Tuesday, February 19, 2019

5 Questions with Dr. C.D. Mayee, the Farmer's Son Who Became India's Champion of Biotech

In order to succeed, one has to hold on to his dreams and aspirations and learn to work hard despite the difficulties along the road to success. These words of wisdom seemed to be the guiding principle of a young boy from Sakharkherda who had to join farmer caravans to sell the cotton from his father's farm.

The young boy, so full of inspiration and desire to help his father and their family live a better life, held on to his dream of becoming an agriculturist and is now one of India's strongest advocates of science-based agriculture. Dr. Charudatta Digambarrao Mayee, Dr. C.D. Mayee to most, is a renowned cotton scientist, and a firm believer that new tools can help in the advancement of Indian agriculture.

Dr. Mayee has guided more than 50 graduate students, wrote books and monographs, published over 200 scientific publications in reputable journals, and promoted the production technologies of cotton, groundnut, sunflower, coarse cereals, and remained active in sports, games, cultural activities, and helping students. But how did Dr. Mayee become India's top biotech champion? In this edition of ISAAA's 5 Questions with... Series, we asked Dr. Mayee five questions to get a glimpse of his advocacy and the road he travelled to become a biotech champion.

How did you get into agriculture and biotech?

The young Dr. Mayee
I was born in Sakharkherda, a small village in Buldana District, Maharashtra State, India, to a big extended family of 30-35 people. We totally depended on agriculture, and my childhood aspirations have been to get educated and earn money to help my father who was planting cotton, groundnut, pigeon pea, and sorghum, which are all rain-fed crops. As a child, I saw the ups and downs in our farm output due to good or bad monsoon. The only cash crop was cotton, which used to be sold to ginners in the nearest city some 60 km away. 

Even in those days when I was in 8th standard, I remember to have gone with the caravan of bullock carts (it was difficult to travel all 60 km alone, and farmers selling cotton traveled in caravans) full of cotton to sell in the nearby city. If the cotton season was good, we got new clothes, otherwise, we will wait until the next good crop season. These hardships made me resolve that I will go to agriculture in college and help my father raise the productivity in our farm—regardless of the monsoon—so that our family could live better.

"If the cotton season was good, we got new clothes, otherwise, we will wait until the next good crop season." - Dr. C.D. Mayee

But sending me to college would be a big financial burden. My father never studied beyond 7th standard because my grandfather chose him to help on the family’s farm. Despite this, my father was keen on sending me to college to get an agriculture degree, and I appreciate his vision for my aspiration. He worked hard to support this and even got a loan against our land. My background in farming helped me to get admission in an agriculture college, Akola, which was 80 km from my village. Suddenly, I was in a hostel and was confronted with English as the medium of education in agricultural subjects. Field activities became easier for me than studying theories because of English, but I got accustomed to the studies. Fungi, bacteria, viruses, and such microorganisms made me curious about biology and I decided to study them, choosing Plant Pathology as my major subject. A small aspiration to study agriculture, the science of crop cultivation, landed me into microbe-based plant pathology as a career.

Dr. Mayee was born into a big extended family.

What was the greatest challenge that your job has presented to you?

My family, especially my father, was very happy and supported me when I continued my education in agricultural sciences. I did not realize that he had to sell part of our land so I could continue with my post-graduate education. I decided then that I will not be a burden to the family. I took on whatever small jobs I can get to earn enough to enter the famous “Pusa Institute,” the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) for post-graduate studies. Admission to that Institute was the ambition of every student in the late 60s, and I was no exception. The Institute was famous due to Drs. M.S Swaminathan, A.B. Joshi, and other luminaries of agricultural research. At IARI, I was selected for an administrative position, but I decided to do my Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. 

Dr. Mayee with his wife Mrs. Hema Mayee during his Post Doc, AVH Fellow at University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany in 1980s.

After doing my Ph.D., the big challenge was to get my ideal job due to political instability in the country. Somehow, I got one in Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana in vegetable research. My mind was not into it, and I kept asking myself how I could help farmers like my father in increasing their productivity and sustainability. Five years later, I got lucky when I became a professor in a small town called Parbhani in the rain-fed area of Maharashtra not too far away from my village. I built a school for students who worked in disease management of major rain-fed crops such as cotton, sorghum, pigeon pea, pearl millet, and sunflower. However, I could not forget my early attraction to cotton, and my desire to conduct research and development on this crop became intense.

