Ihuoma analyzing her putative transgenic events
Although it may at first seem like a formidable and herculean task, Okwuonu is extremely driven by the desire to build a state-of-the-art biotechnology research platform to serve not just Nigeria but the whole of Africa. But then again, having bold ambitions is what being an AWARD Fellow is about. “My lifelong dream is to build and lead a thriving biotechnology-based business that creates value and employment to power economic growth. Thanks to my participation in the AWARD Fellowship program, and support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation received so far, I can see this becoming a reality in the near future.”
Okwuonu is currently working at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) in Umudike, Abia State in Southeastern Nigeria. Here, she is responsible for coordinating research on genetic improvement of root and tuber crops using tissue culture, genetic engineering and transformation tools. Her current project on improving the disease-resistance of beta-carotene fortified cassava is quite involving, and she is excited by the prospect of this work – the addition of genes with good disease-resistance to control two key diseases: the cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and the cassava brown streak disease (CBSD). “Farmers lose revenues of up to US$100 million annually from the CBSD alone. In a continent being looked upon to feed itself and feed the world, these levels of losses are unacceptable,” explains Okwuonu.
In Okwuonu’s community, and in communities across most of Nigeria, cassava and yam are highly valued: they are an integral part of our diets and culture; provide starch for industrial uses and generate income for farmers when the tubers are sold. “In recent years however, these crops have not provided farmers with yields as high as they potentially could due to lack of availability of improved planting material and poor disease resistance,” expounds Okwuonu. “I feel fortunate to have a chance to contribute to reversing this trend, through my work at the NRCRI, where I am building the capacity of younger scientists to contribute to making Nigeria food secure by training them on how to apply biotechnology tools to improve crop productivity through breeding for resistance to pests and diseases, extreme climatic conditions such drought and salinity, and fortifying them with essential micronutrients like beta-carotene.”
In January 2009 Okwuonu participated in an 18-month hands-on course on the genetic engineering and transformation of cassava in the US – at the International Institute for Crop Improvement (IICI) of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri. This was through the generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “What I loved most about the course was that it was very practical and I deepened my understanding of molecular biology, tissue culture, genetic transformation and biosafety regulations,” Okwuonu expresses as she tells about her career and research growth.
As a result of this exposure, Okwuonu was able to zero in on the specific research area she wanted to focus on. The networks she developed at IICI were also very helpful in assisting her to secure an opportunity to undertake PhD studies. For three-and-a-half years, Okwuonu conducted research on "Improved genetic transformation systems for the production of quality transgenic cassava using reporter marker genes". Through this partnership with the IICI, she was able to acquire essential, state-of-the-art, equipment for the NRCRI which the Institute would not have been able to purchase. “This equipment helped us to set up a modern genetic transformation platform,” Okwuonu proudly mentions.
While at IICI, Okwuonu met with Mrs. Olapeju Onadipe, then an AWARD Fellow participating in the AWARD Advanced Science Training program. Okwuonu was inspired by her passion about the benefits of participating in the AWARD program that she applied for an AWARD Fellowship, with just three days to go before the closing date! She didn’t make it then, but kept trying and finally in 2015, she succeeded.
“Participating in the AWARD Fellowship has boosted my career. Its focus on leadership and networking has really helped in unlocking opportunities for career growth,” reflects Okwuonu. “In my case, I have learnt how to make my research more farmer-focused, and I can map out attainable career goals. This has tremendously increased my confidence. Through AWARD and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I’ll be able to participate at the Global Biotechnology Conference, in Boston (US). I look forward to the networking and visibility-raising opportunities that this conference provides.”
Okwuonu looks forward to the rest of her AWARD Fellowship, especially the science writing course – where she will be equipped with skills on scientific publishing and grant-writing skills. Her goal is to publish at least 10 scientific papers, and write two grant-winning proposals for collaborative research. Another area she would like to develop is gender-driven research, which she hopes will enable her to generate solutions that benefit rural farmers, especially women.
“This is an exciting time to be working in African agriculture, especially in Nigeria, where the government recently passed the biotechnology bill. I am most grateful to AWARD for this opportunity which will give me my own platform to take biotechnology research in Nigeria to the next level, and to contribute to securing Africa’s important food crops at the same time,” concludes Okwuonu.
Download: Ihuoma Okwuonu, 2015 AWARD Fellow, Nigeria