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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge
May 2017: Meet Carol Ibe

Carol Ibe grew up in Nigeria, studied at some of the world’s top universities, and is now dedicated to helping other Africans advance their careers. In recognition of her leadership potential she received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to carry out a PhD in Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences. The African Diaspora Biotech Summit, held last month in Cambridge, was a flagship initiative of a Foundation she created. It brought together over 70 researchers, students, policy experts and industry leaders to discuss how to build Africa’s bioeconomy.

Q: What’s the point of your research?

A: Rice roots have widespread associations with both beneficial and detrimental fungi. The beneficial fungus Rhizophagus irregularis helps rice to obtain nutrients from the soil through a symbiotic relationship, whereas the pathogenic fungus Magnaporthe oryzae causes rice blast, a major disease affecting up to 30% of cultivated rice in field conditions. My research aims to discover the commonalities and differences in the way these two fungi colonise and grow inside rice roots, and in how the rice plant deals with them. I’ve identified a common set of genes that may be involved, and I’m excited to further investigate the function of these genes during the intracellular growth of both beneficial and detrimental fungi in rice roots.  

Q: How is this relevant to Food Security?

A: Rice is a staple food for more than half the world’s population, including many African countries. If we can better understand how the disease-causing fungus interacts with the rice plant, we can develop new and effective disease-control strategies against rice blast. And if we can enhance the mutualistic relationship between rice and the beneficial fungus that provides soil nutrients to the plant, we might be able to improve the process to develop environmentally friendly ‘biofertilisers’ for use in low-input agricultural ecosystems. Smallholder farmers in Africa could use these to boost crop yields, instead of more expensive chemical fertilisers that pollute waterways.

Q: How do you feel now the African Diaspora Biotech Summit is over?

A: I’ve talked about the idea of a Summit for years. It took a lot of hard work and planning, together with my colleagues Dr Trisna Tungadi and Chloe Orland in the Department of Plant Sciences, and after a lot of sleepless nights it all came together. I think it was a big success. There’s still a lot of work to be done though. The Summit was a great starting point to help identify and better understand the problems hampering the growth of Africa’s biotech sector, and the bioeconomy in general. Now we’re putting together a working group to start addressing some of the issues raised.

Q: Where did your vision for the JR Biotek Foundation come from?

A: I grew up in Nigeria where I did my undergraduate degree, but when I went to Georgetown in the US to do my first Masters’ degree, I felt like fish out of water. For the first few months, I struggled to understand what was being taught because I had a very limited knowledge of molecular biology. This was because my undergraduate institution - just like many others across the continent – didn’t have the right infrastructure or expertise to prepare me for that next step in my academic career.  That’s when I decided I had to do something, and I came up with the idea of the JR Biotek Foundation. It’s a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to educating and training a new generation of African scientists who can compete globally, and who are bold enough to apply their knowledge and skills to developing Africa’s bioeconomy.

Q: Why did you decide to focus the Foundation’s work on agriculture?

A: Agriculture is the largest employer of labour in most African countries, but somehow the sector and its potential benefits to the continent have been largely overlooked. Healthcare is a big and very important sector too of course, but if people don’t have enough food to eat then everything else becomes a problem. As a Foundation, one of our main goals is to train Africa-based agricultural researchers on how to apply modern bio- and other useful technologies to improve agricultural productivity and food security in their countries. I really hope that we can find more practical ways to boost the yield and quality of our local crops so we can provide better opportunities for small holder farmers and future generations. I want to make an impact on what really matters, and part of it is to provide knowledge, educational tools and other resources that will help Africans, especially students and early-career researchers, to advance their careers and help develop the continent’s agricultural sector, which can create more employment opportunities and help grow the bioeconomy.

Q: Where do you have your ideas?

A: I do reflect a lot, and I believe I have a role to play in humanity as a Christian. I usually envisage what needs to be done from a place of prayer. The more I’ve done the things I see need doing, the more I see to do!

Q: Have you ever had a Eureka moment?

A: I consider I’ve found things that can lead to the answers we want, but there’s still a long way to go with the projects and initiatives I’ve created for Africa.

Q: What would people be surprised to find out about you?

A: I set up the Cambridge University Gospel Choir last November, and after just four months we made it to the finals of ‘University Gospel Choir of the Year’ competition. I love singing and I love Gospel music, but I felt so surprised to find myself there in London, performing with our choir and also singing in a mass choir with over 300 others! It was so exciting.

Q: What’s the best advice anyone’s given you?

A: My mother always told me to ‘be who you are, treat everyone with respect, work hard, and eat well’. It’s helped me a lot.

Q: What’s your favourite research tool?

A: I do a lot of confocal microscopy, where I observe how the fungi that I work with grow inside rice roots. Just watching the fungus fluorescing as it interacts with rice roots is the coolest thing ever, and it provides important information that helps advance our group’s research.

Q: How would you like to be remembered?

A: As someone who cared about the welfare of people in Africa and did something to improve the lives of others. I believe I have a responsibility to help countries in Africa achieve sustainable development, and my contribution right now is to help by training students - whose shoes I’ve been in - to advance their careers. If we can restructure the tertiary education system in Africa, then we will have the capacity to address Africa’s real problems.


Read more about the African Diaspora Biotech Summit, and the JR Biotek Foundation