With a few clicks and taps on a cellphone, the timeline of a seedling of corn is preserved forever.
Dario Alavez Mercado is responsible for this simple yet effective method of recording the growth of corn from seedling to maturity.
“I know that only by understanding the things that surround us and trying to solve problems with the help of the scientific method, will we be a society better prepared to face the challenges that will come in the future,” Alavez Mercado said.
The research assistant in the David Mendoza-Cózatl Mendoza lab at Bond LSC works with corn on a daily basis. He takes photos and videos to eventually present during lab meetings. Right now, the content he obtains is stored solely on his computer, but he hopes to expand his outreach beyond his own research bubble in the future.
“I am hoping to let other students and programs use the images after completion to further research in other areas and help others,” Alavez Mercado said.
When corn is grown in the soil, it yields slower results, so Alavez Mercado uses a hydroponic system where the corn develops in a water-based solution, to follow its progress faster.
The shutter releases, and Alavez Mercado snaps a picture at each identifiable change of the plant, capturing a constant record of the plant’s traits over time, such as yellow stripes appearing on the leaves, as an early plant signal of eventual demise due to a nutrient deficiency. He uses a cellphone because he feels it is more consistent with lighting changes and does not alter the photos in any way.
“If you modify something such as an image in science, it is no longer true,” Alavez Mercado said.
Alavez Mercado’s beliefs on non-altered images closely align with the work he does and how he makes sure the corn receives the same nutrients, time, and attention that it needs to prosper and monitors when it starts to deteriorate.
His prior work with corn while getting his bachelors and masters degrees was one constant in the midst of many life changes.
Originally from Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, Alavez Mercado found the move to the United States in 2019 to be one he had to get used to. He describes how he left his first day in the lab at Bond LSC as a mix of many different emotions.
“It was a very strange feeling, because I was excited, being able to have new challenges, new goals and new colleagues, but it was also scary, because I couldn’t communicate with my colleagues. But, I am proud to know that I have the trust of my boss to be able to work in his laboratory,” Alavez Mercado said.
Alavez Mercado and his wife, Miriam Nancy Salazar Vidal, relocated to Columbia due to her getting a job as a Postdoctoral Researcher in Sherry Flint-Garcia Lab within the Plant Sciences department working with corn as well.
Alavez Mercado’s knowledge about corn comes from his life in Mexico.
He was previously a professor at the Higher Technological Institute of Abasolo (ITESA) in Guanajuato, Mexico. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in biochemical engineering from the Technological Institute of Tepic, and his master’s degree in biology from the University of Guanajuato.
When Alavez Mercado and his wife moved to the United States he found the language barrier to be particularly difficult to overcome, but an obstacle he was willing to tackle in the name of science.
“Every time I communicate it is complicated, and I don’t understand in a lot of different situations. But it is getting easier over time,” Alavez Mercado said.
To help with the learning process Alavez Mercado has started taking an English as a Second Language (ESL) class through the Columbia College Public Scholar program. He also finds support at Bond LSC in his daily work environment.
“My coworkers would just say, ‘It’s fine, don’t worry, we can go slow,’ and that would make me feel better,” Alavez Mercado said.
Much like piecing together pictures of corn in its growth process or learning a new language bit by bit, Alavez Mercado spends his time away from the lab putting LEGO bricks together. This is a new hobby that Alavez Mercado picked up in addition building scale-model cars, a pastime he has had for years.
“My wife got me into Legos because she has always been good at them and I wanted to give it a try,” Alavez Mercado said.
He enjoys the quiet and calm nature of Columbia, much like his environment in the lab.
“I learn new things every day from the people around me and continue to grow together with them,” Alavez Mercado said.
Alavez Mercado’s drive to help others is what motivates him to continue cataloging moments in the lifespan of corn and spread that information to a larger audience.
“I feel very good, when talking with one of my colleagues or with my boss, and they have doubts or discussions about the work they are doing and being able to help them achieve results makes me feel incredible.”