BACKGROUND: What is your current professional position, title, affiliation, responsibilities? How long have you been in this position?
I am currently a postdoctoral fellow, studying Wheat Breeding and Genetics at the Crop Development Center, Department of Plant Sciences at University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada. I joined the program in 2013, and have been working there for almost three years now. My responsibilities include preforming selection experiments, publishing research, and contributing to proposal and grant report writing. In addition I conduct independent research in durum wheat genetic mapping, association mapping, and utilize next generation sequencing technologies for marker discovery. My research involves the development of genomic selection methods for improvement of durum wheat, the application of genotype x sequence technology to durum wheat breeding, and the expansion of genetic maps and consensus maps of durum wheat.
Who or what inspired you to work in wheat science and research and why?
Most of my family, including my parents, are farmers. The returns on their farms are hardly enough to support them. One of my childhood dreams was to see Ethiopian farmers using improved seeds and other yield enhancing inputs. In pursuing this dream, I attended Awassa College of Agriculture and obtained my B.Sc. from the Department of Plant Sciences. Right after my graduation, I joined the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) as a junior researcher in the national wheat improvement program. I studied so many aspects of wheat research, including collecting local varieties from farmers, generating improved wheat cultivars, and developing farm management practices.
After two years with EIAR, I attended Addis Ababa University to complete my MSc in applied genetics. It was there that I decided I wanted to travel abroad to study modern plant breeding techniques and methods. In late 2008, I received a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service to earn my PhD in gene and genome mapping from the University of Kassel in collaboration with the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK). There I met Dr. Marion Röder, team leader of the Gene and Genome Mapping group at PIK, Gatersleben, Germany. She became my supervisor, advising me during my four-year PhD study and research, and my role model as well. She is an inspiring and very talented scientist who relentlessly devotes her time to the development of wheat science.
As a young professional in wheat breeding and genetics, my role models include my current supervisor Professor Curtis Pozniak, Head of Wheat Breeding and Genetics and Chair of Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program, who shared his vast experience with modern wheat breeding skills and techniques with me. In his lab, I’ve had the opportunity to learn marker assisted selection and the application of genotype by sequencing technologies in wheat breeding. Another role model is Dr. Bedada Girma, the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) representative in Ethiopia, and one of the terrific scientists who contributed tremendously to the distribution of improved wheat varieties in Ethiopia. Last but not least, Dr. Norman Borlaug is an inspiration as he greatly advanced the development of high yielding, semi dwarf and disease resistance wheat varieties, food security and the development of BGRI.
What effect did the WIT Early Career Award have on your professional development?
When I applied for the award, I had just begun my PhD and winning the award helped me to expand my personal and professional circle and introduced me to the other supremely talented awardees. Attending conferences and symposiums has allowed me to understand how each of us fit in the bigger picture of combatting stem rust, Ug99, and how to feed the world equitably and sustainably.
The award provides several advantages for young wheat scientists. Winning the award allowed me to train at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which was an amazing experience for an early career scientist working on wheat, such as myself. Additionally, I had the chance to participate in three consecutive BGRI meetings, where I learned a lot and was able to network with other researchers working on wheat. The competition gave me the opportunity to refine and better understand my research. I curated a network to exchange scientific information and learn about other cultures.
Being a WIT winner has motivated me to make an even greater effort to improve wheat productivity and has made me more strongly committed to feeding the world.
What are you currently working on, and how does it relate to wheat production and/or food security in your country?
Currently I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. I’ve been developing genomic selection methods for the improvement of durum wheat, participating in durum wheat genetic mapping, association mapping, and utilizing next generation sequencing technologies for marker discovery.
The world population exceeds 7 billion, and to feed this expanding population, food production must increase by an estimated 70 percent. To meet this challenge, we need to develop new varieties and more efficient breeding strategies that integrate genomic technologies and high throughput phenotyping to better utilize genetic variation and shorten the time required to release the variety. These approaches will benefit farmers all over the world.
Which recent scientific discoveries or new technologies do you think will affect wheat production in the next 10-15 years?
I believe marker assisted breeding including genomic selection, application of next-generation sequencing technologies for wheat breeding, hybrid wheat and double haploid wheat technologies will most significantly contribute to wheat production in coming years.
If you had access to unlimited funding toward wheat research as it relates to food security and improving life of small scale farmers, how would you invest it?
Establishing modern labs would greatly help the application of marker assisted selection and shorten the breeding cycle. This would also help to generate improved varieties in a shorter period of time and enable farmers to get new varieties continuously, in turn minimizing rust problems, particularly in East Africa.
What advice do you have for other women who are beginning their careers in agricultural science?
Having won the WIT Early Career Award and being well on my way to becoming a successful scientist, I hope to become a role model for young professionals, particularly African women who are considering a career in agricultural science. Students often consider agriculture to be uncool; however, anyone who delves deeper into the science of agriculture will discover that it is an exciting area to explore, and covers many areas one can venture into. Studying agriculture does not mean missing out on opportunities, I am living proof of that. Therefore, I urge students to take interest in global developments in agricultural sciences and technologies with the aim of bringing food security to the world.
While earning my PhD it was difficult to balance family and career, and required me to make some sacrifices in my family life I value so much. Based on my experiences – a period of hard work and the success I enjoyed at the end of it – I advise women to strive to excel in scientific careers where men have dominated. In general, to become a productive scientist, you need tenacity and determination. And, I am convinced that women have an advantage when it comes to developing and nurturing these skills. It all begins with having the enthusiasm to overcome social pressures.