Fernando De La Torre

Graduate Student - Cranberry Genetics and Genomics Laboratory


Juan Zalapa

Research Focus

Cranberry Genetics and Genomics Lab, USDA-ARS-VCRU


San Diego, CA

Where did you complete your undergraduate/master’s/PhD?

UCLA, B.S. Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology (2018)

What is your research about and what is the impact? How does it relate to the horticulture industry, what is the goal?

Our research at CGGL, in general, tackles projects dealing with the selection, improvement, and production of cranberry plants (and the cranberries they produce). The cranberry plant belongs to a larger group of plants called ‘Vaccinium’, which also include the blueberry, lingonberry, and bilberry plants (and their fruits). Each of these plants are of the same genus, but different species. That being said, there are rare and random events whereby these plants can breed between species — generating ‘hybrid’ plants in the process. My projects in particular are about harnessing these rare ‘hybridization’ events, and making them more predictable, so that plant breeders can generate Vaccinium plants and berries with different flavor profiles, shapes, etc. — in essence, generating unique plants and berries from the characteristics that exists among all Vaccinium plants. Wisconsin is the largest producer of cranberries in the USA and the world — making it a great place to study this plant, its relatives, and their fruits!

Why did you choose UW-Madison? What is your favorite part of Madison?

My favorite professor at UCLA, who taught my first course in plant development, had been a PhD student at UW-Madison so that put the school on my radar initially. Then, as I concluded a fellowship with the US Forest Service in Davis, CA and sought-out additional research opportunities in agriculture, I looked to UW-Madison — which my USFS advisor lauded as an institution with a strong history in agricultural research. Filled with optimism, I moved to Madison in 2019, started networking, and ultimately applied to the PBPG program. I started the program in Spring 2021!

My favorite part about Madison is the pace of life; not too fast, not too slow — just right for focusing on my education, amongst top minds in agriculture, and having a bit of fun along the way!

What was the path you took to work in plant sciences? And then what advice would you give to your younger self to get into the field/career you are in today? 

I grew up in the dense urban centers of Southern California, which are a far cry from the iconic green fields of Wisconsin. That being said, during college and after only having lived in large cities, I started asking myself where all the food, plants, and flowers that made their way to city stores came from. As a child, I absolutely loved documentaries about the natural world, but had somehow forgotten that such a world existed beyond the city. This is when I mobilized in my last year at UCLA to learn as much as I could about plants, and find an opportunity to work in plant research upon graduating.

The advice I would give my younger self is to “follow your own path”. Like most students, I often got caught-up in trying to emulate the success of other students, as if there was only one such way to excel. And over time, I found that the only way that anyone excels is by doing what they enjoy, finding and/or developing their own unique talents and building on them over time.

In my case, I enjoy caring for and collecting data about the plants that I’m studying, but I also like being outside in the fields, digging holes, harvesting fruit, or collecting plant samples; I enjoy thinking quantitatively when I’m running computer-assisted analytics or reading research publications, but I also like thinking on my feet and getting my hands dirty in the field. Being multi-dimensional in this way keeps me excited and motivated to do the best work that I can for the Wisconsin cranberry industry, and the plant sciences community at large.