Alejandra Huerta’s parents may be forgiven for their distress when Huerta announced she was pursuing a career in agriculture. As native Mexicans who spent their lives picking crops around Salinas, California, they had hoped that a good education would be their children’s ticket to a better life.
“What? You went to college for four years and now you’re going back to the fields?” was their reaction, Huerta recalls with a laugh. “I explained that I’m doing something very different. My job is not to pick. I think about the work I do.”
But convincing her parents that a career in science was right for her was nothing compared to the doubt Huerta had to overcome in herself.
She had always loved science, but in her first foray at a university, she fell behind in the science course sequence and her grades were disappointing. By contrast, the Spanish and Portuguese department wooed her with opportunities to study abroad. With some misgivings, she switched majors.
Living abroad gave her confidence. “I was like, I can do anything. I’ve lived here, I survived, I’ve nailed the language,” Huerta recalls. “That’s when I said, ‘I’m going back to the sciences.’”
Now a second-year Ph.D. student in plant pathology, Huerta’s research in Caitilyn Allen’s lab focuses on the bacterial plant pathogen Ralstonia, which causes disease in tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco and other valuable crops.
Last spring Huerta was awarded a three-year research fellowship from the National Science Foundation. The coveted honor includes a $30,000 annual stipend and a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance.
Huerta plans to stay in academia, but she also wants to help farm worker children back in Salinas. She’d like to develop an intensive science program for elementary school students.
“We don’t grow up thinking about biology or chemistry, so when we see it in high school it’s a completely different language. That’s why a lot of us struggle with it,” she says. “Sometimes we’re the first ones in our families taking that course. The only people we can really ask for help are our teachers, but sometimes we’re just so afraid—‘Oh my gosh, he’s going to think we’re dumb or something’—that we don’t do it.”