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December 2021 grad: Jenyne Loarca inspired by creativity, humanity involved in plant breeding

Photo courtesy of Jenyne Loarca.

Jenyne Loarca, who grew up in Los Angeles, California, will be graduating December 2021 with a Ph.D from the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program, through the Department of Horticulture. In this Q&A, Loarca talks about their academic path and campus activities – including co-founding a mentorship network for BIPOC graduate students – as well as career plans and advice for other CALS students.

Q: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Los Angeles in a multigenerational Latinx household. My grandmother, Esperanza Sanchez-Loarca, moved our entire family to the U.S. from Guatemala. She raised and encouraged me to make bold choices and to be curious — these values were reflected in her endearing nickname for me, ‘Cabroncita‘ (which technically means ‘little goat’). She empowered me to continually discover my joy of learning, creating, and innovating. Although Los Angeles has agricultural roots, agriculture was not part of my education until the end of college. Finding connections between seemingly disparate fields is how I eventually landed in CALS.

Q: How did you decide on your degree program?
I am completing my doctorate in the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics (PBPG) program in the Department of Horticulture. Long before this point, I started my academic career in community college. I studied biological anthropology because I was interested in genetic diversity. While in school, I worked nearly full-time while doing my best to make average grades — a familiar struggle for low-income and first-generation college students. I tried to remember that my learning is a process for myself and not a performance for others — a perspective that was not always appreciated by academic administrators, but that I needed to stay motivated in a system that was not built with my struggles in mind. I transferred to the University of California, Davis, where I completed my BS degree. As I approached the end of my bachelor’s (a seven-year journey), I learned about crop genetic diversity and plant breeding. In plant breeding I saw a unique opportunity to do creative work with science — leveraging genetics to create something completely new that also helped people. After a few years working with successful plant breeders in industry, including my remarkable mentor and PBPG alum Dr. Ken Owens, I knew that I wanted to run my own breeding program. The next step in my career was going to be graduate school. I was interested in working with Dr. Philipp Simon because he was breeding to improve nutrition in carrots, and thought that it was a humane motivation for doing science. More importantly, Phil was a good person and it was important to me to work with people like him.

Q: What were the most valuable/meaningful college experiences you had?
As a graduate student, I was fortunate to discover a love for communicating science to different audiences. Whether it’s three people or 300 people, novice or experts, I love finding unique ways to connect with them about vegetables and genetics. I also love representing my various social identities in science and sharing with students about my experiences being gender nonconforming, first-gen, neurodivergent, and Latinx in STEM. I believe it’s through these connections that we build inroads to inclusion, and I will continue to build community and inclusive spaces with those who have been historically excluded from the academe.

Q: When you think about your time here as student, what are you proud of?
I’m proud of the collaborative work I’ve done with some truly excellent colleagues who have worked to advocate for diversifying the academe. Like me, my colleagues Korede Olugbenle and Becca Honeyball believe in leaving things better than they found them. Together, we founded a mentorship network for BIPOC graduate students to find support from BIPOC faculty in this predominantly white institution – MOSAIC (Mentorship Opportunities in Science and Agriculture for Individuals of Color). With the institutionalization of this program within CALS, we hope that people begin to see that a diverse UW makes the best UW possible.

Q: What are your future academic / career plans?
I’ve started a postdoctoral research position in cover crop breeding with Cornell University. I’m excited to work alongside this highly collaborative group of researchers that understands that genetic diversity is critical to developing new varieties that improve the lives of farmers. After this, I anticipate continuing to be a part of the UW community during my second post-doc on cranberry genetic diversity. In my long-term career, I want to focus on crop genetic resources and their role in addressing climate change and food security. I’d love to pursue outreach and extension opportunities to share this knowledge with the broader community.

Q: Do you have any advice you’d like to share with CALS students?
Find your people and collaborate across departments! There are so many benefits to collaborating with colleagues from different labs, including accountability, troubleshooting, and learning from one another. I am proud of my achievements and extremely grateful for people in my life who I’ve leaned on for unconditional positive regard during the hardest days, like my partner, Brian Loarca Schaefer, and my plant science colleagues Lily Hislop, Chandler Meyer, and Lily Vazquez Gonzalez. Whether it’s family, friends, colleagues, or chosen family, find the people who see you for you. Surround yourself with those whom you have a sense of belonging, meaning you don’t feel like you need to change to “fit in.” Nobody needs that kind of stress on top of already doing difficult work. When you’re respected and have belonging, you do your best work. Don’t settle in an environment where you’re told you will only get respect once you do something great. A sense of belonging enables you to do your best work.

Q: What led you to graduate school?
I started graduate school as I neared 30. After college, I had opportunities to work in plant breeding and traveled internationally to plant breeding trials. These travels included a trip to UW where I was fortunate to meet Dr. Phil Simon, and later, Dr. Julie Dawson, who would eventually become my wonderful and supportive grad school advisors. These [experiences] solidified my resolve to succeed in plant breeding and introduced me to the opportunities that got me to where I am today. When it comes to a career path, there’s no need to hurry. I think it’s important to slow down, listen to yourself, and find the pace that’s right for you.