"I kept asking myself how I could help farmers like my father in increasing their productivity and sustainability." - Dr. C.D. Mayee

The greatest challenge for me was to protect cotton from parawilt, bollworms, and boll rot because every alternate year there was a bollworm epidemic and farmers resort to heavy pesticide sprays. This doubles production costs which exceed the income from cotton. I needed to do something for the cotton farmers so that their profits improve. Two mega-projects were planned and executed under my leadership in Marathwada Agriculture University, Parbhani around 1997 to 1998. One project involved the total adoption of a 500-acre village for a demonstration of the cost-saving technologies so that the profit increases without compromising on yield. The other project was conducted with the help of an expert from Israel, which was implemented with high input, highly mechanized cotton cultivation demonstration under drip irrigation on 250 acres contiguous plot for those farmers who could only afford limited irrigation. Both projects were successful and useful, and the farmers learned that the profitability of cotton cultivation can be enhanced by good practices. These cotton demonstration technologies are the major challenge in my 25 years at the University.

Why do you think there is a place for biotechnology in your country?

Cotton gave me an opportunity to learn about biotechnology as a tool to manage pests and diseases. In August 1998, while I was the Vice-Chancellor, scientists from Mahyco Life Sciences in Jalna sent the request to conduct the Bt cotton trial in the University farm as mandated by the regulatory bodies.

My knowledge about the technology was limited, so I went through the relevant literature and knew that our cotton farmers will be overjoyed if they get bollworm-resistant cotton without having to spray the crop with pesticides. I allowed Mahyco to test three Bt cotton hybrids in the university farm despite severe opposition against the trial. This was my induction to biotechnology. 

Dr. C.D. Mayee joined CICR in 2000.

In 2000, I joined the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in Nagpur as Director, and this gave the opportunity to boost the technology in the Institute, moving forward with the commercialization as a member of the apex regulatory body, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). I am proud that the son of a cotton farmer assisted in the commercial release of the first genetically modified crop—Bt cotton—in India in 2002. Now, millions of farmers have benefited from the technology. I also take pride in creating the necessary infrastructure in CICR Nagpur. Under my guidance, CICR developed the first indigenous Bt detection kit which got patents in many countries outside India. This kit helps extension workers in detecting illegal Bt cotton production in India.

"I am proud that the son of a cotton farmer assisted in the commercial release of the first genetically modified crop—Bt cotton—in India in 2002. Now, millions of farmers have benefited from the technology." - Dr. C.D. Mayee

After the release of Bt cotton in India and continuously studying its impact for the last 17 years, I have a firm belief that our smallholder farmers need similar technologies to enhance their income. Pest and diseases which damage the crops of poor farmers can be efficiently managed by tools such as biotechnology. In India, we have several opportunities for biotech crops such as Golden Rice, iron-rich banana, and Indian mustard. These crops have traits that help in pest and disease management, nutritive food development, nutrient use efficiency, and most importantly, abiotic stress tolerance such as drought, salinity, and climate change. My country and our farmers need the technology, but the opposition is delaying it. I am optimistic that one day it will all be clear because the Indian scientific community is competent and will deliver the technologies in the future.

Dr. C.D. Mayee with Dr. Ingo Potrykus

What is your vision for India's agricultural productivity?

I am fortunate to have seen the productivity gains of India’s crops, animal, and fisheries sectors. After gaining independence, the country faced the challenge of feeding 330 million people. Droughts in mid-1960 made the situation grim, and we depended on imported red wheat and milo sorghum from the United States.

Then the Green Revolution began, and new wheat and rice cultivars developed in the country reached the farmers and their productivity increased. Hybrid technology revolutionized the production of millets, maize, cotton, sunflower, vegetables, and many other crops. Tissue culture techniques coupled with micro-irrigation, polyhouse technology further boosted the production of fruits and flowers. Thus, in the last 70 years, India became not only self-sufficient in food but has become a net exporter of several agricultural products. The cotton production, which was stagnant at 300 kg lint per ha for 20 years until 2002 saw a major change due to Bt technology and production and productivity doubled in the first decade of the 21st Century.

