César Cardona Mejía: Goodbye to the man who didn’t mince words

21 June, 2013 by (comments)

p1_ccardona“He was one of the most rigorous, sharply focused, and productive scientists CIAT has ever had. Like Tony Bellotti, he was a giant of CGIAR entomology and made a unique contribution to CIAT’s research in Colombia and Latin America.” With these comments, Joe Tohme, director of CIAT’s Agrobiodiversity Research Area, summed up the brilliant scientific career of César Cardona Mejía.

Cardona, who died last Wednesday, 19 June, in Cali, led a life full of scientific and personal success. The news of his passing caused sadness but also brought forth praise from his many colleagues and friends at CIAT, in Colombia, and throughout the region.

CIAT has made available a special website where friends and colleagues can share thoughts, memories, and photos as well as condolences for the Cardona family.

Cardona built his extraordinary career on a solid academic foundation. After receiving an undergraduate degree in agronomy from the National University of Colombia in Palmira, he did his master’s degree in entomology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he also completed his Ph.D.

In the years that followed, Cardona led many projects, contributing importantly to agricultural science and rural development, and he published numerous journal articles and other documents, many of which received national and international recognition. He shared his knowledge in other ways as well, participating in conferences, workshops, and seminars and directing the thesis research of M.Sc. and Ph.D. candidates. Many students who were privileged to work under Cardona’s guidance have gone on to gain recognition of their own.

“When you know what you’re talking about, you needn’t hesitate to share your knowledge.” This was a key premise of Cardona’s career, and it accounts for his dedication to students at the National University of Colombia and University of Valle, where he was a professor, and to generations of young scientists at CIAT.

“My parents raised me to be a good person, but Dr. Cardona made me into a professional; what I know I owe to him,” said Juan Miguel Buento, a researcher working in CIAT’s Bean Program.

p2_ccardonaCardona joined the Bean Program in 1978, where he pursued several lines of outstanding research, with emphasis on developing genetic resistance to pests together with simple but effective strategies for integrated pest management, which farmers could readily adopt. He’s especially remembered for his pioneering work on resistance to Zabrotes bruchids, an important pest of beans in storage, whose damage forces farmers to sell beans soon after harvest rather than wait for a better price. Cardona also led work on resistance or tolerance to the bean pod weevil in Central America and to Empoasca leaf hoppers as well as Thrips palmi. In addition, he spearheaded work on integrated management of snap beans in Colombia and Ecuador.

Another of his students and friends, Guillermo Sotelo, a researcher with CIAT’s Tropical Forages Program, remembers Cardona as “a teacher and guiding light, who changed entomology in Colombia and Latin America. Through indefatigable efforts, he was able to develop bean varieties with resistance to various pests in Colombia and around the world. We’ve lost a truly great scientist.”

CIAT statistician Myriam Cristina Duque was also among Cardona’s perpetual students, while working in diverse projects that involved biotechnology and agrobiodiversity, including rice improvement. She’s grateful to Cardona for the many things she learned from him day by day during more than 2 decades of collaborative work.

In a message that Duque sent Cardona in 2001, she said: “In your seminars, you always get right to the point. You provide constant proof that there’s no inherent conflict between clarity and depth. Everything you said at the beginning was necessary for grasping the conclusion. You didn’t just give a seminar but a complete course on entomology, ecology, teamwork, and model presentations.”

“A plant breeder couldn’t ask for a better collaborator,” added John Miles, a tropical forages breeder, who has been with CIAT for 34 years.

But CIAT was not the only research organization that benefitted from Cardona’s expertise and erudition. He began his career with the Colombian Agriculture and Livestock Institute (ICA), where he formed part of a group called “ICA’s seven samurai.”

He also worked with the National Cotton Growers Federation and served for 4 years with the International Center for Agriculture in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). In addition, he was a founding member of the Colombian Entomological Society (SOCOLEN). All of these organizations mourn his passing.

p3_ccardonaAnother of Cardona’s passions besides entomology was soccer football; he was an avid fan of the Deportivo Cali team. When the FIFA World Cup games were underway, it wasn’t unusual to see him taking a portable television somewhere to watch the games.

This facet of Cardona’s personality contrasted strikingly with that of the serious and somewhat hot-tempered scientist. Those who worked with him agree, though, that he mellowed significantly after becoming a grandfather.

Steve Beebe, leader of CIAT’s Bean Program and a close friend and colleague of Cardona’s, remembers him “for his sense of humor and humanity.  In times of budgetary stress, when staffing cuts seemed imminent, César suffered at the thought of having to terminate the contract of any of his workers. Outwardly tough, César won the loyalty and affection of all his staff and colleagues without exception.”

Five years ago, Cardona retired from CIAT. Just before his departure, he ordered dozens of books on history, which he read while enjoying the view of Cali from his home on the outskirts of the city.

Last Wednesday, after a prolonged illness, the researcher took his leave – he who never settled for mediocre work, who always expected 100 percent commitment, who shared every prize with the whole team, and who, when he needed to concentrate, put a sign on his door saying, “I’m here but I’m not here.”

Another of Cardona’s favorite phrases, which hundreds of students and friends will remember, is that when you’re reporting scientific results, “you don’t mince words.”

CIAT bids farewell to this incomparable scientist, teacher, and friend.

Filed Under: Beans @en, Crops @en, Tropical Forages