November 7, 2014 –This issue, Fort Valley State University is featuring Safira Sutton, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s plant pathology program, as our featured alum.
Sutton recently received a $9,500 Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program grant to conduct research into fruit blotch, a pathogen that infects cucurbits, or gourd plants that include melons and squashes. The disease spreads through infected seeds from the plants.
“I’m working in plant pathology,” Sutton said. “I’m conducting research into bacterial pathogens that infect cucurbits like watermelon and squash gourds, and finding ways to control it. It’s hard to prevent disease, so I’m looking into the best management practices to curb it, and this sustainability grant will provide me with funding to research a biocontrol (or natural means) to reduce the pathogen. I will inoculate watermelon blossoms with a biocontrol to try and reduce the spread of disease.”
Sutton was born in Central America in the country of Panama. The FVSU alumna, however, spent the majority of her childhood in Warner Robins, Ga. Sutton stayed in Middle Georgia through her sophomore year in high school, before moving to Mapleton, Ga. to spend time with her father. The future scientist graduated with her high school diploma from Pebble Brook High School in 2002.
Sutton, who enjoyed playing basketball, decided to apply for college at the University of Texas-El Paso. She earned a spot on college’s basketball team, and decided to major in business management.
“I was a really big athlete, when I first got to college,” Sutton said. “You think that you want to be far away from home when you enter college, but for me, it was too big of a change, too fast. The environment wasn’t enjoyable, and I missed my mom and family, so I decided to move closer to home.”
Sutton decided to enroll at FVSU.
“My time at Fort Valley State was very positive,” Sutton said. “On campus, I was not just another number. At big schools, you walk around, and no one really knows you. You get that isolation feeling that people don’t want to talk to you on campus. Being at FVSU was different, because it is more of a hands-on environment. I met a lot of people.”
Her mother, Denise Ezell, worked in the university’s Registrar’s Office. Her mother introduced her to Dr. Sarwan Dhir, who introduced her to the world of biotechnology. The meeting changed her life.
“It might seem like a big change switching from business management to plant biotechnology, but speaking to Dr. Dhir was an eye-opening experience,” the FVSU alumna said. “I never thought about biotechnology as exciting. Dr. Dhir took us to meet people that worked within the field, and to network with them. Afterward, I really learned about the field, I became really excited about biotechnology research.”
Sutton began transformations (or genetic alterations of cells using an uptake of genetic material like DNA) in plants.
“I did transformations of tomatoes with Dr. Seema Dhir, an assistant professor of biology,” Sutton said. “It was great mentorship program. When any student was struggling in classes, they would find students that could help you, or have set up a meeting in class to help. Dr. Sarwan Dhir (director of FVSU’s biotechnology program) made sure that I had the classes I needed if I wanted to go an advance degree outside of Fort Valley State.”
Sutton said that Dr. Sarwan Dhir made sure she had the laboratory experience necessary to excel as a graduate student and a researcher.
“Even in FVSU’s plant biotech department, it was a close-knit family,” she said. “If someone was struggling we’d get together and help each other. When we went to conferences, we would practice with one another to make sure our presentations were right.”
Sutton graduated from FVSU in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in plant science and biotechnology. In 2011, the alumna earned a master’s degree from Florida A&M University in plant science and biotechnology. She is currently earning a doctorate from the University of Georgia’s plant pathology program.
Sutton has this advice for biotechnology students. “My advice is to over-prepare when studying for classes and take advantage of any opportunity to meet people. Work hard, and make the teachers tell that you’re writing or doing too much, because FVSU is a very different environment from big universities, so you want to make sure you do more at all times. Also, definitely walk through and meet your professors.”
Sutton, who hopes to pursue a career in research and development with Monsanto after earning her doctorate, had this advice for FVSU students.
“I would say go for your dreams, and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Sutton said. “Don’t be afraid not to know, and ask your professors questions. Sometimes you’ll get intimidated, but not asking questions is what makes you look stupid. Don’t be afraid to fail, because that’s what will help you to succeed. Struggling doesn’t mean you’ll fail. You just have to keep pushing, and never give up.”
Christina D. Milton,writer/Social Media Specialist
Fort Valley State University
Office of Marketing and Communications