Dr. Mayee with Bhagirath Choudhary, Founder Director of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC).

However, I am worried as there are many crops where productivity is either stagnant or declining due to several factors such as climate change, water crisis, soil degradation, and lack of new technologies. To meet the demand of the country’s growing population, it is time to adopt biotechnology tools to break the yield barriers. Realizing this need, I set up a scientific society called South Asia Biotechnology Centre (www.sabc.asia) to identify, pilot, scale up and commercialize farm technologies necessary to provide solutions to crop problems that cannot be tackled by conventional technologies. I have also been nurturing a young team of scientists of SABC who contribute to improving science literacy and bridging the gap between science and society. 

Dr. Mayee talks to young students.

Why are you a believer of biotechnology?

I am a firm believer of biotech because of my initial association with Bt cotton. Between 1999-2002, I visited 55 coordinated Bt cotton trials in 11 different locations. I evaluated nearly 145 field trials in farmers’ fields. All of them were so impressive that the technology was deeply imprinted in my mind. I believe that farm productivity constraints due to biotic, abiotic stresses, as well as issues of quality production, could be very well addressed by breeding methods developed through biotechnology.

India’s Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare Mr. Sharad Pawar launched the report, "Adoption and Uptake Pathways of Bt Cotton in India" authored by Dr. Mayee and Bhagirath Choudhary in the presence of Dr. BR Barwale, Chairman of Mahyco and Dr. KR Kranthi, Director of Central Institute for Cotton Research (ICAR-CICR).

My belief in these technologies was further strengthened when under the John Templeton Foundation project, I conducted a survey of 2,400 farmers in three diverse States who were cultivating Bt cotton. They seemed to have one voice in saying that they need the technology in other crops, too. Other people speak about the technology, but what do they know? As a farmer’s son, I have faith in our farmers and know that what they say is true.

About Dr. C.D. Mayee (from the SABC website):
Dr. Mayee is the President of the Board of Directors of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC), New Delhi and concurrently serving as Vice President of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), New Delhi. Dr Mayee obtained his agricultural degrees from Maharashtra and PhD specialized in plant pathology and epidemiology from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi. He commenced his career in plant pathology research at IARI and worked in various capacities in Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI), Cuttack; Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana; Maharashtra Agricultural University (MAU) Parbhani for nearly 30 years. The research, teaching and extension experience led him to work as Vice Chancellor-MAU Parbhani; Director-Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) Nagpur and Agriculture Commissioner, Government of India, New Delhi before retiring as the Chairman, Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board (ASRB), Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India. Though specialized in Plant Pathology, Dr. Mayee committed himself for the growth of Indian Agriculture. In Plant Pathology, he guided 20 PhD and more than 38 MSc students, wrote books and monograph, published over 200 scientific publications in journals of repute and served the cause through development of the subject. During his scientific career, Dr. Mayee promoted the production technologies of cotton, groundnut, sunflower, coarse cereals and always remained active in sports, games, cultural activities, helping students in placement. Dr. CD Mayee can be reached at: charumayee@sabc.asia

5 Questions With… is a continuing series on the ISAAA Blog. A new personality will be featured every month, so watch out for our next feature!

Written/Compiled by Dr. C.D. Mayee, and Clement Dionglay, Project Associate at ISAAA Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Trending News on Crop Biotech in 2018

What GM crop can be used to treat AIDS? Which country would be the first one to plant drought and salt tolerant soybean? What are the benefits of GM crop adoption? 

The answers to these questions were reported in the Crop Biotech Update in 2018.

We summarized the top 10 most trending Crop Biotech Update news shared on Facebook to give you a quick glance at the most important happenings last year. Read on and make sure you don't miss which news made it to the number one spot.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, has recorded a major breakthrough in crop biotechnology following official approval and registration of two Bt cotton varieties, MRC 7377 BGII and MRC 7361 BGII, by the National Committee on Naming, Registration and Release of Crop Materials. This development means farmers can now access biotech cotton seeds in addition to other conventional varieties once the permit holder multiplies the registered varieties. Nigeria also becomes the seventh African country after South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Kenya, Malawi, and Ethiopia to grant open cultivation approval for the crop.

