Ag Research Spotlight: Tesfaye Mengiste
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
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.”