By: Beth Ann Luedeker
Two students from the Texas A&M University’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Tia Dunbar and Ammani Kyanam, were among those named as Borlaug Scholars for 2020 by the National Association of Plant Breeders, NAPB.

“Both Tia and Ammani’s resumes reveal outstanding students with the potential to follow closely in the footsteps of Dr. Norman Borlaug in relieving hunger and poverty through plant breeding,” said Don Jones, chair, NAPB Borlaug Scholars committee.

Norman Borlaug in wheat field
The scholars program is named after Dr. Norman Borlaug, a plant breeder known as the Father of the Green Revolution.

The NAPB Borlaug Scholarship awards are given to exceptional students aspiring to careers in plant breeding and genetics and who have a strong desire to contribute to the improvement of the plants that we all depend upon for our daily needs, according to NAPB.

This is especially critical in this age of continually increasing populations, climate change and uncertain global food security – issues Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution and also a plant breeder, cared about deeply. Plant breeding uniquely addresses these challenges through applied research and improving technologies, according to the association.

Dunbar is a master’s student under Michael Thomson, Ph.D., professor and HM Beachell Rice Chair with Texas A&M AgriLife Research. Kyanam is a doctoral student working with Bill Rooney, Ph.D., AgriLife Research Faculty Fellow and sorghum breeder.

Each wants to help improve agriculture through plant breeding, but they are approaching it from different angles.

Tia Dunbar

Dunbar is working to optimize “in planta” gene-editing techniques using nanotechnologies, while Kyanam is mapping quantitative trait loci, or QTL, for sugarcane aphid tolerance and evaluating a chemical male gametocide.

Tia Dunbar
Tia Dunbar

“Most gene editing methods for crop improvement require time and labor-intensive in vitro tissue culture techniques,” Dunbar said in her application. “Bypassing the in vitro regeneration processes could facilitate gene editing and expand its use.”

“If we are successful, our optimized gene-editing protocol will enable accelerated improvement of rice,” Dunbar said.

While her research currently focuses on rice, Dunbar hopes to pursue a career that applies gene-editing techniques to a broader range of organisms.

“Growing up, my family did not always have access to healthy food, so I chose to major in plant breeding to learn more about crop improvement,” Dunbar said. “I see biotechnology as the key to manipulate agriculture to better serve the growing population and ease the suffering caused by hunger and malnutrition.”

Ammani Kyanam

Kyanam said she chose to pursue agriculture because of Borlaug, “but I chose plant breeding when I learned how direct an impact it had on the livelihoods of farmers, especially small farmers.”

Ammani Kyanam

As an undergraduate at the Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University in Hyderabad, India, Kyanam participated in the Rural Agricultural Work Experience Programme, RAWEP, where she shadowed a small farmer for a crop season.

“My inquiries showed me that farmers had progressive views about purchasing seed, and the boon that was BT cotton,” she said. “It also helped that my father was a seed salesman, and I had learned how important quality seed is to a farming operation.”

Fortunately for Kyanam, she not only loved plant breeding as a subject, but also has a knack for it. Her current focus is streamlining the sorghum breeding process.

“For my doctoral research, I am testing a chemical gametocide, triflouromethanesulfonamide, to assess its potential in generating testcross hybrid seed,” she said. “Hybrid seed production relies on male-sterile seed parents, and the current process to develop those parents is tedious and time consuming.”

Kyanam plans to pursue a career in an applied breeding program, developing new breeding materials and commercial hybrids, as well as evaluating pre-commercial hybrids.

“My secondary goal is to work in science communication and to contribute to clearing up the misinformation that is so prevalent,” Kyanam said.
Students making a difference

Both young women are active outside the classroom as well.

Dunbar is an officer in the Texas A&M Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science chapter and the University’s Women in Science and Engineering organization. She is an active member of Texas A&M’s Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences and was on the organizing committee for the Texas A&M Plant Breeding Symposium in 2020.

Kyanam is a founding member of the Corteva Plant Science Series’ Student Advisory Council and a graduate student liaison for NAPB’s communication committee. She has chaired several plant breeding symposia at Texas A&M and was a founding officer in the Soil and Crop Sciences Graduate Organization.