Dr Anna Backhaus of ICARDA will be one of the lead researchers for the project “Leveraging genetic innovations for accelerated breeding of climate resilient and nutritious crops”. In this interview, she discusses her professional and academic background as well as the work she will be undertaking as part of the project team.
Anna Backhaus is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at ICARDA. She is working on pre-breeding for cereals at ICARDA. Her work focuses on accelerating the identification and introgression of useful gene bank material. Anna also focuses on using the diversity in the more distal crop wild relatives of wheat and barley. She holds a PhD from the John Innes Centre.
Q. What, or who, first inspired you to pursue a career in plant science?
I was born in Bonn (Germany), which happens to be a hub of UN agencies. And in 2008, I was able to participate in a youth conference on biodiversity through my local school. I presented our final demands at COP9, which was held the same year in Bonn. At that time, I was 12 years old, and COP was not quite as prestigious as it is today, but it was nonetheless an impressive experience for me. I learned about the key role of agriculture for a sustainable future. If we want to safeguard biodiversity, while improving livelihoods, and battling the negative consequences of climate change, we need agricultural innovation. The agricultural sector is hugely affected by climate change, but at the same time it is a key contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss. A diverse set of approaches and sciences are needed to improve today’s agricultural practices. A summer internship at Purdue University Burkhard Schulz taught me the basics of plant sciences. And the idea that we can make plants more efficient and resilient through genetic principles fascinated me.
Q. Why did you decide to focus your research on wheat genetics?
Plant science is beautiful, because of the excitement and fulfilment it gives you when you discover something new about the world which can, at the same time, be used to improve livelihoods. I am driven to use my education, that I was fortunate to receive, to contribute something that is useful to this world. And if a scientific finding is free and available to everyone that is interested, then even better. So, without knowing, I aligned myself very early on in my career to the principles that are also at the core of CGIAR.
At the heart of the recent Oppenheimer movie is the question of how far scientists are responsible for the consequences of their discoveries on the world. The same topic was explored earlier in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1962 play “Die Physiker” (The Physicists), in which the main character, an atomic physicist, exclaims “We have to take back our knowledge… Our science has become terrible, our research dangerous, our knowledge deadly”. Well, in my research field I never have this dilemma; wheat research is for the benefit of society and helps tackle global challenges. My work contributes to the advancing the SDGs – that is, if I do it well. Wheat is one of the most important and widely grown crops on this planet; its evolutionary history is deeply entwined with our own. But commercially it isn’t very valuable, meaning that the private sector is not as invested in it as it is in other crops, such as maize. Wheat is, however, an extremely valuable crop for small-hold farmers because it is a stable source of calories and protein (for humans and animals). It is a key crop for food sovereignty, something we need to focus on more as global markets continue to be destabilized as a result of natural disasters and war.
Q. How did your PhD research at the John Innes Centre shape your current thinking?
I was at ICARDA for a summer internship just before joining the John Innes Centre (JIC). The internship and my previous exposure at COP9 meant I was already very determined to work on cereals and find out more about their complex genetics. So, my aims were clear, but JIC was where I learned everything else. During my PhD, I was fortunate enough to work with the most advanced and cutting-edge tools in genetics. But even more important was being surrounded by excellent scientists, mentors, role models, and fellow students. The timing of my PhD was especially interesting as the first wheat genome sequence was released (in 2018) just before I started. This, of course, drastically changed the methodologies we could suddenly access and the possibilities for research. And this taught me to think about what might be possible tomorrow, and prepare for this, rather than focus only on the challenges of today. My time at JIC and ICARDA also helped me to see where, when, and to what extend fundamental research can be leveraged to solve global agronomic problems. Thus, I am very excited about the UK-CGIAR Centre which is helping to build bridges in an area I was also envisioning to work on when I joined ICARDA. Lastly, JIC has shaped my current thinking on how a healthy, inclusive, and open scientific research environment can be fostered. I was always encouraged to collaborate openly, help others, and take leadership. I believe this kind of research culture is equally important for a successful project, as is technical knowledge.
Q. You’ll be one of the lead researchers on the project “Leveraging genetic innovations for accelerated breeding of climate resilient and nutritious crops”. What roles will you and ICARDA be playing as part of this project?
I see my role as a connecting point between JIC, ICARDA and the other partners. I personally know both sides well and will have an overview of research activities. This was already important during the project development phase where we needed to understand what the new technologies are capable of, as well as what is and isn’t possible in the field. We are a diverse project team – ranging from molecular biologist to gender specialists – so naturally there are hurdles. I hope to continue finding more opportunities to connect and collaborate during the project so we can develop further as a team. Furthermore, I will also be actively conducting some of the research, so my knowledge and previous work with next generation sequencing data and field trials will contribute to this project. ICARDA’s extensive experience in bioinformatics, gene bank management, field research, and especially its long-established networks with farmers in the Global South will be important to this project. ICARDA already engages in many of the non-research aspects of the project, such as meeting with policymakers and training. Together with CIMMYT, we can thus play an important role in trialling the new technologies (gene editing and new genomic data) and communicating the outcomes in clear guidelines.
Q. How well do you think women are represented in science? What steps can be taken to improve gender equality in science?
I don’t think I can give a global answer to this; representation varies tremendously between countries, organizations, and scientific fields. I also don’t belong to another marginalized group, reducing the heavy effects of double discrimination other women experience. But looking at the numbers, things don’t look too good (less than 30 of the winners of Nobel Prizes in scientific fields have been female), and we still have a substantial lack of women in senior and leadership positions. It cannot be denied that unconscious gender bias and discrimination are driving women out of science, something that I believe can only be tackled by targeted training and incentives for senior management across all organizations to change the status quo. For this, training and stringent implementation of gender equality guidelines will be necessary. It’s time to move away from focusing on training only women to solve this issue.
But having worked in a very inclusive and diverse workplace at JIC, I do believe the UK is well positioned to be a global leader of promoting gender equality, especially if gender equality is part of proposal evaluation and funding dispersal. This project is a positive example of how things are moving ahead: six of the work package leaders are female because we made a conscious effort to think about gender balance and representation on all levels – from proposal development to the project activities, – of our research activities.
Q. How do you see this project evolving over the next few years?
I hope this pilot project will develop two things: 1) future collaboration between UK research institutes and the CGIAR, and 2) the use of the new breeding tools we are testing. I am really looking forward to the new ideas that we will certainly come up with when the partners from the different centres meet and work together more closely.
More practically, we will test two very new tools for the first time in CGIAR. The greatest hope for this work is that it ensures the Global South is not left behind with this new technology and provides countries with the necessary tools and knowledge to decide for themselves how to regulate gene editing. It would be good to see discussions of gene editing regulation – that are happening in Mexico, the UK and Europe – take place in Egypt, Pakistan and Kenya. I hope we can help these discussions to evolve. Scientists working in the CGIAR will be using high-power computational platforms to handle the new types of sequencing data. This will hopefully lead to the development of novel capacities available to everyone in the CGIAR. DNA, and thus sequencing data, is the same in all crops and therefore this part of the project will be easy to scale to all CGIAR crops.