WIT Profile: Esraa Alwan '10

Tessa Schneider
Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Esraa Alwan, a native of Syria, won the Women in Triticum Early Career Award in 2010. She received her undergraduate degree in Agricultural Engineering from Aleppo University in Syria, during which she also completed an MSc in conjunction with ICARDA. The BGRI is launching a series of profiles based on WIT winner's answers to seven questions as we follow them, their careers, and the science that motivates them.

What is your current professional position, title, affiliation, responsibilities? How long have you been in this position? I am currently a fourth year PhD student in the Crop and Soil Science Department at Washington State University. My research focuses on biotic/abiotic resistance breeding to effectively control current threats to wheat production worldwide in an attempt to reduce yield losses and ensure sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis. I am presently a member of the National Association of Plant Breeders (NAPB) and the Crop Science Society of America. Previously, I worked as a research assistant in the ICARDA Biodiversity and the Integrated Gene Management Program (BIGM).My MSc research focused on the identification of new sources of resistance to wheat stem rust from wild tetraploid species.

Who or what inspired you to work in wheat science and research and why? I have always had a passion for agriculture and a desire to be part of a system that would help feed the hungry. Wheat is a leading cereal crop in Syria and globally feeds 35% of the world population. Wheat production, however, is not reaching its full potential; there is an urgent need to increase food production at the same or at an increased rate in order to cope with an increasing population. Therefore, I want to contribute to improving wheat productivity and to ensuring access to safe and healthy food worldwide.

My passion has amplified during my time with ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas). It was exciting to link the knowledge I acquired from years of study at college with practical experience I learned in the field. I also had the opportunity to interact extensively with farmers, to understand their needs, and to assist them in using efficient agricultural strategies. I worked closely with female farmers (the participatory plant breeding project), and gained appreciation for their significant contributions to agriculture. However, I noticed that women were significantly underrepresented in leadership roles compared to their male counterparts. This has motivated me to advocate, support, and empower other young women and to highlight their vital role in the success of agriculture.

I was fortunate to begin my career with great mentors, like Dr. Francis Ogbonnaya, Dr. Rajaram Sanjaya, and Dr. Amor Yahyaoui, who have all inspired me in so many ways through their dedication, generosity, and passion for wheat research. I have also been inspired by the achievements of Dr. Norman Borlaug and his great role in saving so many from starvation and hunger.

What effect did the WIT Early Career Award have on your professional development? Winning the WIT Early Career Award was a unique opportunity and opened numerous avenues for myself and my career. The award has provided me the opportunity to meet and interact with agricultural scientists from different spectrums of society, share my work, and learn from others through workshops and training courses. Winning broadened my horizons and opened my eyes to major constraints currently facing agricultural productivity and to developing possible solutions. I was introduced to many inspirational and supportive women, such as Ms. Jeanie Borlaug-Laube and Ms. Sara Davidson Evanega, and others. Overall, this experience will help me tremendously as I prepare for my career. 

What are you currently working on, and how does it relate to wheat production and/or food security in your country? My PhD research focuses on the identification of new sources of resistance to Hessian fly and stripe rust in wheat, via linkage mapping, QTL mapping, association mapping, and identifying diagnostic DNA markers associated with multiple agronomic traits in wheat useful for genomic selection. The above threats continue to cause significant economic losses in spring wheat producing areas globally and in the United States. Genetic resistance is the most credible and sustainable remedy to controlling the recurring epidemics, and thus reducing yield losses. However, as a result of the fast evolutionary pace of the pathogen, most of the resistance genes have been failing, which emphasizes the need for collective efforts not only to identify new sources of resistance, but also to identify ‘breeder-friendly’ molecular markers tightly linked to the target gene(s) to accelerate incorporating these genes into regionally adapted wheat cultivars (This is where the significance of my research stems out).

Which recent scientific discoveries or new technologies do you think will affect wheat production in the next 10-15 years? The leverage of high-throughput genotyping approaches, such as the 9K and 90K iSelect SNP assays, the use of PstI-MspI restriction enzymes in genotyping by sequencing (GBS), and the availability of the entire wheat genome sequence,  will continue to advance wheat genetics research by enabling robust selection, precise gene mapping, gene transfer, gene pyramiding, and map-based cloning. I hope that genetic engineering becomes less controversial, so that we can exploit its effectiveness in advancing agricultural sustainability, and help crops adapt to climate change.

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? I would invest in seed program, soil management in regards to conservation agriculture, find out the best rotation for the farming community, and of course, breed the best varieties in regards to yield, stability, and disease resistance. I would invest in quality research and conduct a large number of large plot varietal trials on farmer’s fields. I would also invest in educating and training farmers, farm management skills, marketing, and building community resources. I’d establish activities focused on mentoring and empowering women as leaders, youth involvement, networking and communication, and technology and social media.

What advice do you have for other women who are beginning their careers in agricultural science? Work closely with farmers and consumers and listen to their needs, share your knowledge with others who don’t have access to information, resources, and technologies. Use all your potential, work together to develop solutions to agricultural problems, choose your job/mentor/boss wisely, believe in yourself, turn adversity into opportunity.