Pandemic puts a hold on lettuce research JP Dundore-Arias and his road to agronomy

JP Dundore-Arias | Photos by David Royal


By Aparna Sreenivasan

Jose Pablo “JP” Dundore-Arias had big plans for his paternity leave during the Spring semester this year at CSU Monterey Bay. While on leave he would gather eight to 10 undergraduates to work on two ambitious agriculture-related projects. His research had already been interrupted the previous autumn, after he adopted his baby Bruno.

Then, on March 13 the entire CSUMB campus shut down because of COVID-19 .

“I struggled because I was stressed and frustrated because I could not do my work,” said Dundore-Arias, 36. “But at the same time, no one will die if my research cannot be done immediately but (other) people out there are putting their lives at risk every day.”

When Dundore-Arias first came to the United States 14 years ago from his home in San Jose, Costa Rica, to attend university, he was told by someone in Iowa State’s admissions office staff, “you are lucky to be here, because no one wanted you except Mark Gleason.”

“He saw a spark in me,” says Dundore-Arias.

Gleason is a professor of plant pathology and microbiology at Iowa State, and what he saw was the kind of potential that all professors hope to find. The two met while Dundore-Arias was an undergraduate travel exchange student and then again in Costa Rica a year later. An agronomy major, he spoke next to no English. So when Gleeson gave him a mini tutorial about graduate schools, it was the push Arias needed to begin intensive English lessons, to take his GREs, and to apply to Iowa State, he says.

“My family had a hard time allowing me to come to the U.S. because they weren’t aware of what graduate school was,” he says.

Raised by his grandmother while his mother worked (his father was not in the picture), there were many economic struggles, “We didn’t have a car, and that remains vivid in my mind,” he says.

This perspective served him well. Even as a grad student with a tiny salary, living frugally, he was able — like many immigrants do — to send money back to his family and travel back to Costa Rica to visit.   

He says his exposure to nature (and a subsequent love of science) came from his grandfather, while the desire to accomplish and be something, came from his uncle, his two main male influences. “My grandpa was the one who exposed me to agriculture,” he says, “he took us to pick coffee and taught us how to catch birds in the mountains.”

Plant pathology was his favorite class in college. And it just happened to be Gleason’s focus. So working for a plant pathologist in a plant pathology department was, “double motivation” to attend school in Iowa, Dundore-Arias says.

“He had the brains, energy level and interpersonal skills,” says Gleason, “but the way they came together was remarkable.”

Fourteen years later, after getting his Masters degree, his PhD, and doing two postdocs, Dundore-Arias is a new assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry at CSUMB. He and his partner, Brent Dundore-Arias, moved to the Monterey Bay in August of 2019. And their little son Bruno is now 9 months old.


JP Dundore-Arias | Provided photo

Dundore-Arias said he chose CSUMB because of its student population, like-minded faculty, and that it would be a good place to raise a family. “When I see our students, I see myself — the student that didn’t have a strong background (as a) first generation, English as a second language..”

“Someone saw something in me,” he said, “And I want to create those same types of opportunities for others.”

These days, with restrictions still limiting students on campus, Dundore-Arias IS his lab. ”I do the whole pipeline: from writing the grants, to doing the dishes, and taking out the trash.”

One part of Dundore-Arias’ research focuses on identifying a new lettuce pathogen, called Pythium, that is plaguing Salinas Valley farmers. The project, supported by a grant from the California Leafy Greens Research Board, requires collecting field samples, and testing them in the lab using molecular biology techniques. The project uses a blog to entice farmers to participate.

The testing is offered free to the growers, and really helps the industry.

“I have been very lucky to have a great collaborator at the Monterey County cooperative extension, Farm Advisor Richard Smith,” said Dundore-Arias. Smith helps Arias by collecting the samples. When they go to the fields, they practice social distancing, and wear masks, but it’s not a comfortable affair.

“I thought wearing masks was hard, but in the fields it’s so hot,” he says.

As things begin to open up, so will his research lab. He will have a local student working in the lab 20 hours a week starting in August as long as the shelter-in-place orders are lifted.

“I get a great perspective of what the people in the field have to go through every day,” he says. “And at least I still can offer the industry some support during this time.”

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About Aparna Sreenivasan

Aparna Sreenivasan is an Associate Professor of Genetics and Molecular Biology at California State University Monterey Bay, and a science writer. She lives in Pacific Grove with her husband and two children.