Moved by her passion and her country’s interest in conservation, Terry is amazingly contributing in the discovery of different fungal species in her journey as a scientist.
Born and raised in Costa Rica, Terry J. Torres-Cruz completed her undergraduate degree at the Instituto Technológico at Costa Rica majoring in Biotechnology and Engineering. Currently, after an interesting journey as a young scientist Terry is a second-year Ph.D. student at Dr. David Geiser’s Lab in the Plant Pathology Department at the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). Completing a dual-title in Plant Pathology and Biogeochemistry, Terry works with a recently discovered system; an endemic plant from North and South America, Cyrus wild grass, that is infected with a new Fusarium species that produce pseudo-flowers. Very little is known about this phenomenon and there are many questions related to it. Terry is interested in describing the potential disease caused by this fungus and how it develops pseudo-flowers with the potential of attracting insects to come to this plant.
Her journey as a scientist started in her last semester of undergrad where she decided to go outside her comfort zone and move to the United States to expand her knowledge and opportunities. Terry was interested in mycology and went to Western Illinois University to work with Dr. Andrea Porras-Alfaro, also from Costa Rica, to complete her undergrad thesis project. She received an award from the Ministry of Science and Technology of Costa Rica which allowed her to participate in the internship for three months. During her internship, she started a whole new project, designed experiments, sequenced plenty of specimens and ended up identifying a new fungal species. Thanks to this experience and valuable mentorship of Dr. Porras-Alfaro, Terry was introduced to graduate school where she discovered the possibility of pursuing a Masters degree. Consequently, Terry realized that by doing a Masters under the guidance of Dr. Porras, it would open doors and expose her to new experiences.
After finishing her undergrad program, Terry went back to Western Illinois University and started her Masters in Biology. Focused and determined, Terry published a couple of projects with different collaborators under the guidance of Dr. Porras-Alfaro. She worked with endophytes in grasses, orchids, and fungi in soil surfaces. This experience led her to start a new project discovering and describing a new species of fungi and how it may have a role in the nitrogen use.
Right after finishing her M.S., Terry joined the US Geological Survey (USGS) at Utah where she worked at the Biogeochemistry laboratory under Dr. Sasha Reed guidance for over a year as a field assistant. Here, Terry J. was immersed in a wide range of ecology and ecosystems applied work where she was so captivated that she ended up developing a strong interest.
After having both experiences, academia and government agency, laboratory and fieldwork, Terry decided to go back to academia. “I already knew that I was getting my Ph.D. done, -that was already in the plans- I visited schools while I was working with Dr. Reed. Being exposed to extensive fieldwork, I realized that this is probably what I want later on besides lab work”
Working in academia is very different from working in government agencies and/ or industry. The people, the routine, the extensive work… it is all about balance. Terry expressed that in Utah, she worked with 25 researchers, engaged with them every day and it was a close and nice environment. “There were no specific routine or projects all the time, data collection was for various projects on the same day, I was learning so much. Now that I am currently in academia, it is a different story. Here, you work on the project that you are interested in and you are responsible to learn every single part of it in the lab more than outdoors.”
Sometimes our outstanding experiences are not the events themselves but the people you meet along the journey. For Terry, the most important aspect of her experiences is the excellent mentorship she had during the different programs.
“The internship and masters that I completed with Dr. Porras- Alfaro impacted me and having her as a mentor made me realize that I have a voice and a wide range of opportunities. Also being mentored by Dr. Sasha Reed at the USGS showed me how to be empowered, not to doubt myself and being positive.”
What do you think is important to highlight women in ag science?
“Watching others that look like you, women with different backgrounds that made it, means you can do it too. We need to pay attention to those who are doing great work and are not known.”
Terry’s mission is defined in two points. First, she wants to have a strong contribution in science. The second one is to increase diversity and inclusion in STEM and help underrepresented communities overcome difficulties in any area. This year Terry helped students fill U.S. income taxes and proposed a new “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” committee for the Plant Pathology department at PSU. She is committed to allocating and exposing resources that already exist at university making them more accessible to the international students in her department.
“Is not only about bringing more diversity, it’s about helping and uniting.”
Terry is very enthusiastic to constantly visit new places, practice different hobbies like singing and volunteering at Botanic Gardens. Additonally, helping and being involved in student associations is a big part of Terry’s mission to help others. Her future plans are to continue doing research and to work as a director of a research institute at some point in her career.
Terry expresses that Costa Rica inspired her to be the person she is today. She says: “Costa Rica is focused on ecotourism, conservation, clean energy; which indirectly pushed me on being inspired on promoting conservation and discovering new species.”
During our conversation with Terry, I remember feeling amazed about how Terry has a lively and driven journey as a scientist. The uniqueness of putting all her passion, experiences, and having the freedom of designing her own path. She laughed and said: “I have always planned my goals, but I never intended to end up here and work in these systems. I have accepted that life will never go the way you think or plan. It’s one way or another.”
Terry always carries with this quote for everyone no matter the age, situation or gender:
”Don’t stop learning, even things you think are not worth it. They definitely are going to be helpful at some point. Nothing ever goes to waste.”
Organizations that Terry believes that would be useful to others:
SACNAS! An inclusive organization for underrepresented minorities dedicated to fostering the success of students following leadership careers in STEM.
If you don’t have it at your campus, be the one who creates a chapter in your institution.
Mycological Society of America MSA Student Section, an excellent resource for students interested in mycology.
You can follow Terry Torres-Cruz at:
Thanks Terry for sharing your journey with us!
-The WAGS TEAM
[Terry's interview was transcribed by WAGS Team member: Andrea Lugo-Torres.]