Faculty Voice: James Kelly

James Kelly is a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He is an expert in dry bean breeding and genetics.

I have spent almost 40 years, 34 of them at MSU, working to develop better bean varieties. In addition to my research on campus and in the continental United States, I’ve conducted research in Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia.

Beans are a critical food crop in many of these countries and by providing research assistance to local researchers, breeders and agronomists they can improve crop productivity for small farmer households.

New bean varieties that are more productive and resist diseases and drought stress provide increased food supply for small farmers and their families. These varieties provide a nutrient-dense, high-protein food source that complements the starchy root and cereal crops consumed in many of these countries.

One of my projects involves working with Kelvin Kamfwa, an MSU graduate student from Zambia who is pursuing a doctorate in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology. Growing up, his parents were small-scale farmers with extremely low yields. He’s hoping his studies can help change that narrative for farmers in his country.

Since beans are a legume, Kelvin's work focuses on improving the natural ability of beans to get more nitrogen directly from the atmosphere, which could improve productivity of the crop, as many small farmers do not have access to fertilizers.

Working with graduate students like Kelvin is extremely rewarding. Students have the opportunity to get a first-rate graduate education in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology at MSU that equips them to be research leaders and instructors in their home countries and institutions.

It is gratifying to see young people accept challenges both personal and professional. They separate themselves from family and friends for extended periods and make a success of their lives in a way that will benefit their home countries when they return as scientists.

As their major professor I hope they learn not only the theory but also the actual practice of bean breeding that has a level of art as well as science. One of the best parts of my job is congratulating new graduates from our program. I am proud of the accomplishments of all my students but the recent appointment of my former student Dr. Gerardine Mukeshimana as Minister of Agriculture in her home country of Rwanda is most rewarding.

It’s also satisfying to have farmers show me with pride the acres of healthy and productive beans that we have helped develop and deliver to them.

It’s also extremely rewarding when I get to personally see the happy faces of well-fed children in Rwanda that is so different than the sad and hungry faces of many poor children that we see daily in the media. It is a wonderful feeling to know that we have had a role in that.

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