about what happened underground: What is happening with the microbes? and the associations? and the soil food webs? and how does this affect changes in vegetation, in particular as we move from higher to lower altitude ranges?”
During Soledad’s last two years of her undergraduate experience, she did research in frog developmental biology with Dr. Eugenia Del Pino. She continued in this project two years after graduating, while she also was a biology and microbiology lab instructor.
“It was a very interesting turn of events as I started by the graduate program in Plant Pathology because I didn't even know how to grow a plant. However, the four-year experience in Dr. del Pino’s lab was instrumental for me. At Dr. del Pino’s lab, I learned scientific skills, like organizing and analyzing data, which prepared me for the beginning of my career in plant pathology.”
Still very interested in microbial ecology, she found a lab at Ohio State in the Department of Plant Pathology that focused on microbial ecology. For Soledad, it was surprising unexpected to end up pursuing a program in Plant Pathology.
“Who knew plant pathologists were
Not only did she acquired skills, but this experience as a research assistant in developmental biology helped affirm that she wanted to pursue a career in research. It goes to show how any experience in science will teach you valuable lessons that go beyond fields!
Soledad started her master’s in plant pathology at Ohio State and had an easy transition because of her previous research experience. She worked with Dr. Brian McSpadden Gardener in the application of microbial community profiling techniques for the study of suppressive soils, within a transitional organic experiment. She finished her experience at Ohio State with a Ph.D.
When Soledad started her Ph.D., she was convinced that she wanted to go back to Ecuador. She thought that by having an agricultural background, it would be easier for her to obtain a job position. “I always have in the back of my mind “What can I do to contribute to the development of science in Latin America and Ecuador in particular?”
After her Ph.D., Soledad went back to Ecuador and worked three years at ESPE (Universidad de las Fuerzas Armadas) as a Microbiology professor. For Soledad, this experience was enriching as well as tough:
“It was probably the most stressful job I've ever had. The environment was hard in different ways. But looking back I got a lot accomplished, and there was a few people worthwhile collaborating.”
Overcoming a difficult working environment, Soledad mentored nine undergraduate students that graduated with a research dissertation under her supervision. Knowing how many of them have kept pursuing graduate studies and have successful careers, made this experience more gratifying for her. During her time at ESPE, Soledad was able to build collaborations with Dr. Carla Garzon from Oklahoma State University and the International Potato Center station in Quito, Ecuador.
During her three year stay in Ecuador, Soledad got married and was pregnant with her first child and together with her partner (from Asian origin) decided to venture North again. She began a postdoc position at Duke University, while 6 months pregnant, under the supervision of Drs. Jim Clark and Rytas Vilgalys.
This was a critical moment for Soledad when applying to jobs because she had to risk being turned away for being pregnant, but also she needed to make sure she was going to have proper health insurance.
Unlike many other women that have been marginalized because of being pregnant at the workplace, Soledad had a positive experience, with two welcoming labs, as well as intellectually stimulating.
“I am very grateful for my mentors. They knew that I was going to work three months, take off for 6 weeks, and come back to work. Their labs were just like family. There was great mentoring and interactions. Everybody worked together and helped each other. I was supported during my pregnancy. Seeing how others can support women and families, assures me that this can be done.”
Soledad’s experience at Duke was enriching, especially when she shared her thoughts about her next steps in her career with others in similar circumstances. Soledad highlights the importance of key lab members that can guide you through your academic process and professional development.
She also worked closely with Lindsay Becker, a lab technician at the time who she remembers very fondly:
“She was my right hand. I worked in a forest ecology project studying the effects of fungal pathogens in plant community composition. I had no experience in that. I had not worked in the forest in the United States. I didn't even know what a maple seedling looked like! Lindsay Becker was so helpful.”
Soledad and her family then moved to South Dakota, where her husband held a Ph.D. position. During that time, Soledad was a research scholar with Dr. Carla Garzon, where she supported Dr. Carzon’s lab with training in microbiome data analysis, basic bioinformatics, and data analysis for a project in suppressive soils in the Ecuadorian potato cropping system.
Eventually, she got a postdoc position in a USDA lab in Brookings, South Dakota. Soledad considered her move from North Carolina to South Dakota a culture (and winter) shock; but still, a great experience.
“It was good because I was back doing research in agriculture. During my time at Duke, I did not have much exposure to agriculture. I felt happier and I knew I could potentially have more impact by feeling more comfortable answering the questions I wanted to.”
