Elizabeth Álvarez is an Agricultural Engineer from the National University of Colombia, Palmira campus. She started her scientific activities at CIAT in 1980, where she always stood out for her relentless scientific curiosity. This is the reason why, as the working stage in her life came to an end a few months ago, some of her colleagues from the Cassava Program have stated that she has left a great void.

Elizabeth, a researcher and also a lecturer, with master and doctoral studies in plant pathology at the University of Iowa in the US, is always remembered as an excellent human being, leader, and scientist.

In 1995, she was appointed as plant pathologist to lead the group of the Cassava Pathology Lab, a position she held for over 20 years. There, she played an essential role in strengthening scientific cooperation at the national and international level, engaged as leader and co-developer of research projects in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

According to Hernán Ceballos, breeder at the Cassava Program, “Elizabeth was not only able to become part of a multi-disciplinary cassava group, but she was also able to work successfully in other relevant crops for Colombia, such as plantain, forages, and oil palm. It was an honor and a privilege for me to coordinate the Cassava Program at CIAT, of which she was a member for more than a decade. During this time, I always regarded her as a responsible and highly enthusiastic person, since no problem ever seemed unsolvable to her.”

Her work, her knowledge and experience in the area, made it possible to provide highly competitive professionals with scientific training at the graduate, master, and doctoral levels, as well as the publication of their work in books, bulletins, and accredited scientific journals.

Teamwork to achieve scientific accomplishments

In her daily activities, Dr. Álvarez promoted collaborative work within her team at the Cassava Pathology Lab, which is considered to be the main reason of their major scientific accomplishments. Among such, we can find pest and disease biological control strategies in cassava roots; strengthening of food security and environmental stability of indigenous communities in Mitú; integrated rose disease management for flower producers; implementing a molecular technique for the quick identification of the phytoplasma associated to the cassava frog skin disease, as well as the development of a thermal camera system to clean up cassava material infected with this disease.

In light of these achievements, Hernán Ceballos reaffirms that “Elizabeth Álvarez demonstrated to have a combination of qualities that is ever more difficult to find. Her work team was able to fulfill and validate Koch’s postulates in the case of the cassava frog skin disease, through a doctoral thesis submitted to the National University of Colombia, which demonstrated that a phytoplasma was the major causal agent of the disease known as frog skin. There may be other causal agents, but for the first time it was demonstrated that at least the phytoplasma induces the disease.”

Likewise, Dr. Clair Hershey, former leader of the Cassava Program, referred to this accomplishment saying that “Elizabeth’s team contributed to unravel the causal agent of the cassava frog skin disease, as it developed a hypothesis on the contributions of the phytoplasmic agents to the etiology of the disease, and it relentlessly pursued the possible implication of this group of pathogens. Such a challenge had frustrated the abilities of many scientists from both within and outside CIAT’s Cassava Program for 30 years.”

On the other hand, Germán Llano, who worked for more than 12 years along Elizabeth Álvarez, states that “Dr. Álvarez was a leader who motivated her team to deliver research results and face new challenges every day, always emphasizing the importance of learning new things and teaching others never to give up, despite the obstacles. In addition, she always promoted respect among co-workers, as well as from leaders to their teams.”

It is most satisfying to refer to points in which everyone agrees – Elizabeth had high scientific standards for herself and her team. She would often require them to repeat an experiment over and over again to be completely sure of the results. She was also especially successful in obtaining grants from local and regional funding agencies, such as FONTAGRO and the Colombian General Royalties System, as well as from international donors, such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the  United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Although there will always be much more to highlight about Dr. Álvarez, this is what the members of the Cassava Program at CIAT have expressed to her with a see you soon and a sincere thank you for dedicating her scientific career to conduct research at CIAT. There is no doubt that those are the reasons for which she will be remembered as one of the most passionate and productive female scientists from the organization.

Special thanks go to:

Luis Augusto Becerra
Hernán Ceballos
Zulma Zamora
Clair Hershey
Germán Llano

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