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When Philomin Juliana was a young girl in Tuticorin, India, she witnessed first-hand the heartache and devastation caused by hunger and starvation in her community. In a country where 1 in 4 children are undernourished and 3,000 children die each day due to poor diet related illness, Philomin knew that someday she could help and made a promise to herself to be a positive force of change.
In stark juxtaposition, India is one of the hungriest nations in the world, but is also the world’s second largest producer of wheat. Philomin found her opportunity to create change through her education, and within the international wheat breeding community through the Feed the Future initiative led by USAID.
Philomin began graduate studies as a Masters and then a Ph.D. student in Plant Breeding and Genetics under Dr. Mark Sorrells at Cornell University and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) working with Dr. Ravi Singh, head of Wheat Improvement and Rust Research in the Global Wheat Program.
Both Sorrells and Singh are partners in the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics at Kansas State University. The project aims to use cuttingedge genomics to accelerate the development of better wheat varieties in South Asia, and the world. Through her graduate work and now as a research scientist, Dr. Juliana has made valuable contributions to the progress of the Innovation Lab.
Her advisors sing her praises. “Philomin is one of the most conscientious people I know and her integrity and dedication are beyond question. I have interacted with many scientists and she can stand tall amongst any of them — she is bound for great things and is already an asset to the wheat breeding community,” says Sorrells.
Philomin’s current work focuses on leveraging “big data” for wheat improvement — she’s building prediction models using genomic data and field testing data from the project’s trials in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Mexico to predict important traits like disease resistance and yield and to predict the most promising candidate wheat varieties before the plants are ever grown in a field.
This technology is already allowing more rapid development of superior wheat varieties, getting better varieties into farmers’ hands faster. It shows great promise to allow breeders in the future to react quickly to things like climate variability and disease outbreaks.
Philomin hopes to continue her career in public-sector wheat breeding, where she can continue to use her knowledge and education to impact agriculture in India.
“I dream of an India free from hunger, and CIMMYT is undoubtedly the champion of ‘translating research into impact’. It’s been a blessing to have the opportunity to work on this project and with the talented researchers at CIMMYT, Cornell, and Kansas State University. The relationships that I’ve built and the opportunities for learning that I’ve had during my Ph.D. and post doc position have opened the door to the entire international wheat breeding community, building pathways and connections that will surely light the way for my future career in public sector wheat breeding,” says Juliana.
This story originally appeared in the 2018 Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Wheat Genomes Annual Report. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics aims to develop heat-tolerant, high-yielding, and farmer-accepted varieties for South Asia, while simultaneously increasing the research for development capacity of the global wheat improvement system.