A road traveled and a road yet to be traveled …Jun 13th, 2012 | By Wilson Celemin | Category: Training, Training
By Laura Moreno, visiting researcher at CIAT, Rice Program
I came to CIAT for the first time in 2006 as an undergraduate student, with a different vision and a very vague knowledge of the countless possibilities of research and its application in agriculture.
I pursued my professional training at the University of the Andes, where I graduated in Microbiology and specialized in Plant Molecular Biology. When I finished my undergraduate studies, I had no clear idea what road to take in the labor market. Nevertheless, I had the good fortune of being offered a chance to join Dr. Mathias Lorieux’s team at CIAT, in the area of rice biotechnology and genomics, to explore the gene pool of rice wild relatives. Since then, CIAT has become my professional training grounds, giving me not only the chance to continue my undergraduate project by means of my Master’s studies, but also the chance to discover, step by step, the immense world of possibilities of research and approaches through which one can contribute as a scientist in the field of agriculture.
Most of my undergraduate and master’s level work addressed the application of molecular techniques to identify genetic markers which served to characterize the genome of crossbreeding progenies between a rice wild relative and a crop variety. The project aimed to introduce different genetic fragments from rice wild species into the genetic background of a highly adapted variety, for the purpose of identifying possible genes of the wild species that could give an adaptive advantage to the lines of the crop variety. Working in the field of molecular genetics and biotechnology gave me a deeper understanding of the genomic structure and genetic interactions of plants, indispensable knowledge to understand in detail the biological processes that govern the functioning of the wonderful world of plants. However, at the end of this project, I felt it necessary to focus my learning on the field of plant physiology, ecology, and breeding, in order to understand the complexity of the factors that really affect the development and expression of unique characteristics in these living organisms. I feel that this piece is indispensable for students in my field because, in the end, biological systems are like human societies—one individual cannot be isolated and studied without taking into account the niche in which it develops.
Since 2010, I have been working on my doctoral thesis, under an agreement between the University of Melbourne, Australia, and CIAT, established thanks to the support of Dr. Joe Tohme, Director of the Agrobiodiversity Research Area, and Dr. Alex Johnson, my direct supervisor in Australia. The main objective of this project is the introgression of a modified rice gene, which confers a higher concentration of iron and zinc to ground rice seed, into the genetic background of rice crop varieties. My main motivation in this process has been the fact of working in pursuit of a solution for reducing the high incidence of iron deficiency present in marginalized societies of Latin America, which especially affects children and pregnant women. To obtain a safe product which can be brought to the market and distributed to affected regions, it is necessary to work on the genetic and molecular as well as the physiological and agronomic characterization of the potential bio-fortified varieties, combined with various biosafety and impact studies on human health. These studies can and should take many years. Nevertheless, the project I am now working on is intended to cover only the first phase of development of potential varieties. The experimental phase, which I am now carrying out at CIAT, has made it possible for me to acquire knowledge of rice crop physiology and management, and has given me a chance to work hand in hand with field workers who, with their work and effort, are the ones who are most valuable to me, the ones who make it possible for our experiments to make progress and obtain the results that are necessary to keep this institution alive.
At one year out from finishing my doctoral thesis, I feel that although I have come a long way and have acquired broad knowledge, I still have not been able to see any direct impact of my work on agriculture, is the reason that brings us together at many centers like CIAT. What I have come to understand is that, although the goal is the same, there are research approaches that need to reevaluate the true impact that is being contributed to the progress of agriculture. I have worked in the biotechnology and breeding area, and I think they are powerful fields of research, with some risks which require a high degree of scientific responsibility, but with great power to produce knowledge and to discover the unimaginable. Nevertheless, from my humble position as a student, I feel that we should refocus our objectives and work more closely to the real problems that affect agriculture, not only in Colombia, but in every country where we work. I also believe that it is necessary to think in the short term to identify quick and effective solutions with a high degree of continuity in order to establish a sustainable impact which could favor the progressive development of agriculture.