Women championed as agricultural science leaders

Two people inspect plants in a greenhouse

Dr Francis Ogbonnaya, during his time leading the
Wheat Germplasm Enhancement program at
Horsham, with team member Jacinta McIvor.

PHOTO: Melissa Marino

When it comes to improving food security in developing countries, it is women who play the central role in disseminating new agricultural knowledge through the wider community, says Dr Francis Ogbonnaya. “Any agricultural science program has a broader impact when it involves women as major players,” he says.

For four-and-a-half years Dr Ogbonnaya – who recently joined the GRDC as the manager of protection traits – worked with female research scientists at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), in Aleppo, Syria. The centre receives students and researchers from countries throughout the developing world, all dealing with the challenge of feeding growing populations living in areas of drought and other extreme conditions.

Two of the female students Dr Ogbonnaya mentored at ICARDA went on to win the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum Award, which recognises the importance of supporting women in agricultural science – particularly in wheat research. They are Esraa Alwan, from Syria, who worked on discovering new sources of stem rust resistance in wild tetraploid wheat, and Awatif Farag Alla, from Sudan, who investigated the physiological dissection of heat and drought tolerance.

Now Dr Ogbonnaya’s support of female agricultural science students has also been recognised, earning him the 2012 Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum Mentor Award. Ms Borlaug Laube, the chair of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative since October 2009, and the daughter of Nobel Laureate Dr Norman E. Borlaug, said Dr Ogbonnaya had “proven to be a steadfast champion of the careers of women”.

Dr Ogbonnaya’s interest in improving grain yields goes back to his childhood in Nigeria. He attended the University of Nigeria in Nsukka where he studied crop science, and he was quickly captivated by the idea that it might be possible to improve yields by hybridising plant species that could withstand the stresses of drought and disease.

After graduating, Dr Ogbonnaya came to Australia in 1991 to complete a PhD in Plant Breeding and Genetics at the University of Melbourne under Associate Professor Gerald Halloran.

He worked for several years with the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, first as a research scientist implementing molecular markers in wheat and barley breeding and then as a senior research scientist leading the Wheat Germplasm Enhancement program. His objective was to overcome biotic and abiotic stresses limiting wheat productivity in Australia.

In late 2007 he was engaged as principal research scientist at ICARDA – the centre of research into crops able to withstand extreme conditions.

“The attraction of ICARDA was that it was an international centre, and it offered a way to do research that would contribute to both developed and developing countries facing these kinds of problems,” Dr Ogbonnaya says.

While he acknowledges that war, government policy and agricultural management problems all exacerbate the effects of such extreme conditions, he believes that crop science can play an important role in helping to ameliorate such conditions.

“There is no magic bullet, but if you can give farmers grains that are resistant to drought and disease, that can help build a more sustainable grains industry.”

Hybridising is painstaking work, requiring the efforts of many students and researchers, Dr Ogbonnaya says. “It is a huge collaborative effort with people from all over the world.”

Former student Awatif Farag Alla nominated Dr Ogbonnaya for the mentor award, and she commended him “for the way he disseminates knowledge, and a way of supervising (that) encourages all of us to challenge ourselves. He has contributed much to the scientific world as he has a great commitment to help alleviate hunger.”

The award includes prize money of $3000, which Dr Ogbonnaya plans to match with his own to create the foundation for a $50,000 scholarship fund, with the help of the wider community. It would be used to assist Nigerian women who would not normally have the means to study agriculture at university.

“I really believe it is important to encourage women to work in agriculture,” Dr Ogbonnaya says. “Their close connections to the community and through their families make them the best champions of sustainability.”

More information:

Dr Francis Ogbonnaya
02 6166 4500

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