Student Spotlight: Juliana González-Tobón
March 1, 2021 (Updated April 4, 2022)
Juliana González-Tobón is a doctoral student in plant pathology and plant-microbe biology from Bogotá, Colombia. After attending the Universidad de los Andes as an undergraduate and spending two summers working in Cornell laboratories, she chose to pursue further study at Cornell for its welcoming environment as well as the opportunities to boost creativity while working with scholars across fields.
What is your area of research and why is it important?
I study how plants get sick and the microorganisms that cause this! They can be viruses, bacteria, fungi, and many others. More specifically, I explore how a pathogen interacts with a plant when trying to infect it at a molecular level. This means that we want to understand which proteins, genes, or other molecules are involved in such a process. For example, I explore a type of RNA that can control whether a gene’s information is used to build up a protein that aids a pathogen when infecting a plant or not.
What are the larger implications of this research?
To find novel solutions for real-life problems, we must first understand how the problem works. I believe that the discoveries done in laboratory settings can be the starting point for improvements on how to manage such problems. Understanding how plant-pathogen interactions work will contribute to our knowledge of these organisms and their lifestyles. This, in turn, can set up the path for us to find easier solutions in the field. For example, if we figure out how a pathogen senses the plant and block that process, we could potentially render it unable to find and infect the plant.
What inspired you to choose this field of study?
I always wanted to investigate and discover exciting and novel topics. For me, it started as an interest on how genes are expressed inside cells and which molecules play a role for that to happen. Later on, I discovered how amazing the field of plant pathology is. For starters, it is the crib of several cutting-edge technologies now applied to other fields related to molecular biology. Also, it is one of the most important fields working towards food security, thus helping guarantee that we feed the world. I wanted to be a part of that.
You made a video explaining COVID-19 vaccines that went viral. What inspired you to make the initial video and later devote social media channels to additional videos?
For my family in Colombia, access to scientific data and trustworthy sources in Spanish regarding the COVID vaccines has been limited, not only because of the language barrier, but because of the unbelievably huge amount of fake news and dubious information rotating in social media. This worried me since they were taking advice without scientific basis. I felt that it was my duty as a scientist to try and explain some of the molecular concepts behind the vaccines in simple and accessible language. It had a great response so I decided to pursue it, and you can find me at @epiplantpath.
Why is it important to distill complicated, scientific content and make it more accessible to the general public?
Transmitting what science has to say in an accessible and easy manner to the general public is key for a successful society. Right now, the pandemic and the vaccines are on the top of our minds. However, issues like climate change, GMOs, gene editing, among others, have been also surrounded by fake information that only contributes to collective fear and further breaks people’s confidence in science. If we manage to transmit this in a way that people feel is close to their lives and not as a threat, it will be progressively easier to talk about it.
You were named People’s Choice Award winner in the 2022 Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. Can you describe the process of condensing your research into a three-minute presentation?
The process of communicating my thesis, or even a part of it, in three minutes is very challenging, both because of the length and the audience to which it was directed. It is key to understand how my research overlaps with people’s interests or with real-life situations that impact their lives. After that, it was much easier to identify a good way to kick off the presentation and start with something the audience identified with. As well, looking for the appropriate structure that not only seemed logical to the audience but also communicated a clear story.
How will you take what you’ve learned from participating in the 3MT and use it in future academic and professional contexts?
I am very interested in scientific communication and in moving science closer to the public. I have been working on this since a little bit over a year ago. My experience at the 3MT competition taught me valuable lessons regarding this process and how to construct it towards a specific goal. As well, I believe it is valuable for any researcher to take some time to reflect on how our work affects people, how we can get them interested on it, and lastly, how to effectively communicate it as a message.
What are your hobbies or interests outside of your research or scholarship?
I have a huge interest in science communication, as you might have noticed by now. This has also merged with an effort to empower women in science, especially in the agricultural sciences, which I do as being part of Women In Ag Science. In a more relaxed setting, I love to spend time with my husband and our two cats. I enjoy watching series, movies, and playing video games. During the pandemic, I revived my interest in baking, so that is a new hobby! In a non-pandemic setting, I love to travel and discover new traditions and cultures.
Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree?
I had the opportunity of coming to Cornell for two consecutive summers to help at different laboratories and their research projects. Those experiences showed me that Cornell was the place for me to pursue my Ph.D. I felt welcomed, since the very beginning, which was absolutely important for me as an international student. Additionally, I felt like it was a place that boosted my creativity and allowed me to reach out to some of the most brilliant minds in my field and in others. It has proved to be such a place!