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Honoring Dr. Evangelina Villegas Moreno, celebrating science and humanity

DSC_0420“I am so excited to be here,” said Dr. Evangelina Villegas as she received her Outstanding Alumni Award from the Department of Grain Science and Industry at the Kansas State University (KSU) at CIMMYT-El Batán on 07 May 2013. “This award is not just for me,” she added, “it is for everyone who worked with me, and everyone I worked with. I have such fond memories of my time both at CIMMYT and Kansas State, and I am very appreciative of the awards I am receiving today.” Awards? Yes, besides the KSU Award honoring Dr. Villegas and her achievements in helping to alleviate hunger and malnutrition, she also received the CIMMYT-Borlaug Award for her contributions to the Green Revolution. “Eva is an incredible woman who helped to achieve incredible progress in the improvement of maize and wheat,” said Thomas Lumpkin, CIMMYT director general, during the ceremony.

Dr. Villegas spent more than 20 years working for CIMMYT as a cereal chemist in charge of the cereal protein quality laboratory. “It was in this laboratory,” noted Lumpkin in his opening speech, “that Dr. Villegas worked with Dr. Surinder K. Vasal to develop quality protein maize, or QPM.” By the year 2000, QPM was grown on more than 1 million hectares worldwide, dramatically reversing the effects of malnutrition and increasing child health. This work earned the two researchers the 2000 World Food Prize. Dr. Villegas was the first female ever awarded this accolade, and she became a role model for women worldwide. But her “contributions to society did not end with science,” Lumpkin reminded the audience. Dr. Villegas was also responsible for overseeing an education fund for the young ‘bird boys’ of CIMMYT, who were hired to protect the experimental crops from being eaten by birds. Her efforts helped many of them pay for schooling.

After Lumpkin’s introductory speech, the microphone went to Dirk Maier, head of the Department of Grain Sciences and Industry at KSU, where Dr. Villegas received her Master’s degree in 1962. “I was reading Noel Vietmeyer’s ‘Our Daily Bread, The Essential Norman Borlaug’ and it was not until I got to about page 176 when I learned about Dr. Villegas,” said Maier. “We feel very sorry that it took us so many years to realize what a distinguished alumna we have in Dr. Villegas. We use her story to inspire our students; it helps them to understand the importance of food production and food security.” Jesús Moncada de la Fuente, director general of Colegio de Postgraduados and long-time friend of Dr. Villegas, then lauded her friendly personality and incredible flexibility in her work: “Usually, people work only on wheat, or only on maize, but Evangelina worked on both. She was a hybrid in that sense.”

“We are honored to call Dr. Evangelina Villegas a member of the CIMMYT family, and are delighted that she has chosen to receive her most recent accolade, from Kansas State University, here at CIMMYT Headquarters,” concluded Lumpkin before taking Dr. Villegas and the guests on a tour around CIMMYT, including the new Biosciences Complex.