ITHACA, NEW YORK, US — A total of six scientists focused on wheat health have been selected by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) and the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project to receive Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) awards.

“The future of wheat science depends on innovative, enthusiastic researchers,” said Maricelis Acevedo, director for science of the DGGW. “We are thrilled to honor these incredible scientists with a WIT award and continue the tradition of recognizing the next generation of top-notch scientists and the people who mentor them.”

The wheat scientists who have received the 2020 WIT Early Career Award and the individual receiving the 2020 WIT Mentor Award will be celebrated at a BGRI online event, “The Changing Face of Leadership and Research in Wheat,” on May 21.

With this cohort, the BGRI has recognized 55 early career award winners since 2010.

“Building capacity within the scientific community by encouraging and supporting the training of young women scientists has always been one of the BGRI’s key goals,” Acevedo said. “Over the last decade, these scientists have emerged as leaders across the wheat community. We sincerely thank all the mentors who have supported these women’s efforts.”

The WIT Early Career Award provides early career women working in wheat with the opportunity for additional training, mentorship and leadership opportunities. This year’s 2020 WIT Early Careers winners include five women working in different regions around the world.

Anna Elizabeth Backhaus, from Germany, is a second-year PhD student at the John Innes Centre, where she focuses on the genetic network in control of early spike development and trying to understand how developmental decisions are encoded in the wheat genome. As part of her project, she is performing RNA-sequencing on sections of the young wheat spike using single cell technologies, and using this approach to identify genetic networks in control of spikelet number and grain number, two interlinked traits that control final plant yield. She is phenotyping these yield traits in the Watkins collection of about 800 wheat landraces to identify novel genes for spike traits.

Bharati Pandey, from India, is working as a scientific officer in the Bioscience Group, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. In 2015 she completed her doctoral degree from Birla Institute of Technology. In her doctoral thesis she worked on identifying and validating single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers in abiotic stress-responsive genes and identifying stress-induced microRNAs in wheat. As a research fellow at the ICAR-Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research Institute (IIWBR), she contributed to wheat genomics research by identifying and analyzing simple sequence repeat dynamics in three different rust fungi: stem, leaf and stripe rust. Pandey also was associated with the development and validation of microsatellite markers for wheat fungal pathogens, including Karnal bunt and loose smut. Pandey and her team have designed and developed an Indian wheat database that allows users to retrieve information about molecular markers linked to rust resistance genes.

Yewubdar Ishetu Shewaye, from Ethiopia, works as a wheat breeder for the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), at the Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center. Her main objectives are to empower the farming community in Ethiopia and other developing nations in the fight against wheat rust diseases, to reduce production costs for resource-poor farmers, and to increase yield. She completed her master’s degree at Hawassa University, where she focused on the identification and characterization of stripe rust resistance genes in wheat using conventional and molecular marker approaches. This work involved associating phenotypic data with genotypic data to identify rust resistance genes in wheat genotypes and identifying diagnostic molecular markers. Shewaye is interested in research areas such as screening and characterizing wheat genotypes for rusts, association mapping for rust resistance, identifying diagnostic markers, understanding the mechanisms of host-pathogen interactions, selecting the best parent combinations for crosses to pyramid resistance genes, and mining wheat germplasm to discover more durable rust resistance genes that will be beneficial to the whole wheat breeding community.

Paula Silva, from Uruguay, received her master’s degree from the School of Agronomy in Uruguay where she focused on breeding wheat for adult plant resistance against leaf rust. In 2015, while studying molecular tools for characterizing wheat rust resistance genes at the Plant Breeding Institute of the University Silva was encouraged to pursue a PhD that led her to study genetics at Kansas State University with Jesse Poland. There, she works on breeding for barley yellow dwarf and blast resistance by characterizing wild relatives of wheat to search for novel sources of resistance. In 2019, she was appointed at INIA to lead part of the disease resistance breeding program as well as coordinate the Precision Wheat Phenotypic Platform for Wheat Diseases in collaboration with CIMMYT.

Peipei Zhang, from China, completed her PhD degree in plant pathology in 2019 at Hebei Agricultural University. During her PhD from 2018-19, she studied under Dr. Sridhar Bhavani and Professor Caixia Lan in Ravi Singh’s research group in CIMMYT, participating in systematic breeding and research methods. For the last decade, Zhang’s research has focused on wheat rust genetics, specifically on gene discovery and QTL mapping resistance to both leaf rust and stripe rust using bi-parental mapping populations, identification of leaf rust resistance genes in wheat cultivars using genome-wide association mapping, and map-based gene cloning for leaf rust resistance gene.

Zhang has identified potentially new genes and the closely linked markers of these genes, which may be used in marker assisted selection and wheat breeding. Zhang hopes that she will be able to transform her research outcomes to benefit millions of smallholder farmers in China and other countries to reduce wheat loss due to rust diseases.

Another award given this year was the WIT Mentor Award. It was first awarded in 2011 and recognizes the efforts of men and women who have played a significant role in shaping the careers of women working in wheat and demonstrated a commitment to increasing gender parity in agriculture.

The 2020 WIT Mentor recipient is Evans Lagudah, a chief research scientist at CSIRO, Australia, a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and an adjunct professor at the University of Sydney.

Lagudah’s research interests cover basic studies on the molecular basis of multi-pathogen resistance genes, cloning of cereal immune receptors and genomic analyses/manipulation of targeted disease resistance traits. Among his research highlights are defining the molecular basis of adult plant rust resistance genes that represent novel classes of plant defense genes that function broadly in cereal crops against multiple pathogens.

He continues to train and mentor PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and early- and mid-career scientists. He is a regular contributor to the West African Centre for Crop Improvement, which trains the next generation of plant breeders in sub-Saharan Africa. He is among the world’s top 1% of most influential scientists as ranked by “Clarivate Analytics Highly Cited Researchers List,” which identifies scientists that have demonstrated significant influence during the last decade.

The BGRI is an international initiative, based at Cornell University, that leads DGGW, a global project to improve wheat that is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid from the UK government.