Facebook Shares: 558

Scientist Michael Gomez from the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues aimed to contribute in alleviating this problem by targeting novel cap-binding proteins (nCBP-1 and nCBP-2) for CRISPR-Cas9-mediated editing. These proteins are among the elF4E isoforms involved in the onset of CBSD. They observed delayed and attenuated CBSD aerial symptoms and reduced severity and incidence of root necrosis, which is one of CBSV infection symptoms, in the CRISPR mutants. CRISPR-Cas9 proved to be an effective tool in promoting disease tolerance in cassava.

Facebook Shares: 569

Argentina is set to commercialize the first drought and salt tolerant soybean in 2019.
The gene responsible for the new technology is HB4, made possible by Bioceres. The drought tolerant soybeans were tested in the field for three years and results showed that they are as nutritious as conventional soybeans, will not be toxic to animals or humans, and have no negative effect on the environment.

Facebook Shares: 587

Scientists from The University of Sheffield and International Rice Research Institute have discovered that developing a high-yielding rice variety with reduced stomatal density helps the crop conserve water and survive high temperatures and drought. Grown at elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, the low stomatal density rice plants survived drought and high temperature (40oC) longer than the unaltered plants.

Facebook Shares: 583

Since the approval of Bt eggplant for "limited cultivation" in Bangladesh in 2013, ~17% of the total brinjal farmers in the country are already benefiting from the technology. Scientists concisely report the history, present status, and future direction of the Bt eggplant project in Bangladesh in a perspective article in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

Facebook Shares: 602

Public consultations for the field trial of GR2E Golden Rice in the Philippines have been conducted in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija and San Mateo, Isabela on July 18 and 19 to allow community members to ask questions about the proposed field trial and submit their comments to Department of Agriculture.

Facebook Shares: 670

A study from Purdue University led by Daniel Szymanski has mapped a complex series of pathways that control the shape of plant cells. The research group found that microtubules entrap a protein called SPIKE 1 within the apex of another cell where SPIKE 1 recruits additional protein machinery that causes actin filaments to form. Actin filament networks are then organized as roadways for long-distance intracellular transport and the regulated delivery of cell wall materials that are necessary for cell growth. The findings may be vital to improving the quality of cotton grown in the United States.

Facebook Shares: 690

More than 150 executive and legislative officials from the Philippine House of Representatives, as well as selected members of the judiciary attended the Forum on the Global State of Biotechnology, a biotech outreach program conducted by the SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center in collaboration with the United States Embassy Manila, the House of Representatives, Philippine Judicial Academy (PHILJA), and the Philippine Association of Law schools (PALS). Experts and scientists enlightened the participants of the two events on different biotechnology issues.

Facebook Shares: 878

GM crops commercialization has occurred at a rapid rate since the mid-1990s, with important changes in both the overall level of adoption and impact in 2016. This is according to the research paper on farm income and production impacts of using GM crop technology in 1996–2016 by PG Economics. The annual updated analysis estimates the value of using GM technology in agriculture at the farm level, including impacts on yields, key variable costs of production, direct farm (gross) income, and impacts on the production base of the four main crops of soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola.

Facebook Shares: 931

An international team of researchers from Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom has successfully created a strain of GM rice that will produce HIV-neutralizing proteins. The GM rice produces one type of antibody and two kinds of proteins that bind directly to the HIV virus, preventing them from interacting with human cells. The researchers note that the cost of making the cream is nominal once the rice has been grown, and people living in infection areas can grow as much of the rice as they need, then make the paste and apply it themselves.

Facebook Shares: 1,600+

Make sure you don’t miss the latest updates on agri-biotech in 2019. Subscribe to the Crop Biotech Update now! Visit www.isaaa.org/subscribe.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Science and She: Dr. Barbara Mugwanya Zawedde

Science and She is an online campaign of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) and its network of Biotechnology Information Centers which aims to empower women in science. Scientists and science communicators tell their stories and aspirations for science and the society with the hope that the stories will help bridge the gap between science and the public.