This experience also provided Soledad with a supportive, family-friendly mentor. Soledad worked on analyzing the microbiome in corn and soybeans. One of the aspects of this experience that Soledad mostly enjoyed was interacting with the corn growers:
“It was interesting to learn how these corn growers were interested in soil microbiology. Before that experience, I had the wrong idea thinking that only organic farmers were worried about microorganisms in the soil. I found out that big-scale farmers with big machinery are also interested in soil microbiology!”
During this time, Soledad started looking for positions in academia, as well as industry. Her main motivation was teaching, considering she has a very strong teaching background. A position at Ohio State was available and she was encouraged to apply. As an interesting turn of events, Soledad is in the same lab where she did her Ph.D.
Soledad has had amazing opportunities in various research topics that have made her a well-rounded scientist:
“...and that is what I tried to highlight in my job application. I have such a broad research experience, in different settings, that enables me to help me work with people from different environments. It also helps me think with a more interdisciplinary perspective.”
As an assistant professor on a tenure-track position, Soledad describes this experience as good as it is stressful. However, she has an insightful perspective to this daunting phase:
“Be prepared to be stressed but find ways to cope with that stress. I think “What would be the worst thing that could happen? What will really happen if I did not get tenure?” and honestly, if I did not have tenure, I shouldn't feel like I lost the job. I will still have five years of experience where I gained a lot. I’ll just move on to the next experience. How I think of it is that my goal is not to just get tenure. My goal is to do science and mentor my students. Other peoples’ comments can stress you out, but you just have to think about what your goal is. This is all a continuous process.”
For this reason, Soledad shared that the biggest impact of her career is by empowering her students. She wants to keep training students that are motivated in “good and ethical science for the people’s good.”
Soledad encountered mentors with contrasting personalities, as well as awful administrators. However, she has learned valuable lessons from those experiences:
“...what I have learned from that is to not take things personally. Also, it is important to have a good support group of colleagues. Just do your job and do it well.”
Soledad recognizes that she has been lucky during her journey: “You hear horror stories. I do not have a horror story to tell. I think I have been very lucky in that sense.”
When asking Soledad if there was one piece of advice she had earlier, she mentioned she wished somebody would have told her how difficult motherhood is. She recognized the importance of delving into these tough conversations:
“(We should be) talking more about what are some of the challenges of motherhood, like the challenges of motherhood away from family, and the importance of finding groups of other women going through the same situation. People talk about how motherhood is so beautiful. It is. It is fulfilling, but it is so tough. Like, trying to balance jobs, especially in the beginning. One friend told me “You can do this. It is gonna be super tough. But you can do it.” (I believe there should be) more recognition of how hard it will be.”
Soledad loves spending time with her family and keeping active.
The importance of improving the agricultural sector
Starting from the public perception of food, Soledad said we need to make sure people know where their food comes from and not take it for granted. She also explained how impact will vary with the scale of agriculture:
“There is “Big Ag”. In this sector, you can implement the knowledge of soil health, which is linked to increasing beneficial microbes present, and this will lead to more sustainable management. In small scale productions, there are other kinds of impacts. These can help in food safety and security of these small farms.”
However, coming from the field of microbiology, Soledad recognizes that is sometimes hard to find a direct impact in agriculture:
“There are social issues that have to be assessed first. By understanding the system first, we will know how the system works and what are the key players in keeping that system running and we can contribute to reducing inputs and find ways to maximize yield under stressful growing conditions to help low-income farmers.”
In her field, the use of biocontrol products is rapidly increasing. She comments that “it is important to help farmers understand what is snake oil and what is not, what works and what doesn’t, and under what conditions does it work.”
Minorities in STEM
As a Hispanic female in agriculture, Soledad highlights the importance of recognizing our identities and helping the disadvantaged:
“There is a history of oppression to minorities in the U.S. From the position of privilege I had in Ecuador, I didn’t experience any of that. Maybe I have experienced it here, but I didn’t notice. I think it is important to educate myself and learn from other experiences, and also to have role models and people that are willing to give a little bit of a push to minorities. There are places that are diverse and accepting of everybody. We have to make sure we generate more of those places and help be a voice, or an intermediate voice, for minorities that have been oppressed.”
Soledad’s advice for young female students is to
“Keep doing what you're doing. Don’t let anything stop you. Learn to say NO to negative things in your life. It's going to be tough, but you can do it.”
Soledad encourages others to learn about organizations like the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science and to join groups or committees that address topics of diversity and to be part of the conversation!
This interview was developed, transcribed and edited by WAGS co-founder Ana María Vazquez-Catoni.