Growing up in a city on Brazil’s coast, Natalia Peres saw little agriculture. She was interested in biology and thought about pursuing a career in pharmacology and dentistry, among other possibilities – but a career in agriculture was not at the forefront of her thinking.
“My interest in agriculture came after reading about biotechnology and how that could help farmers by developing disease-resistant crops,” Peres said.
She earned all her college degrees from Sao Paolo State University in Brazil. Specifically, Peres studied tropical fruit and citrus diseases for her master’s and doctoral degrees.
When she started working at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in 2004, Peres began specializing in strawberries and their diseases.
Now a professor of plant pathology at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, Florida, Peres looks for answers to diseases that plague many Florida crops, including strawberries.
She divides her time between research and Extension activities. In her Extension capacity, Peres interacts closely with UF/IFAS county Extension agents and crop consultants by visiting farms. She also receives and studies plant samples in the diagnostic clinics at Gulf Coast REC, and she answers stakeholder phone calls and gives presentations at meetings.
“My Extension work helps me to understand the current disease problems the industry is facing and guides my research program,” Peres said.
About 15 people work in Peres’ lab, so she spends much time coordinating research with students, post-doctoral researchers, interns and other staff. Peres’ research funding comes from grant agencies, so she also spends a considerable amount of time writing grant proposals.
“Every day is different, there is no routine,” Peres said.
As one of her proudest accomplishments, Peres cited the Strawberry Advisory System (StAS), a web tool that strawberry growers use to help them decide when they should spray fungicides to protect their crops against fungal diseases. She credits Clyde Fraisse, a UF/IFAS associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, with helping her design StAS.
Strawberry, a $300 million-a-year crop in Florida, is highly susceptible to fungal diseases, Peres said. Before StAS, growers applied fungicides weekly. By following the StAS, (http://agroclimate.org/tools/sas/fl/), strawberry growers can now spray only when environmental conditions are favorable for those diseases and thus reduce their costs and the environmental impact, Peres said.
Peres, Fraisse and other scientists originally developed StAS for Florida growers, but it has since expanded to Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and California.
“Being able to show farmers that they can reduce their fungicides without risking their yields (their livelihood) – and hear from them ‘it actually works’ — has been very rewarding,” Peres said.