For each week, one female scientist or science communicator serves as the curator of the Science and She social media pages on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. One of the previous curators of the pages was Dr. Barbara Mugwanya Zawedde, Coordinator for the Uganda Biosciences Information Center, a knowledge and information sharing hub of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) in Uganda. Barbara is also the Vice Chairperson for the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium. She offered a course in Biosafety, Biopolicy, and Bioethics to postgraduate students at Makerere University. She has a PhD in Plant Breeding, Genetics and Biotechnology with a doctoral specialization in Environmental Science and Policy awarded by Michigan State University.

Dr. Zawedde shared that her interest in science started when she was 10 years old. Her auntie was a medical doctor working with Red Cross and lived in many parts of the world. She dreamt to be like her. When she reached college,  she enrolled in the Agriculture Program. There she also found another role model—Dr. Theresa Sengooba. In 2003, Theresa was the leader of the East African Component for the Program for Biosafety Systems and she hired Barbara as her Programme Assistant. That work exposed her to biotechnology, which she found to offer enormous opportunities for national development.

“In 2013, we established the Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC) as a knowledge and information Hub of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO). I am very passionate about UBIC because I want to contribute to establishing and implementing appropriate policies and regulatory systems that will allow for effective use of modern biosciences. UBIC provides a platform for stakeholders’ discourse on how to translate research outputs into information that helps end-users to make informed decisions,” Dr. Zawadde said.

To date, UBIC has become a platform for inspiring and capturing the interest of various youth segments to join the biosciences community. Through their drawing and writing contests, the youth have been encouraged to join the discourse on how modern biosciences can be effectively applied for national development. It is very pertinent for African countries to build a critical mass of young cadres that will enhance the competitive advantage of this continent through innovation and application of appropriate modern technologies.

“I look forward to the day when all scientists will appreciate and allocate resources for communicating about their findings. A lot has been generated through science but the majority has remained on the shelf or has been misused―resulting in rejection―because of inadequate information or misinformation. Biotechnology especially genetic engineering is a victim of such sad reality,” Dr. Zawadde shared.

For more inspiration, follow Science and She on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Science and She: Dr. Margaret Karembu

Science and She is an online campaign of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) and its network of Biotechnology Information Centers which aims to empower women in science. Scientists and science communicators tell their stories and aspirations for science and the society with the hope that the stories will help bridge the gap between science and the public.

For each week, one female scientist or science communicator serves as the curator of the Science and She social media pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. One of the previous curators of the pages was Dr. Margaret Karembu, Director of ISAAA AfriCenter based in Nairobi, Kenya. She oversees the Africa-based Biotechnology Information Centers in East and Central Africa (Kenya), Francophone Africa (Mali/Burkina Faso), and Egypt. She also serves as the chair of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Programming Committee, Kenya Chapter. Dr. Karembu holds a PhD in Environmental Science Education from Kenyatta University and has over 10 years of experience in university teaching.

Passion for Science Popularization

Dr. Karembu’s passion for science started very early in life. Having grown and lived in rural Africa most of her childhood, direct interaction with nature would start early in the morning until dusk. “The roadside grass dew provided easy wipes to our weary feet after trekking several kilometers to school barefoot. Evening routine entailed fetching firewood from nearby bushes and drawing water from a local stream on the Slopes of Mt Kenya. I would smell every flower and berry I came across though some were not that pleasant! I had no idea that this was preparing me for a quantum leap from the village to the world,” Dr. Karembu narrates.

Dr. Karembu has been known to be passionate about science and a strong believer in the power of innovations for transforming African agriculture into efficient, competitive and profitable enterprises for women, youth and small-holder families. She demonstrates this through various communication initiatives. She used to work as a science teacher at the premier Kenya Science Teachers College, a significant experience that trained her to simplify science jargon for the public. Her engagements at ISAAA also contributed to building her confidence and nurturing her skills in science communication and thus realizing her goal in life – making science better appreciated.

Women for Bioscience

By virtue of gender roles, Dr. Karembu believes that every woman is a scientist in her own right whether at professional or community level. Women are key in decision-making about food, clothing and sustaining the health of their families, and can be trusted with passing scientific information about these issues. Empowering women with skills to communicate science is thus crucial, just as it is investing in women for science. This conviction to empower women led Dr. Karembu to initiate putting up a network that aims to play a significant role in strengthening the capacity of African women to engage in biosciences and policy dialogue for sustainable livelihoods. Thus in May 2018, the African Women for Bioscience (AWfB) platform was launched.

