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WSU plant pathology PhD student learns from Tidal Leadership

A doctoral degree candidate in the WSU plant pathology department originally from Colombia, South America, Cristian Olaya knew he was a natural leader, but knew he could be much more.

“I wanted to improve,” he said. “There are always things to learn.”

Olaya working in the plant pathology department

His leadership journey started from a very young age. He served as a Boy Scout from age 10-17 and was a class representative in athletics in high school.

“With my activities I was always the person to talk to and lead,” he said.

He received his bachelor’s in agronomic engineering in Manizales, Colombia before working on plant cytogenetics and plant virus disease diagnostics on crops such ascassava, rice, beans, tropical grasses and Andean fruits at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) for 12 years.

In addition to research, he volunteered in the wellbeing area of the company, helping to organize sports activities as well as serving as a committee representative for safety within the company.

While working full-time at CIAT, he received his masters’ in agricultural sciences with meritorious distinction on this thesis, but wanted to advance his career.

He started looking for doctoral programs where he stumbled upon Washington State University. He was surprised to find over 200 different crops grew in Washington State, a kind of crop diversity he had in his country, Colombia.

Before he left to go, a friend returned from the states to Colombia and gave him a keychain which turned out to have the WSU logo on it.

“I thought, ‘This is my destiny,'” he said.

Through his research now, Olaya works under Dr. Hanu Pappu, looking at various aspects of the genomics and proteomics tospoviruses at a molecular level, using tomatoes as hosts. In addition, Olaya has volunteer as GPSA senator and as Plant Pathology Graduate Student Organization vice president for two years as well as part of the organizer committee for WSU plant science symposium in 2017.

Olaya stumbled upon the Tidal Leadership Program in Fall 2015, helping him recognize what skills needed improving.

Through the program, he was able to identify his core values, looking at his life honestly and recognizing if he lived through them or not.

From there, he was able to learn a lot about himself: when he stood as a leader or a follower, what weaknesses and strengths he had and how to turn all of that into improvement and positivity in his own life and others.

“I learned not only how to be a leader for others, but be a leader for myself, this is a daily process.” he said.

Through improving his own life and others, his final message to the class was to be the best self you can be.

“Enjoy 100 percent of your life, honoring who you are,” he said.


Katie Shadler, PR Specialist