Research spotlight:
A Q&A with Clemencia Rojas

Clemencia Rojas

Tell us about your current career position.

I am an assistant professor in the department of plant pathology at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. I use tools from molecular and cellular biology to understand how pathogenic bacteria cause diseases in plants and how plants sense and respond to pathogen threats. The ultimate goal of this research is to contribute to the development and implementation of strategies to counteract the effects of plant diseases in crops. This in turn will lead to improved food production for the growing human population.

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?

Every single experience in my life has contributed to my career. I was exposed to an academic environment early in life. My parents are professors at Colombian universities and instilled in my brother and me a passion for education. They also set very high standards for us, and, as a result, we both wanted to study in the best universities in Colombia and abroad. I attended Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, and two professors recommended me for an internship at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia. That experience was fundamental to shaping my career path, because my project involved working with a fungal pathogen that causes disease in rice. Our main collaborator in that project, Morris Levy, invited me to work in his lab at Purdue University as a research assistant. While I was working at Purdue, I took graduate-level classes and later obtained a master’s degree in genetics. I decided to continue with my Ph.D. and was admitted to Cornell University, where I studied a bacterial pathogen that causes rot in a wide range of plants. To complete my training, I joined the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and worked with Kiran Mysore to investigate how plants defend against pathogens. Having expertise in both pathogen strategies to cause disease and plant defense responses gave me enough confidence to establish my own lab.

How did you first become interested in science?

One day, when I was about 8 years old, I saw on TV a cartoon about a man in a white lab coat mixing things in a lab with smoke coming out of some test tubes. I thought that looked pretty cool, and from then on I wanted to be a chemist. However, because my target university for undergraduate studies did not offer a chemistry degree, I decided to join the microbiology program, which required taking chemistry classes every semester. In the second semester, while taking my first bacteriology class, I observed bacteria under the microscope, and I was in awe. I fell in love with the field of microbiology and continued pursuing it.

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?

I am a very positive person, and hence I don’t consider any of my bad experiences as failures. In one way or another and in retrospect, all of the difficult experiences and the consequences of my bad choices have had positive outcomes. Of course, living through them was not fun, but I tried to remain in control, considered all the scenarios, asked for advice and made rational rather than emotional decisions.

What advice would you give to young persons from underrepresented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?

Regardless of background, science is a very competitive field, and average performance is out of the question. You have to be committed to everything you do, strive for excellence and challenge yourself to come out of your comfort zone. If you feel your background is a limitation, seek mentors; you will be surprised to find that a lot of people are very generous and willing to give advice and help.

What are your hobbies?

Spending time with my family.

What was the last book you read?

I do not have time for leisure reading, but my 9-year-old son introduced me to Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” and “The Heroes of Olympus.” I was hooked on these books, and so they became my leisure reading in addition to giving me quality time to spend with my son. Of course, I also have to read “Berenstain Bears,” “Thomas the Train,” “Curious George,” “Mercy Watson,” etc. to my 4-year-old.

Do you have any heroes, heroines or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you.

As a woman, my mom has been a role model, because she went to college when it was not customary in Colombia for young women to do so. Although she was a college graduate, she stayed at home with my brother and me until we started school. When we were older, she started acquiring more responsibilities, and now, at age 73, she is the dean for the school of social sciences at a Colombian university. She has understood her priorities at the different stages of her life and has fulfilled her roles as wife, mother and career woman to the fullest. She has shown me that it is possible to strike a balance between a family life and an academic life, and that is something with which I constantly struggled.

My scientific role model is my Ph.D. adviser, Alan Collmer. He is a symbol of excellence, integrity and leadership. He is also an outstanding human being and a bona fide mentor who is able to appreciate the differences among people and extract the best from everyone.

What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?

The thrill of discovering something nobody knew before. It is not easy, and it is frequently challenging to figure things out, but, after you do, the result is well worth the effort.

Andrew Macintyre Andrew Macintyre is an education and professional development manager at the ASBMB.