From Peru to CSU

Oct 012006
Authors: Brandon Owens The Rocky Mountain Collegian

Jorge M. Vivanco grew up in Lima, Peru, right next to the Pacific Ocean, not far from the Andes mountain range and only a two-hour plane ride away from the Amazon rainforest.

He’s come a long way.

Vivanco is now an associate professor of rhizosphere biology at CSU and has brought in $5 million in research money through various grants since he came to CSU in 2000.

He has had quite the journey from Peru to CSU. Growing up in Lima, a city of eight million people, he attended Holy Name of Jesus, a private Catholic school.

Vivanco learned English at this school, which was led by American nuns and priests.

His biggest hardship growing up was dealing with the Shining Path, a Maoist guerilla movement in the 1980s. He remembers the exploding car bombs and slashed electrical lines causing huge power outages.

“It was pretty bad in some parts of Lima,” he said. “Several people immigrated because they weren’t safe. For me, it was mainly an inconvenience.”

Having three siblings, including a brother who is finishing his doctorate at CSU, Vivanco considers his family a typical upper middle-class family. His father was a scientist who worked for the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture.

“I first became interested in plants in high school through interactions with my father,” Vivanco said.

He earned his graduate degree in Peru and then decided to come to the United States where he could pursue his dream of becoming a biologist. He earned his doctorate degree at Penn State and did his post doctorate work at Rutgers.

For his most current project, he received $1.1 million from the National Science Foundation in May for the study of a group of proteins that are involved in the secretion of chemicals out of the root.

The study is led by Vivanco and Frank Stermitz, a professor of chemistry.

Stermitz has been working with Vivanco for six years.

“I’m basically the chemist of the project,” Stermitz said. “I think we make a great team.”

Five other people are involved in the project including one undergraduate, one Ph.D. student and three post-doctorate scientists.

Valerie Stull, an English and nutritional science double major, has been working with Vivanco as a research assistant since her freshman year. She usually works 10 to 15 hours in the lab per week.

“He’s a good boss and a very intelligent person,” Stull said.

His research is done on the third floor of the Shepardson Building. The lab consists of three rooms.

Hundreds of Petri dishes and flasks full of plants lay strewn throughout. Several sunlight lamps – used to nourish the plants – brighten the room.

Vivanco explains that the research from this study will be helpful in determining how plants protect themselves from diseases and weeds. Although the research will be conducted on a model plant species, the findings may also be useful for larger purposes in fighting disease in humans.

As an outreach component of this project, in June 2006 members of the Center of Rhizosphere Biology spent two weeks in the Tambopata rainforest in Peru. According to Vivanco, they will make further research trips during the upcoming year.

Vivanco returned from Brazil last month, where he gave a talk for the Latin America Genetics Conference. He leaves the country for related purposes about five times per year.

“I enjoy training young scientists,” he said. “I’m always excited to find new discoveries and I enjoy incorporating my research into my classes.”

Vivanco said his current study has already produced a major breakthrough.

“In the past, people thought root secretions were a passive process,” he said. “Our research is showing that this is not necessarily accurate and that plants can control these secretions.”

This new development could potentially have a major impact on how the subject is taught.

“It’s exciting to know that we can possibly change a textbook depending on the results of this project,” Vivanco said.

Staff writer Brandon Owens can be reached at

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