Thousands of high school learners are discovering agricultural study and career opportunities as part of the AgriSETA Learner Connect project with Food For Mzansi. Today, we meet a research scientist with the cool job of breeding plants. Yes, that’s actually a thing!
Eve Dunlop works for Corteva Agriscience, a global agricultural company, attracting top talent in agriculture. “Our team is responsible for breeding and delivering new and improved maize hybrids for East Africa,” she says.
In agriculture, hybrid seed is produced by cross-pollinated plants. “We don’t just breed for improved yield, but also for improvements against pests and diseases, environmental adaptation, agronomic and quality traits.”
Anyone doing this job, needs a Master’s degree in science or agriculture, at the very least. Often those working in this field also hold a PhD degree. “Research scientist” is a very general description of what Dunlop is doing, and the real-life job can include many different disciplines. To one day follow in Dunlop’s footsteps, learners will need to do mathematics (not mathematics literacy!), physical science and life science at school.
She advises youngsters to be curious and learn as much as they can. “Knowledge is power and puts you in a position to make informed choices. Learn to apply your knowledge as it is no good having all this knowledge and not knowing what to do with it.”
If this career or field of study interests you, then simply follow the links below to find out more and about getting involved. Also check out the other careers to choose from in the agri sector on Food for Mzansi.
Okay, now it’s over to Eve Dunlop, a research scientist at Corteva Agriscience.
Could you sum up your job for us?
I work in plant-breeding research and development for a global agricultural company. Our team is responsible for breeding and delivering new and improved maize hybrids for East Africa. A hybrid is a combination of at least two different inbred parents that give you a better yield than either parent would do individually. We don’t just breed for improved yield, but also for improvements against pests and diseases, environmental adaptation, agronomic and quality traits.
So, what does the day-to-day of your job entail?
Areas over which I have responsibility include collecting and recording plant description data and analysing the effect of environment on different hybrids and parent lines. From this data we calculate production data such as timing splits and expected yield. This information is also used to support the registration of the hybrid seeds in order for it to become commercially available for sale. I also support a team that increases parent seed.
We have to keep the parents genetically pure and so I do this both phenotypically (visually) by removing non-uniform plants from the land and geno-typically to identify impurities at a genetic level and then remove those plants from increases. I have teams that I need to manage so there is administrative work that comes with that. I also track the status of hybrids as they progress through testing right from when they are first made and tested up until they become commercially available and through to their phased removal from our commercial range as new and improved hybrids replace older, lower performing hybrids. There is a lot of computer work, but also a need to check on plants in the field.
What qualification do you need for this career?
To work as a scientist you need to have a Master’s degree in science or agriculture, at the very least, and often a PhD.
What are the character traits you need to be great at your job?
One needs to have strong analytical skills, the ability to see the whole picture, good problem solving skills. Being a logical thinker, good at planning, diligent and conscientious also helps. Then of course you have to pay attention to detail, get things done and be passionate about what you are doing.
What subjects do I need to become a research scientist?
Research scientist is a broad term and one can work in many different disciplines. As an agricultural research scientist one would need to do mathematics and not mathematics literacy, physical science and life science at school. If you do not have all of these subjects, there are other options that can still get you into agriculture but the road to becoming a research scientist would be a much longer one. Nothing in life is impossible but if you start on the correct path with the right subject choices and good marks it is a lot easier.
What do you love about agriculture as a space to work in?
The fact that there is a strong outdoor component and that you are not trapped in an office building in the middle of a city. I love being in the countryside away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is also very satisfying knowing that you are helping to feed the world and enriching people’s lives.
Don’t be modest, tell us about your proudest career moments?
I had the opportunity to work on a new disease as it came into the country and it was thrilling being a game-changer by making recommendations to soybean farmers on how to control soybean rust in their crops. That work took me to Brazil as a guest speaker at the World Soybean Congress.
Not long after I was awarded the Applied Plant Pathologist Award by the South African Society for Plant Pathologists and I was also awarded the Cochran Fellowship by the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) which took me to the the United States of America to work with scientists at the USDA and universities in Illinois and Iowa to share my knowledge and collaborate with them. I have had opportunities to be involved in International Seed Testing Association (ISTA) meetings and have travelled to many countries overseas and within Africa. I love sharing my knowledge with others and empowering them to become better at what they do.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I have three children, two of whom are still in primary school, so they keep me busy with all of their activities on the weekends and then there are home renovations and improvements which take a lot of time and never seem to end. Owning a home is a privilege but it takes a lot of work to keep one’s home and garden in good condition. If you neglect the maintenance it lands up costing you a lot of money later on.
Any advice for young people who are inspired by your career story here on AgriSETA Learner Connect?
Be curious and learn as much as you can. Knowledge is power and puts you in a position to make informed choices. Learn to apply your knowledge as it is no good having all this knowledge and not knowing what to do with it. I am reminded of a saying about the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad! You are our future so invest in yourself, respect yourself and make us all proud.
Where can I study to become a research scientist?
You will need to study at a university. Those that are offer agriculture, in no specific order, are University of KwaZulu Natal, University of Free State, University of Pretoria and the University of Stellenbosch.