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Q+A: Women in Triticum award provides development opportunities and support networks for women in agriculture

Margaret Krause, a doctoral candidate in Plant Breeding at Cornell University, became interested in science and nature at an early age.

IMG_3076 (1)CIUDAD OBREGĂ“N, Mexico (CIMMYT) — Margaret Krause, a doctoral candidate in plant breeding at Cornell University, became interested in science and nature at an early age. She recalls growing and crossing flowers as a teenager, transferring the pollen from one plant to another as she had learned in biology class.

“I had little exposure to agriculture or how food is produced,” explained Krause. “When I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota in 2009, I was unsure how these interests would eventually translate into a career.”

Fast-forward to 2017, and Krause is serving as the U.S. Borlaug Fellow in Global Security at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in the bread wheat breeding program and is one of five recipients of the 2017 Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award.

“The goal of the award is to provide professional development opportunities and a support network for these women in the future,” said Maricelis Acevedo of the Delivering Genetic Gains in Wheat Project at Cornell University, while presenting the WIT winners during CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program Visitors’ Week in March.

In addition to Krause, 2017 WIT recipients include Ritika Chowdhary, University of Sydney; Wiezhen Liu, Washington State University; Tine Thach, Aarhus University and Sarrah Ben M’Barek-Ben Romdhane, Biotechnology Center of Borj Cédria, Tunisia.

In the following interview, Krause shares past experiences, her thoughts about the relevance of the award for future generations and her own career direction. 

Q: When did you first become interested in agriculture?

A few weeks into my first semester of undergrad, University of Minnesota alumnus and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Norman Borlaug, passed away. Interested in learning more about his contributions, I attended a memorial ceremony on campus. I was inspired by Dr. Borlaug’s work to improve crops around the world and I began to realize that the field of plant breeding combined my interest in science and the natural world with my desire to improve livelihoods and the environment on a global scale.

Around the same time, I was looking for a part-time job on campus and, coincidentally, the wheat breeding lab was hiring an undergraduate laboratory assistant. Despite my lack of experience, I was hired. I got my start in this world assisting graduate students in the lab, greenhouse and field with wheat breeding and genetics experiments and since then I’ve never looked back.

Q: Tell us about the steps that led you here.

I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2014 with a bachelor’s in applied plant science. As an undergraduate, I researched the genetic mechanisms that govern the plant’s response to fungal diseases in both wheat and barley. I also participated in two summer internships with Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer.

As a doctoral candidate in plant breeding at Cornell, my research interests focus on integrating new phenotyping, genotyping and environmental-sensing techniques to develop new wheat varieties for a range of environmental conditions. I’m currently working with CIMMYT conducting my dissertation research with the Global Wheat Program.

Q: What does receiving the Women in Triticum award mean to you?

It’s an honor to join this international community of women who have also focused their careers around improving livelihoods worldwide by delivering higher-yielding, nutritious and climate-resilient crop varieties. I’m most excited about the opportunity to be joining this network so that we may support one another and learn from each other, as we grow in our careers.

Q: Why is it important to have such a community of women?

There is a plethora of research documenting the importance of including women in the scientific process, but female agricultural scientists continue to face challenges and inequalities when entering the workforce.

Female scientists bring a variety of experiences and viewpoints that may benefit scientific advancement and improve the situation for other women, but studies have shown that they can encounter difficulties in accessing funding, seeking promotions or participating in conferences. Most shocking is that these challenges exist for female scientists in developing and developed countries alike.

Q: What are you currently working on with CIMMYT?

I will be spending a total of two years at CIMMYT, working with the Global Wheat Program to develop new strategies for breeding wheat varieties adapted to different environments. We are interested in integrating advanced genotyping technologies, high-throughput phenotyping techniques and environmental information into prediction models for crop performance. The goal is to more quickly and efficiently develop new, climate-resilient wheat varieties that are tailored to perform well under different environmental conditions.

Currently I’m located at the Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug in Ciudad Obregón, Mexico. This past season I worked with CIMMYT’s Bread Wheat Breeding and Wheat Physiology Programs to operate small unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with cameras and sensors in the field. These tools allow us to track each wheat variety’s growth and development throughout the season; the response to stress and the data acquired will be used to improve the efficiency of selection.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I envision myself pursuing a career in agricultural research with the primary focus being global development. I would love to be involved in collaborative research projects aimed at developing climate resilience in agricultural production, improving the nutritional quality of food systems, or addressing the agricultural needs of marginalized communities.

I also hope to continue mentoring students interested in plant sciences and to become more active in educating broader audiences about agriculture through science communications platforms.

To nominate or apply for the Jeannie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum Early Career Award fill out the application by October 30, 2017 here.