Written by Zane Evans, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.
International collaboration in research and development is the cornerstone of the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS). A long-standing FAS tool to facilitate global collaboration is the Norman E. Borlaug International Fellowship Program in Agricultural Science and Technology (the Borlaug Fellowship Program). Since 2004, the Borlaug Fellowship Program has promoted agricultural productivity, food security, trade, and economic growth.
The Borlaug Fellowship Program provides between 8 and 12 weeks of training and collaborative research opportunities for early- and mid-career scientists, researchers, or policymakers from developing and middle-income countries. Since the program’s inception, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has sponsored nearly 900 Borlaug Fellows from 69 countries through the Office of Global Programs.
2022 marks the return of Borlaug Scholars since 2020. North Carolina State University (NCSU) welcomes Dr. Kemal Melih Taskin from Canakkale University in Turkey. The Borlaug program has been working with Turkey since 2015 and has sponsored other Turkish scholars in the past.
This is Dr. Taskin’s second FAS Fellowship – he was a Cochran Fellow in 2019. Following the success of his Cochran Fellowship, Dr. Taskin worked to found and host a student congress, which hosted an event featuring FAS Post agents in Turkey as lecturers.
For Dr. Taskin’s Borlaug Fellowship, he will research the genetics of apomixis, an asexual seed-based reproduction system, using a Boechera plant species with Dr. Hamid Ashrafi, Assistant Professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences, College of agriculture and life sciences. at North Carolina State University. Drs. Taskin and Ashrafi are supported at NCSU by Dr. Adrienne Tucker, associate director of international programs at NCSU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Dr. Tucker facilitated Dr. Taskin’s recent visit to Washington, DC to launch the US portion of this program and toured the USDA offices with him on July 5.e.
Drs. Taskin and Ashrafi met in Turkey for a pre-research visit in March this year. It was this on-site visit that gave the two the opportunity to begin to develop their partnership and plant the seeds of their research efforts. Brand new to the program process is the pre-research travel visit. Both Drs. Taskin and Ashrafi attest that the visit to the site is extremely beneficial and has helped to accelerate their research, since it has already started in Turkey. Additionally, Dr. Ashrafi brought Dr. Taskin some lab supplies that he found difficult to obtain in Turkey. In a meeting in Washington, DC with Deputy Administrator Mark Slupek and Executive Director Marianne McElroy, this pre-program mentor visit to the fellow was hailed as a hugely beneficial addition to the program process.
Biotechnology is an important part of Dr. Taskin’s work in Turkey and his research at NCSU. He explained to FAS Administrator Daniel Whitley and Associate Administrator Brooke Jamison that Turkish public opinion towards biotechnology is skeptical at best, particularly due to misinformation spread on social media. Administrator Whitley agreed that tackling misinformation is key, particularly when it comes to biotechnology, with a focus on public knowledge of its research and development.
“I’m a little jealous,” Administrator Whitely told Dr. Taskin about the Fellow being on the front lines of biotechnology research and development. “If we want to feed 10 billion people by 2050, all agricultures will be called upon to accomplish this task – and biotechnology will help us achieve this.”
In addition to his research and teaching, Dr. Taskin is a member of the Turkish Agriculture Minister’s Risk Assessment Committee. It plays a role in risk assessment reports for potential agricultural imports. The Borlaug Program will help Dr. Taskin advance his research and career through the tremendous leadership opportunities that arise after Borlaug Fellows complete the program.
Want to know fun facts about USDA Borlaug Scholar Dr. Kemal Melih Taskin and NCSU Deputy Director of International Programs Dr. Adrienne Tucker like their favorite experiments in plants and formative science? Read these interviews with Drs. Taskin and Tucker about their work and other interesting things in their lives.
Interview with Dr. Kemal Melih Taskin:
Q: What is your favorite plant and why?
A: My favorite plant is the olive tree. Olive Tree (Olea europaea, Oleaceae) has been known as the traditional symbol of peace, honor and virtue since ancient times. The olive contains oils and phytochemicals that have nutritional, medicinal and ceremonial importance.
Q: What is your favorite American dish?
A: The buffalo wings and meatloaf are delicious, but I can’t wait to try other American dishes.
