Ag Research Spotlight:
“If you don’t do basic research, things will stay as they are. I want to try to contribute to better understanding so we can improve agriculture.” –Tesfaye Mengiste, Professor of Plant Pathology
The Ag Research Spotlight shines each month on an individual whose work reflects our commitment to the six strategic themes that guide Agricultural Research at Purdue. Our inaugural spotlight for August 2012 underscores the theme, utilizing molecular approaches to expand the frontiers of agriculture and life sciences.
Tesfaye Mengiste calls himself a “nomad” who finally found a home in Agricultural Research at Purdue. He grew up in a farming village and received broad training in plant science at an agricultural college in his native Ethiopia. His pursuit of a career in research and more education took him first to England and Switzerland, where he earned his doctorate at the University of Basel, and then to North Carolina as a post-doctoral scientist working for Syngenta, a global agribusiness company. He came to Purdue in October 2002.
Mengiste’s research explores the mechanisms that plants use to fend off infections by microbial pathogens. “The idea is that if we can understand this, we can breed or select plants that can resist important pests,” he explains. His recent work focuses on the tomato and its wild relatives with an idea to transfer disease resistance traits from the wild species, which otherwise exhibit poor horticultural traits.
At the heart of Mengiste’s efforts is reducing or eliminating losses attributed to pathogens – a significant issue in global food production and safety. His cellular-level research will be the basis of plant breeding that may save crops now lost to pathogens. Improving resistance in plants also might reduce the need for chemical pesticides, which can be a concern in public health. Mengiste swaps ideas and shares the workload with other scientists in Europe, Korea and China. “This kind of research is based on interdisciplinary collaboration,” he says. “We try to find complementary expertise and a division of labor.”
“The most difficult problem is limited money,” says Mengiste, who spends a lot of his time writing grants. Lack of funding, he adds, disrupts the continuity of his research: “You don’t spend as much time thinking about the science itself and how to improve things.”
In the lab and classroom, Mengiste thrives on interaction with students and post-doctoral scientists. He is invigorated by his research assistants, whose persistence and enthusiasm for science translate to discoveries that ultimately affect agriculture. Teaching not only forces Mengiste to keep current with the literature; it also connects him to students. That, he says with satisfaction, “keeps me young.”