Plant pathology students embrace science and diversity at national conference

Kelly Jedrzejewski
February 06, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students and faculty members from the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences recently attended the National Diversity in STEM Conference.

The event is hosted by the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) in San Antonio, Texas, an inclusive organization dedicated to fostering the success of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans — from college students to professionals — in attaining advanced degrees, careers and positions of leadership in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

"Because of the outstanding outcomes for students and the learning opportunities for faculty, the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology provides support for faculty and students to attend the SACNAS meeting," said Carolee Bull, professor and head of the department. "This year our students and participating faculty members helped attendees expand their knowledge and encouraged prospective graduate students to apply to our programs."

Hanareia Ehau-Taumaunu

Hanareia Ehau-Taumaunu, a doctoral candidate in plant pathology at Penn State, grew up in Ruatoria, Aotearoa, New Zealand -- a small community on the North Island.

IMAGE: Penn State

Among those representing Penn State were graduate students Hanareia Ehau-Taumaunu and Terry Torres-Cruz, who both agreed that the conference was the best they have attended in their respective careers.

They both applied for and received SACNAS travel scholarships to attend the conference, which attracted approximately 5,000 people from universities across the country. The event included keynote speakers, graduate students presenting research, undergraduate research posters and sessions on a wide range of topics.

"There were so many great sessions to attend, the hardest part was having to choose which ones to go to," Torres-Cruz said.

A doctoral student in plant pathology, Torres-Cruz has an interest in fungi and works with David Geiser, professor of mycology, in Penn State's Fusarium Research Center. She grew up in San José, Costa Rica, and completed her undergraduate studies in biotechnology engineering at Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica. She completed a master's degree in biology at Western Illinois University.

At the conference, she presented a poster titled, "From Fungus to Flower: The Ecological Role of Pseudoflower Formation by a New 'Fusarium' Species from Guyana and Its Potential Dispersal by Insects." Her research looks at a new species in the genus that produces a pseudoflower on a plant. The fungus makes the plant produce a structure that looks like a flower but is actually the fungus.

This is an ongoing project for Torres-Cruz, and she admitted that she was a little nervous about presenting a poster without having the results.

"Everyone was so supportive and interested to hear about my plans," she said. "I'd tell someone about my project, then they'd come back later and bring a friend to hear about the project as well. The sense of community at the conference was great."

Ehau-Taumaunu concurred, saying, "I absolutely loved the conference. It was the best one I've ever been to because I felt my whole self was accepted as a scientist, of course, but also the other parts of me as well," she said. "It was an inclusive environment and I participated in really great conversations about what I want to do as an indigenous scientist and about my future plans."

Ehau-Taumaunu, a doctoral candidate in plant pathology, grew up in Ruatoria, Aotearoa, New Zealand — a small community on the North Island. She completed her undergraduate and master's degrees at the University of Auckland. She was awarded a Fulbright New Zealand scholarship, which pushed her to branch out and study for her doctorate in the United States.

Ehau-Taumaunu's master's thesis was on gut microbes and crops that were grown historically by indigenous people in New Zealand. At the SACNAS conference, Ehau-Taumaunu presented a poster: "When is Bacteriocin Production Beneficial for the Phytopathogen Pseudomonas Syringae?" It focused primarily on her research investigating bacterial warfare in common bean plants.

Ehau-Taumaunu also worked with her adviser, Kevin Hockett, assistant professor of microbial ecology, to organize a session, "The Cultures of Science: The Intersection Between Western and Indigenous Knowledge." Ehau-Taumaunu's talk, "Cohesion and Conflict Among Communities," focused on her experiences as an indigenous scientist and the benefits of forming relationships between indigenous and Western knowledge holders. The session, which also included three other speakers, was so well-attended that it was standing-room only.

"The session went over very well," she said. "It spawned great discussions and I got a lot of positive feedback. The session and the conference allowed me to engage with people from all different backgrounds in terms of culture as well as scientific areas of study."

Both Torres-Cruz and Ehau-Taumaunu hope to attend the conference next year, but they also want to encourage more Penn State students to attend. The SACNAS travel scholarship, which can be found on the organization's website, is open to all students from undergraduates to graduate students and to non-U.S. citizens.

The event is an unparalleled opportunity for networking, the students noted.

"You never know when you're going to meet someone who can help you with your research," Torres-Cruz said. "The more things you get involved with, the more people you will get to know and the more you can start connecting different pieces of the puzzle."

Ehau-Taumaunu and Torres-Cruz credit their department for giving them the tools they need to succeed, not just at the SACNAS conference, but in their academic and professional careers as well.

"There are a lot of people who will push you and help you achieve your goals and lots of funding for research and opportunities to apply for different things, such as the SACNAS conference, that help you grow professionally, too," Ehau-Taumaunu said.

More information about Penn State's SACNAS chapter can be found on the chapter's Facebook page and Twitter feed.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated February 06, 2019