Fellowship perfect fit for plant breeding student

Washington State University graduate student Aichatou Waziri wants to make healthier food through plant breeding.

Portrait shot of Aichatou Waziri
Aichatou Waziri

She’s working to boost micronutrients, such as iron and zinc, in existing crops like wheat and other grains around the world; a process called biofortification.

“I want to work in plant breeding to develop better crops for African farmers to help prevent malnutrition,” said Waziri, a native of the West African country of Niger.

Her work led her to receive a Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) Fellowship this fall.

Her focus on biofortification has everything to do with wanting to make a difference in her native country and continent.

“People struggle with malnutrition everywhere, but it’s a huge problem in Africa,” Waziri said. “Niger is a big consumer of wheat, even though it doesn’t grow there. But modern wheat has low levels of many of the micronutrients we need to be healthy. If we can breed wheat that does provide more of those nutrients and can adapt to the climate conditions in Niger, it would make a tremendous difference.”

Plus, plant breeding skills learned on one plant, like wheat, often translate well into other crops.

“I want to help develop better crops that are native to Africa for African farmers,” Waziri said. “I want to go back and bring the knowledge that I’ve learned at WSU to help people where I’m from.”

The fellowship requires her to partner with an external sponsor. Waziri’s sponsor is the Washington Grain Commission.

“Aicha is interested in agricultural trade and food policy, so this was a nice local match,” said Kimberly Garland Campbell, Waziri’s Ph.D. advisor and a wheat breeder with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. “She is not only interested in the technical genetic and chemical aspects of this work; she is also interested in the grain trade and in international food policy, which speaks to her wholistic approach to solving problems.”

Established by Congress in 2014, FFAR is a non-profit corporation that funds pioneering research health, sustainability, and agriculture. The FFAR Fellows Program was established to provide professional development and career guidance to the next generation of food and agriculture scientists. Fellows are co-mentored over a three-year program by university and industry experts.

As part of the fellowship, Waziri spent a week at North Carolina State University in early August, attending professional development courses and touring the campus and a local food science company.

“I really enjoy learning professional development skills: how to communicate better, learning what my strengths and weaknesses are, how to improve those weaknesses,” Waziri said. “I can see how well these skills will help me for years down the line after I complete my doctorate.”

In addition to learning the science of wheat breeding, she says the skills she’s learning through the FFAR fellowship will help when she returns to Africa.

“I want to advocate for science policy and be helpful toward getting developing countries to have a place on the international stage of food trade and science,” Waziri said. “These career development tools are helping me build the communication skills I will need to do that effectively.”

She arrived in Pullman in 2017 with a Fulbright Scholarship and earned a master’s degree in 2019. She’s now working on a Ph.D. in plant breeding and biofortification in WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.

It took some time for her to adjust to eastern Washington, since her entire educational experience to that point had been taught in French. She could speak English but had never lived in an English-speaking country.

“It was definitely a big shift in culture when I came here,” Waziri said. “It was stressful and frustrating, but everyone in our lab was so supportive. It helped me grow, push my own boundaries, and conquer my fears.”

When she has her doctorate in hand, these experiences and knowledge will be a huge benefit to her native country and continent. And the world may have healthier food as a result.