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Melania Figueroa

Dr. Melania Figueroa grew up in Costa Rica. She received a B.S. in Biology in 2000 from the University of Costa Rica and a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from the University of Arizona in 2007. She was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University from 2007 to 2011 with support from a highly competitive National Science Foundation Minority Postdoctoral Fellowship. Following this, she was a Research Plant Pathologist with USDA-ARS in the Forage Seed and Cereal Research Unit until 2013 when she accepted a position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota. She has established a productive, independent research program that has had a major impact in the area of effector biology and rust genomics, an emerging field of study in plant pathology with national and international importance to agriculture and environmental sustainability. Her work is at the forefront for understanding the molecular basis of plant-microbe interactions and developing durable resistance in crops. Figueroa has been successful in obtaining grant funding (PI or Co-PI on grants totaling over $2.2 million) and publishing in journals with very high impact factors such as Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Nature Communications. She has an impressive publication track record. Since moving to the University of Minnesota in 2013 Figueroa has published one book chapter and 14 peer-reviewed papers out of a total of 22 throughout her career.

Dr. Figueroa’s research program is one of novelty and international impact. She demonstrated the status of the model grass, Brachypodium distachyon, as a non-host to rust fungi (Puccinia graminis and Puccinia coronata). This work was essential to demonstrate the value of this species as a putative donor of resistance to rust fungi. Using this system, Figueroa’s research aims to understand the genetic basis of non-host resistance, a poorly understood phenomenon that promises durable, environmentally-friendly means of controlling rust diseases. Of particular note is Figueroa’s work to investigate virulence mechanisms and genetic variability in rust fungi. Towards this goal, she led the development of genomic resources for the oat crown rust fungus, Puccinia coronata f. sp. avenae and is currently implementing similar approaches to study the wheat stem rust fungus, Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici. For the first time, her team demonstrated the feasibility to generate haplotype-resolved genome references for rust fungi using two crown rust isolates as models (mBio 9: 1 e01650-17).  In addition, she participated in similar work using the wheat stripe rust fungus, Puccinia striiformis f. sp. tritici, led by scientists at the Australian National University (mBio 9: 1 e02275-17). Both of these studies demonstrated the tremendous variation that exits between haplotypes of dikaryotic rust fungi and underscore the importance of examining the prevalence of this phenomenon in other rust fungi and its role in host adaption. Her team is currently using a population genomics approach to study the evolution of virulence in P. coronata f. sp. avenae across continents. Experimentally determined knowledge of the genetic variation in pathogens can be essential for designing effective disease management strategies based on the predisposition of rust pathogens to evolve virulence to specific resistance genes. Complementary to these efforts, she is also pursuing the identification of plant resistance genes to crown rust in oat and related wild species for use in breeding applications. In a recent collaboration, Figueroa, with teams at CSIRO and the University of Sydney, identified the first Avr gene in P. graminis f. sp. tritici that is recognized by the wheat Sr50 resistance gene (Science, Vol. 358 (6370): 1607). Figueroa directed the US team responsible for analyzing the genetic variation of this locus in several global stem rust isolates, including the only naturally-occurring isolate with virulence towards Sr50, which was critical for the confirming Avr gene identity, as well as the globally important P. graminis f. sp. tritici race Ug99.

Figueroa’s advances in genomics research have helped to support a DOE-JGI Community Resource Project to generate additional genome references for rust fungi. This international consortium aims to understand genetic diversity in rust fungi and evolution of host adaptation. Notably, this DOE-JGI project was conceived during a rust workshop co-organized by Figueroa. In parallel, Figueroa also worked with scientists around the globe to launch another DOE-JGI Community Resource Project to develop a comprehensive gene atlas map of B. distachyon. Both of these projects demonstrate Figueroa’s commitment to promote scientific progress at a community level.

Further highlighting her international research footprint, Figueroa has been invited to present her research in Brazil, Kenya, and Mexico. In 2014 she was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to attend an Agricultural Research Connections Workshop and in 2016, she received a research fellowship from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to conduct research in Australia. Most recently, she was invited as keynote speaker at the upcoming International Cereal Rusts and Powdery Mildews Conference in South Africa. Her passion for international agriculture and support for women in science has motivated Figueroa to serve as judge for the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women In Triticum Early Career and Mentor Program, an international effort to promote education and advancement of women in agricultural sciences.

Figueroa is an enthusiastic teacher and student advisor. She is the instructor of the graduate course “Plant-Microbe Interactions” and a “Plant Pathology” module for undergraduate students. She uses a variety of active learning approaches and encourages students enrolled to delve into the primary literature and engage in directed peer-to-peer learning activities. Students appreciate her dedication to teaching.

Dr. Figueroa has made outstanding recent contributions to research and teaching in plant pathology. She represents the excellence of our profession. She is respected by her peers as an emerging leader in plant pathology; she is innovative in research approaches and effectively spans disparate sub-disciplines; she is committed to student education and mentoring; and she has demonstrated excellence in service to our profession.