Katia Viana Xavier holds a special place among growers in the Everglades Agriculture Area (EAA) as a researcher fighting plant diseases at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).
They know she grew up on a family farm in the countryside of Brazil and later experienced firsthand the challenges of being a farmer.
EAA growers depend on her research and outreach programs mainly because they know those challenges inspired her to take those experiences to college and become a plant pathologist.
Today, Xavier is the first female plant pathologist at the 102-year-old UF/IFAS Everglades Research & Education Center (EREC) – the first and only experiment station authorized by the Florida Legislature in 1921 to serve the EAA.
Her role? To fight plant disease and forge change to increase food security while promoting crop sustainability for growers.
“After high school, I decided to become a farmer, and it was working as a grower in Brazil where I experienced firsthand numerous challenges on growing vegetables, including a total crop loss to plant diseases,” said Xavier. “This unexpected circumstance made me realize that growers like me need help to manage plant diseases caused by pathogens. Helping to identify, manage and act ahead of plant disease epidemics will surely promote success and food security.”
The significance of her role is a testament to other challenges she faced as a young farmer. Being a woman in a male dominated industry in her country created roadblocks.
“I also faced a lack of respect as a woman working in agriculture,” she said. These challenges did not deter her. “This motivated me to go back to school and show that I could learn, teach and help growers, like me, to thrive in agriculture.”
It was at this stage in her life where she shifted career goals, leading her to where she is today. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in agronomy followed by a master’s degree in plant pathology at Universidade Federal de Lavras in Brazil.
She went on to obtain her doctoral degree in plant pathology at University of Kentucky in Lexington, working on sweet sorghum diseases. Her first job as a postdoctoral researcher had her working with vegetable and pomegranate diseases. She then moved on to work as a field scientist conducting field trials in Florida for a private company for a couple of years until she accepted her current position as assistant professor of plant pathology at EREC.
“My work has incorporated both basic and applied aspects, ranging from the subcellular to the population level,” she said. “These diverse experiences have prepared me to establish my research and Extension programs with an emphasis on the pathogen identification and management of diseases of high value crops produced in the EAA, and having the freedom to build my own research and Extension programs based on the growers needs is what drives me.”
That is why you will find her visiting growers on their farms and paying meticulous attention to the variety of crops they are having challenges within the EAA on any given day. Microgreens, sweet corn, lettuce, snap beans and sugarcane are among the plantings she is currently dedicated to studying and that are found as staples in food markets and household tables.
And every day, with science, she fights for the future of crops that feed the nation. The EAA incorporates almost 1,160 square miles of highly productive agricultural land south of Lake Okeechobee. It serves as a major producer of sugarcane, rice, sweet corn, lettuce, cabbage, green beans, celery and radishes.
One of her most pressing research projects is working in collaboration with a plant breeder on sweet corn to identify sustainable integrated management strategies against plant diseases that are tailored to Florida conditions.
“This project focuses on the development of sweet corn hybrids resistant to fungal diseases and an effective spray program. By working closely with growers and stakeholders, I believe that we can halt current and emerging disease of sweet corn,” she said.
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