Unblocking Biotechnology

For Dr. Karembu, being appointed by Kenya’s President to serve as Council Chair and Vice-chair of Cooperative University and the Meru University College of Science and Technology, respectively, were her most significant achievements. While serving in these positions, she realized how big the gap is between researchers and the society. She constantly emphasizes that effective science communication is also very important in strengthening institutional leadership. Thus, she recommends the establishment of a department or unit in every university to improve science communication.

“I dream of a world where those privileged with technology abundance would stop obstructing its access to those who need it most especially in Africa. A time when the naysayers would stop demonizing biotechnology and tagging those who struggle to explain. Rather, a world where people accommodate each other’s opinions and choice. I picked these victuals from Kenyatta University in Kenya where I attained all my degrees from - from undergraduate, masters to PhD. My father always encouraged us to respect the lesser and the mightier and this has helped me a lot in achieving my life’s dream,” Dr. Karembu shares.

In a video, Dr. Karembu narrates the story of millions of African women struggling daily to bring food on the table and how African researchers are working hard to also deliver products of biotechnology. “I am very proud to be helping them improve on how they deliver their messages about their research reaching out to policymakers so that we can have enabling policies that will bring technologies that will be useful for African women,” she said. Watch the entire video on Science and She's Facebook Page.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Science and She: Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) and its network of Biotechnology Information Centers launched a campaign on social media which aims to empower women in science. The campaign called Science and She, features scientists and science communicators who tell their stories and aspirations for science and the society with the hope that the stories will help bridge the gap between science and the public.

For each week, one female scientist or science communicator serves as the curator of the Science and She social media pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Recently, Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan, a science communication expert and Executive Director of the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Center, took the centerstage. 

According to Dr. Arujanan, science communication is relatively a new field and so much needs to be done in this area in the developing world. She calls on scientists to be “civic scientists” to bridge the knowledge gap between the scientific community and the society. She encouraged them to reach out to the people, engage them, make them understand and appreciate science and research.


Empowering others with scientific knowledge and helping them to make informed decisions gives Dr. Maha a tremendous satisfaction. Her contributions to science communication were first recognized by The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) with the awarding of the 2010 TWAS Regional Prize for Public Understanding of Science for East, SEA and the Pacific Region. Another recognition came in 2015, when Scientific American’s WorldView named her as one of the 100 most influential persons in biotech in the world. In the same year, Biotech Law Report published by Mary Ann Liebert in the USA listed Dr. Arujanan as one of the women in Biotech Law and Regulations. Malaysian Women’s Weekly also listed her as one of the “Great Women of our Time” in their December 2015 issue. 

The importance of science communication

"Communicating and engaging the public with science and biotechnology is crucial. To make informed decisions, every individual needs some basic understanding of science. And this is exactly what we do at the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC)...we empower the public with scientific knowledge. Join us in our rally to support science and science-based decisions," says Dr. Arujanan. This is the reason why she loves her job as a science communicator. “It's really fulfilling to see that my job translates into science-based policies, regulations, and it helps to ensure food security, mitigate climate change, have sustainable agricultural practices, and in the alleviation of poverty…I’m a strong advocate of biotechnology. I strongly believe that if this field is deployed ethically, it can solve many of the problems that we face today," she added.

Dr. Arujanan emphasized that at present, there are several means to disseminate information on science/biotechnology and to engage the public. We do not have to solely depend on the mainstream media. While MABIC resorted to creating a print media that has been digitalized, social media offers another powerful tool as a mouthpiece for scientists and science communicators. Their monthly newspaper, The Petri Dish, is the first science newspaper in Malaysia, distributed to major universities, research institutes, hospitals, government agencies, government ministries and schools across Malaysia as well as in Indonesia. She also reaches out to the public, especially to the young minds, through her Facebook page which has over 12,000 followers as of this writing.

