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In her youth, Tunisian Manel Othmeni developed an interest in interacting with plants, a fascination that later grew into a passion for wheat research.
Now, with the help of the Borlaug Training Foundation and Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program, Othmeni is a doctoral student studying abroad with Ian and Julie King, two top global wheat scientists, at Britain’s University of Nottingham.
“If not for the training funds, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Othmeni on the sidelines of the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue conference in Des Moines, Iowa.
“Nowadays a Ph.D. costs a lot of money – the training gives more chances to people from developing countries.”
The Borlaug Training Foundation is an independent, non-profit foundation educating scientists from developing countries to improve food production in vulnerable areas. In the short term, the foundation aims to raise $800,000 to support global training at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). In the long term, the goal is to raise a $30 million endowment to expand training opportunities to other crops.
“We need to provide hope for eliminating poverty – no child should ever have to go to bed hungry,” said Jeanie Borlaug-Laube, vice president of the foundation and the daughter of the late wheat breeder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug.
Scientist Borlaug, who died in 2009 at age 95, led efforts in the mid-20th century to develop high-yielding, disease resistant, semi-dwarf wheat varieties that helped save more than 1 billion lives in Pakistan, India and other areas of the developing world.
“You are the ones who must continue my father’s legacy,” Borlaug-Laube said in an address to conference delegates.
“Harness biotechnology, but don’t abandon traditional techniques.”
The foundation also aims to boost training for women scientists, develop partnerships between research institutions and universities in developed nations, provide mentorship opportunities. Wheat studies will focus on plant breeding, genetics, biotechnology, plant pathology, plant physiology and statistics.
“Going out in the field and sweating is one of the best things you can do,” said Jesse Dubin, a plant pathologist who was hired by Borlaug and retired from CIMMYT in 1999 after almost 25 years working with the wheat program.
“This kind of training is critical today and there is no funding for it. The important thing is that we’re working with the whole plant and people, not just the genome.”
Over eight years, Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program has awarded 89 students with rice or wheat breeding fellowships, 52 of them in wheat breeding. The award is named in honor of Borlaug and rice breeder Henry Beachell.