Q: What sparked your interest in plant biology?
A: Working with plants is very challenging and exciting. Plants are essential to life on earth. They can provide oxygen and food. They have very large genomes and complex metabolisms, and I’m very curious about them. I like to ask my questions from a plant development perspective. Even the development of a tiny leaf requires coordinated actions of transcription factors, target genes and small RNA molecules. This is all very exciting to me.
Q: What has been an inspiring moment in your career/research?
A: After completing my PhD, I attended a plant development workshop organized by the European Molecular Biology Organization. I was fascinated by the science they taught us. I returned home full of new ideas and submitted my second project and funds to the Scientific and Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK). At that moment, I understood that science could be improved by reading more and by communicating with other scientists.
Q: As a Borlaug Fellow, what are some of your goals/what do you hope to accomplish through this program?
A: This program will grant me new collaborations with experts in the field of innovative plant breeding. This program will also give me more of an international platform in which we can release our ideas. I work on both the molecular biology of apomixis and the metabolic pathways of plants. In the program, I would like to determine the function of candidate genes obtained from natural apomicts. I believe that working with an American mentor is very important to me, because there are much better facilities and more specialized people in the United States.
Q: How will your participation in the Borlaug Scholarship Program benefit Turkey’s agricultural productivity, food security, trade and/or economic growth?
A: Plant biotechnology is perhaps one of Turkey’s most important growth areas, as it is largely an agricultural country. The use of apomixis shows great promise for sustainable agricultural production in other developing countries, as well as in Turkey.
Important applications of this project include: 1) the creation of newly apomictic crop species that can all be hybrids, thereby expanding the scope of hybrid technology; 2) Maintain the maintenance of extreme heterozygosity; 3) Allow seed propagation of currently vegetatively propagated crop species; 4) Avoid crop losses due to pollination/fertilization failures; and 5) allowing the propagation of hybrid seeds directly from farmers. For these reasons, I believe that this research will provide valuable insights into understanding apomixis, which will benefit scientists and farmers in different countries.
Interview with Dr. Adrienne Tucker:
Q: What is your favorite plant and why?
A: As a horticulturist, I am drawn to landscape plants. I find Gingko biloba be a fascinating specimen due to its interesting branching structure and unique leaf shape. Add to that the fact that it’s one of the oldest living tree species – I have to say it’s one of my favorite plants.
Q: What has been an inspiring moment in your career/research?
A: Living abroad in rural France for two years has been transformative for my career. I knew then that I wanted to engage in international relations in one form or another. After assimilating into the culture and enrolling my children in school, I learned a lot about cultural norms, local agricultural approaches and culinary specialties.
Q: What have been the biggest successes of the Borlaug program at NCSU?
A: We have had wonderful Borlaug Scholars and Mentors. Many have maintained their research collaborations beyond the Borlaug program and have sought additional funding opportunities, such as fellow, Ahlam Hamim, who returned to North Carolina State University (NCSU) as a Fulbright scholar. Additionally, we have developed an agreement with the University of Cuenca to host student research interns from Ecuador, following Dr. Maria Cazar’s Borlaug Fellowship. These successes help internationalize the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and NCSU, while connecting North Carolina agriculture around the world.
Q: What has been one of your most rewarding experiences abroad?
A: I traveled to Spain to meet CALS students who were conducting international research. It was a truly enriching experience to see them flourish in a country that was foreign to them. They spent two months contributing to ongoing research and living independently, so they could grow professionally and personally by learning new research techniques and learning to live on their own. Hearing their enthusiasm for research and talking about their home away from home has been rewarding.
Q: What do you and NCSU hope to accomplish by hosting Dr. Taskin and other Borlaug Fellows?
A: With all of the Borlaug programs we host at NCSU, we hope to provide a comprehensive experience for scholars and provide many opportunities. These allow the Fellow to connect and engage with NCSU researchers and the North Carolina Agribusiness and Biotechnology Network to learn leadership and science communication skills.
Q: As someone who has worked with Borlaug Scholars and Mentors, what advice would you share with all current and incoming Borlaug Scholars and/or program alumni?
A: You are part of NCSU when you participate in your fellowship and even when you return to your home institution. The connections you make will always be there and we are always here to support your program and your success.