Put out your runners

Natália Peres a UF/IFAS professor of plant pathology and expert on strawberries, delivered the commencement address at three ceremonies Friday and Saturday in the O’Connell Center. Here are her remarks as prepared for the Friday evening ceremony for master’s and bachelor’s graduates.

Graduates… families…

If today I am the first professor who is not based in Gainesville to give a commencement speech, it is because President Sasse was the first UF president to visit our research campus in Balm!

Thank you, President Sasse, for this great honor.

Graduates, never, even in my dreams, would I have imagined being here to speak to you and to congratulate you. It’s a privilege and a joy… almost as sweet as the strawberries I care for. But my story did not start out as sweet as it feels to be with you today.

When I came to UF from my native Brazil, the strawberry growers I'd been asked to help were not that thrilled.

Strawberries are expensive to grow and susceptible to many diseases. However, my PhD, and nearly all my academic research, focused on citrus, not strawberries.

On top of that, my English wasn’t great. The growers complained they couldn’t understand me -- and to be honest, I often couldn’t understand their Southern accent either. I also was not the candidate they wanted in the first place. They wanted someone else they had worked with for many years who had much more experience.

I will admit it was a tough way to start my new job. I felt like a young strawberry plant that had been planted in the wrong soil.

But let me tell you something about strawberries. 

Even though every single berry has about 200 seeds on it, strawberries don’t often spread by their seeds. They spread by growing “runners,” which are basically green shoots that stretch out horizontally across the soil, where they root and start a new plant.

It wasn’t an easy start, but I resolved to send out runners, by extending my research to the growers despite their doubts.

My science -- what I learned during my PhD – would be my “way in.”
Just as the specialized knowledge that you all have gained at UF should be your “way in” to your next challenge.

While researching citrus, I had developed a forecasting system that enabled citrus growers to spray much less than usual to prevent an important disease. I believed a similar system would also work with strawberries. However, I needed to do some field research to prove it, and that was a hard sell. Growers have to invest $30,000 to grow just one acre of strawberries, so they are understandably very averse to risks.
But by being patient and persistent, by putting out my runners, I managed to connect with one grower. 

I convinced him to give me three beds, which is just a fraction of an acre, to try my system. The results were good, so I asked again the next year, and he gave me 10 beds. The results were good again, so the next year, he gave me an acre – and again, the results were good.

By the fourth year, he wanted to use the system on his entire farm. This time, it was me who put on the brakes! I had to convince him to stick with his old system for a few beds, so that we would have a control to compare the old system with the new one.

To make a long story short, my forecasting system proved to be a great success. I’m very proud to say, it is now adopted by the majority of strawberry growers in Florida. They get text messages on their phones to alert them when there is a risk for disease, and it has helped them cut spraying on their farms by about half!

Graduates, you’re heading off to workplaces where you may be the newest hire, or graduate schools where you may be the newest student. Where others may have far more experience than you. Where because you’re new or different or not the person everyone expected, you’ll have to win people over.

Rest assured, your time at UF has prepared you well. Do not lose heart. I want you to remember: Put out your runners!

Reach out with the knowledge and expertise that you have gained in engineering, medicine, nursing, veterinary medicine or public health and health professions. 

Reach out, because you and your 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.

But making these connections may take more than your knowledge or expertise, as important as those things are. It may take sacrifice. It may take directing your energy and time to others, more so than to yourself.

Your family members and loved ones helped you get here today with their own sacrifices, just like my family did for me. I encourage you to do the same, when needed, for others, as you put out your own runners and build your own connections.

Your mentors will also help you to flourish.

I did my master’s degree on a disease that was new to citrus in Brazil.  My advisor there helped me for a long time, but when he couldn’t help me anymore, he urged me to go abroad to study with the expert on that disease. This is how I first came to UF, to the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. 

Dr. Pete Timmer at the Citrus Center opened his doors and took me under his wing, even though I could barely speak English at the time. I thrived under his kind guidance, completing two internships and part of my PhD, and then working for him as a post-doc, before getting hired at UF full time nearly four years later.

We should be grateful to all the UF mentors here or who are watching from afar. And graduates, I hope you follow in their footsteps by mentoring others in your own careers ahead.

From my family and mentors I learned that when putting out your runners, when making your connections, it’s extremely important to reach people on a human level.

The success of my forecasting system was critical because the grower saw that he could spray less and make more. But it also mattered that I spent one-on-one time with him on his farm, asking all kinds of questions, learning about his business, getting to know each other.

By spending time with the people in your new workplaces and communities, by having open conversations, and especially by listening, you’ll win people over. You’ll strengthen your connections, get established, and start building even more connections to help you spread your great ideas and improve lives for all people.

This gets me to the last part of my speech, which is about failure.

In November I was called to a farm where the strawberry plants were sick and dying.

There was nothing I could do. The plants were infected with a disease when they came from the nursery. Sometimes I have to tell the growers they face a total loss. And it is really hard when I have to break that news.

Sometimes in your careers, you’ll fail or come up short, and you’ll have to disappoint people and yourself. I’ve cried with growers after bad seasons.

When this happens, I urge you to believe in your work. Believe in yourself and your abilities, even when it’s hard. And when you succeed, celebrate success with those you serve. 

If you do this … if you keep your runners out in good times and bad … and if you strengthen and build your connections … those who you serve will want to celebrate your successes.

President Sasse mentioned my work with AI. In 2018, a new disease emerged in strawberry fields. It was quite destructive. We quickly had to figure out that it was caused by a new strain of a fungus. We then developed a quick PCR method that is now used to provide rapid diagnosis to growers. 

But, considering we have over 200 million strawberry plants in our Florida fields, we are limited on how much we can test. That is where AI comes in. We are now testing a system will allow growers to identify the disease on their phones. Our goal is to expand to where we would be able to map entire fields to catch the disease early and much more quickly than any other technology. 

I want to tell you this: 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.

Partly because of those partnerships and those friendships, we’ve spread great ideas, and we’ve done important things. Florida is the leading producer of strawberries during the winter, with 12,000 acres and over $300M in annual revenue. 

Rather than a point of contention, my accent now is a friendly joke between me and the growers. In fact, when the growers heard about this speech, they gave me a hard time, saying I would need to work on my pronunciation.

But really, they were proud of me!

As I am proud of you today. 

Gator graduates, go out and spread out your runners. 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. 

Thank you and congratulations! Go Gators!

UF News December 16, 2023