Leena Tripathi: Looking after the welfare of smallholder banana growers
Leena Tripathi was born and grew up in India. She gained a PhD in Plant Molecular Biology from the National Botanical Institute, Lucknow, after completing an MSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, India.
She joined IITA in 2000 and worked first in Nigeria and currently in Uganda where her primary research focuses on the development of transgenic Musa spp. with disease and pest resistance. She has established strong links with national and regional partners, and advanced labs. She is also Guest Faculty at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) for biosafety courses.
Please describe your research work.
Since 2000, I have been developing transgenic banana and plantain resistant to pests and diseases. Currently, I am leading projects on producing bananas resistant to Xanthomonas wilt using the transgenic approach. I am also involved in capacity building in biotechnology and biosafety. I have trained several African scientists in genetic transformation and tissue culture. I have assisted in building capacity on genetically modified organism (GMO) detection and biosafety in East Africa by training students and national scientists on banana transformation and molecular biology. And I would like to acknowledge the strong financial support from donors such as Gatsby Charitable Foundation, African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), US Agency for International Development, and the UK Department for International Development (DFID); and IITA of course.
Why did you choose to work in Africa?
Africa has missed the Green Revolution but should not miss the Gene Revolution. For this it needs human capacity in biotechnology that will help to accomplish things that conventional plant breeding could never do. The public needs to be better informed about the importance of biotechnology in food production.
What is the importance of transgenic technologies in banana improvement?
Many pests and diseases significantly affect banana cultivation and cause crop losses worldwide. Development of disease-resistant banana by conventional breeding remains difficult for various technical reasons. Transgenic technologies are the most cost-effective approach. There are enormous potentials for genetic manipulation using appropriate transgenes from other plants to achieve objectives in a far shorter time. It may also be possible to incorporate other characteristics such as drought tolerance, thus extending the geographical spread of production.
How do you demystify or explain a concept like biotechnology to lay audiences?
People think that biotechnology is just genetic modification (GM) technology. Contrary to its name, biotechnology is not a single technology; it is a group of technologies that uses biological systems, living organisms, or their derivatives, to make or modify products or processes for specific use. This includes recombinant DNA technology, genetic engineering, GM foods, biopharmaceuticals, bioremediation, and more.
Biotechnology is not new; it has flourished since prehistoric times. When the first human beings realized that they could plant their own crops and breed their own animals, they learned to use biotechnology. The discovery that fruit juices fermented into wine, or that milk could be converted into cheese or yogurt, or that beer could be made by fermenting solutions of malt and hops, started the study of biotechnology. When the first bakers found that they could make soft, spongy bread rather than a firm, thin cracker, they were acting as fledgling biotechnologists.
“Modern” biotechnology derives from techniques discovered only in the last 20 years. These include the ability to cut and stitch DNA, to move DNA and genes from one organism to another, and to persuade the new gene in this new organism, that is to make new proteins. Genetic engineering technology is a branch of modern biotechnology and involves the transfer of gene(s) from one organism to another to create a new species of crops, animals, or microorganism. Modern biotechnology has offered opportunities to produce more nutritious and better tasting foods, higher crop yields, and plants that are naturally protected from disease and insects.
What have you learned on the job?
I joined IITA as a biotechnologist with plenty of experience in research but not in the field. Working at IITA has been overwhelmingly positive. I have gained experience in both research and administration. I have learned to appreciate the benefits of working in multidisciplinary and multicultural teams and of linking research to farmers in the field. I can now write successful project proposals, get funding, lead projects, and disseminate results to national partners and finally to farmers. Good communication skills are essential for successful research. One needs to be a good team worker and establish strong and successful partnerships as we are doing at IITA-Uganda. When I was relocated here, I realized the situation was very different. IITA in Ibadan has facilities but in Uganda, IITA facilities are based within a national partner, the National Agricultural Research Organization. I wanted to learn quickly from the experiences of others so I talked to colleagues about their work and successes and to national scientists about their expectations. I learned quickly.
Any advice for IITA colleagues?
IITA scientists should be committed to provide strong leadership in the key research areas to ensure scientific excellence and the quality of products. They should work applying “new science” to enhance food security and income generation for resource-poor farmers.
What are your future research plans?
I want to evaluate the disease resistance of banana varieties in the field, evaluate transgenic plants in the confined field for efficacy against Xanthomonas wilt disease, with the University of Leeds develop nematode-resistant plantains, and develop varieties with multiple disease resistance by integrating several genes with different targets or modes of action into the plant genome. I also want to train more national staff/students to build capacity in the region.
What is your formula for success?
The addition and sometimes multiplication of five key elements: vision, strategy, confidence, hard work, and learning. I am focused and have a clear vision for my research, based on project outputs. I frame strategy with clear goals. I follow the strategy with my group members and work hard to achieve the goals. At each step I identify problems and learn to solve or avoid them so that the group moves smoothly and fast to achieve the goals. I set the goals for my group at the start of each year. Everyone works extra hours to achieve group goals. I do not hesitate to seek advice and suggestions from experts, superiors, and collaborators to move things efficiently. Support is very important. I have benefited from support and encouragement from my superiors, higher IITA management, donors, collaborators, and from family. IITA nominated me for the CGIAR Young Scientist award in 2005 and gave me their Top Scientist award, based on my research achievements.