Borlaug Global Rust Initiative announces 2020 Women in Triticum prize winners

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2020 Women in Triticum Award winners. Graphic: BGRI

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) announced its 2020 cohort of Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) awardees honoring next-generation women scientists and mentors who have worked to increase gender parity in agriculture.

Five women wheat scientists from China, Ethiopia, Germany, India and Uruguay were named WIT Early Career Award winners, and a scientist in Australia was recognized with the 2020 WIT Mentor Award. The winners will be celebrated May 21 from 10-11 a.m. at the virtual event “The Changing Face of Leadership and Research in Wheat.” The event includes a keynote from World Food Prize president Barbara Stinson and a panel discussion with former WIT award winners.

“The future of wheat science depends on innovative, enthusiastic researchers,” said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project and faculty member in Cornell University’s Department of Global Development.

“We are thrilled to honor these incredible scientists with a WIT award and continue the tradition of recognizing the next generation of top-notch scientists and the people who mentor them,” she said.

The BGRI is an international consortium based at Cornell with the goal to protect the world’s wheat supplies. The global network of scientists and farmers work to reduce the world’s vulnerability to fungal rust diseases in wheat and enhance global productivity to withstand future threats to the crop.

With this cohort, the BGRI has recognized 55 early career award winners since 2010.

“Building capacity within the scientific community by encouraging and supporting the training of young women scientists has always been one of the BGRI’s key goals,” Acevedo said. “Over the last decade, these scientists have emerged as leaders across the wheat community. We sincerely thank all the mentors who have supported these women’s efforts.”

The WIT Early Career Award provides early career women working in wheat with the opportunity for additional training, mentorship, and leadership opportunities. The WIT Mentor Award, first awarded in 2011, recognizes the efforts of men and women who have played a significant role in shaping the careers of women working in wheat and demonstrated a commitment to increasing gender parity in agriculture.

Five 2020 WIT Early Career Winners

Anna Elizabeth Backhaus, from Germany, has been interested in wheat genetics since she was 12 years old. A second-year PhD student at the John Innes Centre, where she is supervised by Cristobal Uauy and Richard Morris, Backhaus focuses on the genetic network in control of early spike development and trying to understand how developmental decisions are encoded in the wheat genome. As part of her project, she is performing RNA-sequencing on sections of the young wheat spike using single cell technologies, and using this approach to identify genetic networks in control of spikelet number and grain number, two interlinked traits that control final plant yield. She is phenotyping these yield traits in the Watkins collection of about 800 wheat landraces to identify novel genes for spike traits. Backhaus studied plant sciences at the University of East Anglia (Bsc) and University Bonn (Msc). She has also worked at the Max Planck Institute in Cologne and ICARDA.

Bharati Pandey, from India, is working as a scientific officer in the Bioscience Group, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. In 2015 she completed her doctoral degree from Birla Institute of Technology. In her doctoral thesis “Structural and functional analysis of wheat genome based on expressed sequence tags in relation to abiotic stress,” she worked on identifying and validating single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers in abiotic stress-responsive genes, and identifying stress-induced microRNAs in wheat. As a Research Fellow at the ICAR-Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research Institute (IIWBR), she contributed to wheat genomics research by identifying and analyzing simple sequence repeat dynamics in three different rust fungi: stem, leaf and stripe rust. Pandey was also associated with the development and validation of microsatellite markers for wheat fungal pathogens including Karnal bunt and loose smut. Bharati and her team have designed and developed an Indian wheat database which allow users to retrieve information about molecular markers linked to rust resistance genes.

Yewubdar Ishetu Shewaye, from Ethiopia, works as a wheat breeder for the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), at the Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center. Her main objectives are to empower the farming community in Ethiopia and other developing nations in the fight against wheat rust diseases, to reduce production costs for resource-poor farmers, and to increase yield. She completed her BS in plant science in 2010 at Madawalabu University, Ethiopia, and her MS at Hawassa University, where she focused on the identification and characterization of stripe rust resistance genes in wheat using conventional and molecular marker approaches. This work involved associating phenotypic data with genotypic data to identify rust resistance genes in wheat genotypes, and identifying diagnostic molecular markers. Shewaye is deeply interested in research areas such as screening and characterizing wheat genotypes for rusts, association mapping for rust resistance, identifying diagnostic markers, understanding the mechanisms of host-pathogen interactions, selecting the best parent combinations for crosses to pyramid resistance genes, and mining wheat germplasm to discover more durable rust resistance genes that will be beneficial to the whole wheat breeding community.

Paula Silva, from Uruguay, received her BS at the School of Science of Universidad de la Républica, and her MS from the School of Agronomy, in Uruguay. Her master’s thesis focused on breeding wheat for adult plant resistance against leaf rust. Her MS advisor, Dr. Silvia Germán, instilled in her a true passion for wheat breeding for disease resistance. She was further mentored at CIMMYT by Dr. Sybil Herrera-Foessel. In 2015, while studying molecular tools for characterizing wheat rust resistance genes at the Plant Breeding Institute of the University of Sydney, Dr. Urmil Bansal encouraged Silva to pursue a PhD, a journey that has led Silva to study genetics at Kansas State University with Jesse Poland. There, she works on breeding for barley yellow dwarf and blast resistance by characterizing wild relatives of wheat to search for novel sources of resistance. In 2019, she was appointed at INIA to lead part of the disease resistance breeding program as well as coordinate the Precision Wheat Phenotypic Platform for Wheat Diseases in collaboration with CIMMYT.

Peipei Zhang, from China, completed her PhD degree in Plant Pathology in 2019 at Hebei Agricultural University, where she acquired her BS and MS degrees, and now works as a researcher. During her PhD from 2018-19, she studied under Dr. Sridhar Bhavani and Professor Caixia Lan in Ravi Singh’s research group in CIMMYT, participating in systematic breeding and research methods. For the last decade, Zhang’s research has focused on wheat rust genetics, specifically on gene discovery and QTL mapping resistance to both leaf rust and stripe rust using bi-parental mapping populations, identification of leaf rust resistance genes in wheat cultivars using genome-wide association mapping, and map-based gene cloning for leaf rust resistance gene. She has identified potentially new genes and the closely linked markers of these genes which can be used in marker assisted selection and wheat breeding. Zhang hopes that she will be able to transform her research outcomes to benefit millions of smallholder farmers in China and other countries to reduce wheat loss due to rust diseases.

The WIT Mentor Award

The 2020 WIT Mentor awardee is Evans Lagudah, a Chief Research Scientist at CSIRO, Australia, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and an adjunct professor at the University of Sydney. Lagudah’s research interests cover basic studies on the molecular basis of multi-pathogen resistance genes, cloning of cereal immune receptors and genomic analyses/manipulation of targeted disease resistance traits. Among his research highlights are defining the molecular basis of adult plant rust resistance genes which represent novel classes of plant defense genes that function broadly in cereal crops against multiple pathogens. Lagudah operates at the interface between agriculture and fundamental molecular research, and his research ensures the rapid translation of new molecular discoveries into practical agriculture in the global grains industry. Lagudah continues to train and mentor PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and early- and mid-career scientists. He is a regular contributor to the West African Centre for Crop Improvement which trains the next generation of plant breeders in sub-Saharan Africa. He is among the world’s top 1% of most influential scientists as ranked by “Clarivate Analytics Highly Cited Researchers List” which identifies scientists who have demonstrated significant influence during the last decade.

More information about the winners can be found at the BGRI website.

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