New global fellowship program grows discoveries, partnerships in ag research

Valencia, standing with controls in a field, as a drone flies near him.
Piloting a sensor-mounted drone over test plots of chickpeas, 2019 CGIAR Fellow Milton Valencia expanded his technological knowledge during a 12-week summer visit. WSU hosts four international scientists this year through a pioneer program (Seth Truscott-WSU Photo).

Piloting a sensor-bearing drone over fields of peas and garbanzos, Milton Valencia collected valuable data for Northwest farmers, along with practical experience that can help him monitor and protect crops in his homeland of Colombia.

One of four scientists hosted at Washington State University this summer and fall as part of a new international exchange, the WSU CGIAR Borlaug Fellowship Program, Valencia and fellow visitors are helping make discoveries that boost crop yields, protect against disease, and improve food safety, while building partnerships that transcend borders and continents.

Bringing the world to WSU

Now being piloted at WSU, the 12-week fellowship program is the first of its kind to be offered through CGIAR, formerly known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Sponsored by the USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service and modeled on the USDA’s well-established Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program, the new program brings early and mid-career researchers from five CGIAR centers around the globe to WSU, promoting agricultural productivity, food security, and economic growth through collaborative research.

Prospective fellows are chosen for their research interests, achievements and potential, then recruited and matched with mentors by WSU’s Office of International Programs. Mentors later make a return visit to their fellow’s home country to help foster continuing discoveries.

“Visiting fellows become part of the scientific community on campus,” said Colleen Taugher, Associate Director for Global Research & Engagement at WSU. “Through the CGIAR Fellowship program, we’ve brought some very promising scientists to WSU and are expecting strong outcomes.”

Partners in research

All four visiting scientists are joining research programs in WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, advancing research into areas including agricultural sensor technology, genetics, and defense against plant pathogens.

Developing molecular markers to detect resistance to cereal cyst nematodes, a tiny, devastating pathogen in Washington and worldwide, Amer Dababat, head of the Turkey lab of CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, is working with WSU wheat breeder Arron Carter, USDA wheat breeder Kim Campbell, and USDA plant pathologist Tim Paulitz.

From Colombia, scientist Jenyfer Jimenez will work with WSU plant pathology professor Hanu Pappu this fall, studying a new virus that threatens cassava, a staple crop for developing countries.

Scientists know little about this virus’s biology and epidemiology, Pappu said. Jimenez’ research could help develop better diagnostic tools and management strategies to protect valuable crops.

Also from Colombia, Lucy Milena Diaz is refining genetic markers to help breed bean crops that can resist bacterial blight, a global pathogen. She is studying alongside USDA research geneticist Phil Miklas at WSU’s Prosser research center.

“My experience with the Fellowship program has been very rewarding,” said Diaz. “I’ve learned a new set of skills and research techniques that will help improve my performance at CIAT,” her home laboratory, Colombia’s International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

“The fellowship has also allowed me to connect with scientists from different backgrounds, cultures, and expertise, creating new connections and friendships,” she said.

Seeds of international discovery

Valencia, also hailing from CIAT, joined the lab of Sindhuja Sankaran, a Biological Systems Engineering researcher studying how sensor technology can aid plant breeding, crop research, and precision agriculture.

Part of a team of researchers from around the world, Valencia joined efforts to test and perfect the use of multi-spectral cameras, borne aloft by drones, to study and understand plant traits, potentially revolutionizing plant breeding and agriculture.

Learning to fly a drone over Northwest crops like peas, chickpeas, and wheat, Valencia also took part in workshops and presented research at American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) Annual International Meeting in Boston, Mass.

Valencia called the fellowship “a wonderful learning opportunity” to explore multidisciplinary approaches, better understand how genes and traits interact, and ultimately speed up plant breeding.

“This was my first time seeing so many of the different ways you can use sensors in agriculture,” he added. These new ideas could inspire his lab’s future research in important tropical crops like cassava, tropical forage, common beans, and rice.

“CGIAR Borlaug Fellowships are a starting point for international collaboration,” said Sankaran. “We’re learning from Milton, and he is learning from us.”

Group photo crouched in field.
CGIAR Fellow Milton Valencia, second from right, with WSU colleagues Afef Marzougui, Sindhuja Sankaran, Chongyuan Zhang, and Worasit Sangjan.