Taking MSU breeding worldwide

Cholani Weebadde, Michigan State University’s plant breeder for international programs, works to take MSU's agriculture research to a global audience

Cholani Weebadde is Michigan State University’s plant breeder for international programs.

Delivering plant breeding programs to various parts of the world is a part of the work of Cholani Weebadde, Michigan State University’s plant breeder for international programs. 

She works closely with MSU breeders to expand research by interacting with global plant breeding communities and initiating collaboration and capacity building.

Weebadde speaks to farmers in Kumasi, Ghana at the Farmer's field day to showcase graduate student Eric Owusu Danquah's Pigeonpea-Yam cropping system to smallholder farmers.

Although her love for teaching prompted her to move into primarily a professor role in 2020, Weebadde remains focused on international research through her work with graduate students.

“Pretty much all of my graduate students are international students,” said Weebadde, a 2005 graduate of MSU’s Ph.D. program with a dual major in Genetics and Plant Breeding and Genetics Programs. “I want my international graduate students to work on a crop and a problem that is related to their [home] countries as much as possible. I wanted them to do their research in their countries.” 

She said this allows for building meaningful collaborations. 

“There are a lot of scientists who are doing good work in these countries and only a small number of them get to come to a place like MSU. When they come here and work on a crop that is not even grown in their country, when they go back it's like, ‘OK, I finished my Ph.D., now how do I transfer that knowledge to crops and problems in my country?’”

Weebadde has conducted plant breeding training programs in several countries including Ecuador, India and Sri Lanka. She has also served as a coordinator and mentor for the USDA Norman E. Borlaug Fellows from Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sri Lanka and Tanzania. 

Support for her work has come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, United States Agency for International Development, United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, MSU AgBioResearch and national programs.

“The way I work is if I see an opportunity for an international project, I try to grab it, whether it’s coming from a research proposal or a student’s application,” she said.

Her first Ph.D. student, Agus Hasbianto, worked to improve soybean tolerance to acidic soils in Indonesia to help expand areas of cultivation. His Ph.D. and all of his field trials were sponsored by his employer, the Indonesian Agency for Agricultural Research and Development (IAARD). 

Of the over 700 samples obtained from the USDA for greenhouse testing, Hasbianto identified two lines that performed better than the local soybean varieties in Indonesia. Now at home with his Ph.D., he is continuing research at IAARD with the hope of releasing new soybean varieties tolerant to the acidic soils there.  

Weebadde also initiated a Sandwich Ph.D. degree program (or Doctoral Stay) in Plant Breeding to further strengthen collaborations with various international partners. Ph.D. student Paba Sumana Kumari, from the Sri Lanka Department of Agriculture, had an interest in developing rust resistant snap bean/green bean varieties for Sri Lanka. 

She worked in collaboration with MSU Dry Bean Breeder Jim Kelly and Talo Paster-Corales, well-known bean pathologist at the USDA Agriculture Research Service to train Kumari. With a snap bean germplasm obtained from USDA ARS, Kumari is in the process of developing resistant snap bean varieties suitable for her home country of Sri Lanka.

Ph.D. student Eric Owusu Danquah is supported by the USAID BHEARD program and MSU Alliance for African Partnerships. Danquah is nearing graduation and works on white yam, a food security crop in West Africa. Through close collaborations with the CSIR-Crop Research Institute and smallholder farmers in Ghana, all of Danquah’s field work took place in his country of origin. The work he has conducted has nearly doubled the yield of white yam in Ghana.

“MSU can play a major role in Africa and South Asia, where we expect to see the largest population growth because we have very strong connections” Weebadde said. “For me, I feel like I can make a change through these partnerships that have a direct impact on people’s lives.”

Weebadde said she lives by Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

“When I see problems people are facing, I wonder what I can do to help. I believe in building human and institutional capacities in the places I work with. It's not like you get some funding, do a project, and after the funding is over the project breaks down and you walk away. No, you inspire and work together with the people to build indigenous knowledge and capacities to make the changes you want to see in the world. That’s my vision.”

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