Put Out Your Runners: Plant Pathology Professor Delivers Commencement Address

“Put out your runners” exclaimed Dr. Natalia Peres, Professor of Plant Pathology and “Florida’s strawberry doctor,” according to University of Florida President Ben Sasse. Peres described how the sweet red fruit reproduces by spreading runners across the ground rather than growing from seeds.

Dr. Natalia Peres approaches the lectern to deliver her remarks“Reach out with the knowledge and expertise that you have gained,” said Peres in her commencement address to doctoral candidates from across the University of Florida during a graduation ceremony at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on Friday, Dec. 15. “Reach out, because you and your extensive expertise are needed, even if your new community or workplace doesn’t know it yet. Your runners are your connections, and it’s those connections that will bolster you, spread great ideas, and create a better world.” 

Since 2015, the university has invited faculty members to address graduates at its Spring, Summer and Fall commencement exercises. Peres is the 21st professor to deliver a commencement address since 2015, but the first from outside the Gainesville campus. In addition to the doctoral ceremony, Peres addressed bachelor’s and master’s degree graduates at two other ceremonies during the graduation weekend.

Dr. Natalia Peres delivering commencement address, as seen on video board inside O'Connell Center

Peres received the invitation after Sasse met with researchers at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center over the summer. “I am the first professor who is not based in Gainesville to give a commencement speech,” said Peres, “because President Sasse was the first UF president to visit our research campus in Balm.”

Peres’ selection was “a demonstration of the reach that the University of Florida has across the entire state of Florida,” said Dr. J. Scott Angle, Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources at IFAS and Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs for the University. “President Sasse wanted to acknowledge and recognize the important efforts of the university statewide, and Dr. Peres was the perfect person to help do this.

“I left that meeting in awe,” said Sasse while introducing Peres, “of how she and her colleagues are using AI to help Florida strawberry growers defeat the diseases that threaten their crops using something as accessible as the supercomputer that all of us are carrying in our pockets.”

Dr. Peres is also an amazing mentor, which extends beyond her students’ graduation, notes Dr. Jack Rechcigl, director of the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, in nominating Peres for a mentorship award. “She supports her students in their career development. Many of her former advisees have gone on to achieve remarkable success in academia and industry.”

“She fosters a sense of belonging among her students,” said Dr. Marcus Marin, a recent graduate and current scientist in Peres’ lab, “encouraging them to explore their research interests while providing the necessary guidance and resources to excel.”

Peres is the first plant pathologist to deliver a commencement address at the University of Florida. “Dr. Peres is a phenomenal role model for all aspiring scientists,” said Dr. Mathews Paret, Plant Pathology department chair.  “Her selection as the University of Florida commencement speaker is very special for the UF/IFAS Department of Plant Pathology, Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, and a wonderful moment for everyone at UF to celebrate.” 

“Dr. Peres is clearly the leading strawberry plant pathologist in the United States and one among the most distinguished globally in this high-value crop that is a hallmark of Florida agriculture,” said Paret. “The immense passion, commitment, and the ability to build a highly successful team working with breeders, climate scientists, engineers, and other disciplines, county Extension agents, and industry personnel puts Dr. Peres’ program among the most impactful plant pathology programs in the country.” 

Building that team was a challenging task for Peres. “When I came to UF from my native Brazil, the strawberry growers I’d been asked to help were not that thrilled,” said Peres in her speech. “My PhD, and nearly all my academic research, focused on citrus, not strawberries.” 

“On top of that, my English wasn’t great,” Peres said. “The growers complained they couldn’t understand me – and to be honest, I often couldn’t understand their Southern accents either.” Dr. Natalia Peres on stage delivering commencement address

Her persistence – and her science – convinced growers to work with her, and that teamwork has paid off for everyone involved. “I started out as her biggest critic,” said Al Herndon, a consultant for Ferris Farms in Floral City who has worked in strawberry farming for 33 years. “Now I’m her biggest supporter. She really cares about us, the growers.”

“It’s to the point that whenever I have a problem I’m not sure about, I call her,” Herndon said. “Working with her has been an unbelievable privilege.  

Her research has allowed growers to significantly reduce the spraying of their crops to prevent disease. Current research utilizing AI will allow growers to quickly identify diseases on their phones.  

“I have only been able to develop and test this system because of my runners, my connections- my partnerships and friendships with my colleagues and growers,” Peres said. “Partly because of those partnerships and those friendships, we’ve spread great ideas, and we’ve done important things.” 

“Gator graduates, go out and spread out your runners, Peres concluded. “Try to help others, and to connect with people on a human level. Believe in your work. Go forth. I can’t wait to see the world that you will grow.”



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Posted: December 20, 2023

Category: Academics, UF/IFAS
Tags: Ben Sasse, Commencement, GREC, Gulf Coast Research And Education Center, Natalia Peres, Plant Pathology, Strawberries

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