Women in STEM

Dr. Arujanan recognized the tremendous increase in the number of women in science careers such as scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and professionals in other STEM-related areas. According to her, this is really an achievement of progressive policies, government measures, and also the society that allowed women to pursue their dreams around the world.

“But the truth is we have not achieved equality yet with our male counterparts. While the number of girls is increasing in the universities, there is still a leaky pipe somewhere along the career path. We still do not see enough women at the pinnacle of organizations, at the decision-making positions and in the boardrooms,” she highlights.

“As a trained science communicator, I feel we have to take the onus to inspire young girls to pursue STEM education and careers. We need to be their mentors and role models. We need to share our stories, journey, accomplishments, and challenges with them. More importantly, we need to stand up for our rights so we pave a road that is with fewer obstacles for the next generation. So that, their journey becomes sweeter than ours and they could contribute much more than us,” Dr. Arujanan stressed.

Monday, March 05, 2018

5 Questions with Jennifer Thomson, Microbiologist, President of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World, and The World Academy of Science Fellow

Science, for the longest time, has been a male-dominated business, but studies report that women are starting to catch up. The number of women who are working in science-related fields has grown steadily in the last two decades. One of these strong women is Dr. Jennifer Thomson from South Africa’s University of Cape Town. Jennifer is one of the many successful women whose work has been celebrated around the globe. She is one of the 16 women and 10 African scientists who were elected as fellows to The World Academy of Science (TWAS) in January 2018.

Dr. Jennifer Thomson
Jennifer has been a strong advocate of promoting modern biotechnology in Africa for its potential in helping the continent overcome hunger and poverty. The first woman to head a department in the Science Faculty at the University of Cape Town, she has written a number of peer-reviewed papers and authored books about genetically modified (GM) crops. Jennifer is also a well-known speaker about GM crops and has addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos twice and the United Nations as guest of then Secretary General Kofi Annan. Her three books, Genes for Africa, Seeds for the Future, and Food for Africa are bestsellers and written with the layperson in mind.

During her election as President of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) in 2016, Jennifer referred to her new role as an extension of her lifelong passion for promoting women in science. But how did Jennifer become one of South Africa’s staunchest supporter of modern biotechnology? In this new series, we asked Jennifer five questions to get a glimpse of her advocacy.

Growing up, who was your inspiration/idol?

My inspiration was my Aunt Margaret, who was the youngest woman headmistress of a high school in South Africa. As a family, we never made any major academic decisions without first consulting her. She also knew the names and family details of all her pupils, past and present.

Jennifer at three, with her brother Rob, five.

Why did you want to be a microbiologist? 

Jennifer (middle, front row) as Hyde Park High School’s head girl in 1964, together with prefects.

I didn’t – it happened by a series of coincidences. In fact, as a zoology undergraduate I pitied microbiology majors as they seemed to spend all their time looking down microscopes, which I didn’t want to do. But when I went to Cambridge after my BSc, the zoology department was very old fashioned, so I asked the head of the genetics department if I could switch (on the basis of 1 week’s lectures in genetics). He agreed, but they worked on organisms that grew too slowly so I decided I’d better do my PhD on organisms that grew quickly. Hence I switched to bacterial genetics – and I still don’t know how to use a microscope!

How did you rise up to the greatest challenge that your job has presented to you?

My greatest challenge was being the first woman head of a department in the Science Faculty at the University of Cape Town. I was interviewed by a panel of white males (it was in 1988), many of whom didn’t want me. I showed them that I could run a department better than most of them, because, instead of the headship being rotated every 3 years, my department voted me in for 12 years.

Jennifer was the first woman to head the Laboratory for Molecular and Cell Biology
in the University of Cape Town.

As one of the major influencers in Africa, how are you unique from the others?

I am certainly not unique! I think one of the reasons I have been successful is that, early in my career, I decided not to have children. I don’t want any other woman in Africa to have to make that choice – hence my present position as President of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD).

What is your vision for Africa's agricultural productivity?

The use of every modern tool that can improve both productivity and nutrient value. If that involves genetically modified crops, indigenous knowledge, artificial intelligence, better use of grey water – no matter – go for what works best. But make sure that technology serves the people, not the other way round.
Jennifer’s books on GM crops in Africa. Her research was focused on the development of maize resistant to the African endemic maize streak virus (MSV) and maize tolerant to drought.

About Jennifer Thomson (from the University of Cape Town’s website):
Jennifer Thomson has a BSc in Zoology from the University of Cape Town (UCT), an MA in Genetics from Cambridge University and a PhD in Microbiology from Rhodes University in South Africa. She was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School. She was a lecturer, senior lecturer and Associate Professor in the Department of Genetics at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa before starting and being the Director of the Laboratory for Molecular and Cell Biology for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. She then became Professor and Head of the Department of Microbiology at UCT, a post she held for 12 years until the Department merged with the Department of Biochemistry. She is now an Emeritus Professor of Microbiology in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UCT. Her main current research interests are in the development of maize resistant to the African endemic maize streak virus and tolerant to drought. Other positions held include the Deputy Dean of Science at UCT, a former chair and member of the South African Genetic Engineering Committee, co-founder of SA Women in Science and Engineering, Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and former Vice-President of the SA Academy of Science. She is a former Chair of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and Vice-Chair of the board of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA). She is President of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD), a member of the Independent Science and Partnership Council (ISPC) of the CGIAR and a member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) to the Minister of Science and Technology in South Africa.

For more about Jennifer’s research work, visit the University of Cape Town website.

5 Questions With… is a continuing series in the ISAAA Blog. A new personality will be featured every quarter, so watch out for our next feature!

Written/Compiled by Clement Dionglay, Project Associate at ISAAA Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Science and She: Dr. Rhodora Romero Aldemita

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) and its network of Biotechnology Information Centers launched a new campaign on social media which aims to empower women in science. The campaign called Science and She, features scientists and science communicators who tell their stories and aspirations for science and the society with the hope that the stories will help bridge the gap between science and the public.

For each week, one female scientist or science communicator serves as the curator of the Science and She social media pages. The first curator for the campaign is Dr. Rhodora Romero-Aldemita, Director of ISAAA Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology. Dr. Aldemita is a crop scientist with knowledge and experience accumulated over the years on agriculture-related topics such as plant pathology, plant physiology, molecular biology, and rice biochemistry. Currently, she is involved in sharing her knowledge with the public so they can have fact-based decisions regarding GM crops.

Dr. Aldemita did not expect to be a scientist, let alone one who would be recognized by the National Academy of Science and Technology, Philippines and other prestigious award-giving bodies such as the Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service Foundation and The World Academy of Science. Her inherent love for her family and desire to improve their living conditions motivated her to study and work hard.

“In order to succeed in our field, we have to realize our potentials and limitations. We need to explore and develop these potentials and use them wisely and to the fullest. I developed my abilities through studying, training, conducting research, and publishing. Although the outputs of my rice genetic engineering work were not immediately available to help consumers and farmers at that time, I knew that they would make difference in the future, and they did!! Most importantly, we have to overcome our limitations by being resourceful and by exploring alternatives,” Dr. Aldemita says.

One of her biggest achievements was being awarded as one of the Ten Outstanding Women in the Nations Service for Excellence in the field of Science in 1998. It was the culmination that reaffirmed all the awards she has received including the Ten Outstanding Young Scientist in the Philippines, the Science Prize in Biology by the National Academy of Science and Technology, Philippines, and The World Academy of Sciences, Italy, and many other recognitions. The latest award was the recognition of her home city, San Pablo City, as an Outstanding San Pableño in the field of Agriculture. Each time she was introduced as a multi-awarded scientist, her credibility as biotech expert and spokesperson was validated.

“As a scientist, I was able to develop a rice transformation technology that is still being used by researchers today. As a science communicator, I am honored to help others gain knowledge and understanding about a technology that is highly beneficial to many. I have worked for years in the lab, and I am confident that biotechnology is used by scientists like me to help improve lives. Scientists work hard for their own families, as well as to help other families have bountiful harvest and food on their plates. By communicating about the benefits of biotechnology, I am hopeful that time will come when more people will appreciate the technology and acknowledge its importance. This will lead to more countries planting biotech crops, and more mouths being fed. When that time comes, all my hard work, together with the efforts of other scientists, will be worth it,” she says.

Follow Science and She on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram to join the campaign.