October 2, 2020, by Andrew Edwards (Ed)

How can the winged bean improve our futures? An interview with Chong Yuet Tian

Tian is a Future Food Beacon Malaysia PhD student under the supervision of Prof. Festo Massawe, Dr. Hui Hui Chai and Dr. Ajit Singh. She obtained a BSc (Hons) in Agricultural Science before joining University of Nottingham Malaysia to research genetic improvement of crop plants, especially minor and underutilised crops. She is currently researching winged bean, a tropical legume with high nutritional value. The main goal of her PhD is to develop winged bean lines with improved nutritional quality and yield traits.

Why did you decide to do a PhD?

The thought of continuing my study to a higher degree came to me when I was pursuing my undergraduate studies in 2018. As a fresh graduate, I worked with Crops for the Future Research Centre (CFFRC) in Malaysia for a short period. The centre focused on research areas related to underutilised crops, which matched my interests. During my time at CFF, I met one of my supervisors, Dr. Hui Hui Chai, who introduced the present PhD research opportunity to me.

Why did you choose this particular PhD project?

I was keen to continue my journey in agricultural science and contribute more significantly to the agricultural industry. I am passionate when it comes to food! I am also very much aware of increasing food insecurity issues around the world so securing our food supply is one of my life goals, especially given the impact of climate change and the current Covid-19 pandemic.

A good understanding of genetics and breeding in winged bean will allow me to elevate this underutilised crop into a more productive and nutrient dense crop. This will supplement commonly used major crops in providing adequate daily nutrient requirements.

Tell us about your research. What do you study? Why is it important?

My main research focuses on improving underutilised crops through breeding; for my PhD, I focus on winged bean. Winged bean is a superb crop plant because most of its parts can be consumed when they are appropriately prepared. It is packed with both macro- and micro-nutrients, making it an ideal food source in our fight against malnutrition. However, the crop has a number of constraints in production (e.g. indeterminate growth habit) and consumption (e.g. anti-nutritional factors and hard-to-cook phenomenon), which must be addressed to reach its full potential.

This is where my research comes in. Firstly, we have collected adequate germplasm resources for an in-depth study, including selection of superior lines as parents for controlled crosses prior to variety development. Secondly, we have developed a number of segregating populations for genetic analysis, especially, to understand and reveal genetic control underlying key quality and yield traits. Development of winged bean varieties with improved nutritional value and crop yield would allow the crop to be adopted and used more widely to diversify our food basket. It could especially tackle food security and nutrition issues in areas where animal protein is scarce and expensive.

How do you explain your research to ordinary people?

Most people understand the importance of having sufficient, nutritious and affordable food. What they do not know however, is that our current food supplies come from an ever-shrinking and narrow range of food sources, which is risky.

My research is about expanding our food basket with more crops, not only to safeguard agro-biodiversity but also to increase accessibility and affordability of nutritious and healthy food from local sources. Development of improved varieties in winged bean through breeding will overcome some of the yield- and food-related constraints that have restricted this crop from achieving the fame it deserves. I am therefore contributing to global efforts to tackle food security and nutrition challenges.

How do you cope with the pressure of doing a PhD?

Balancing between work and rest is vital to energise us. A healthy diet and lifestyle helps too but I allow myself time to rest and to eat “junk food” occasionally. I try to stay positive and keep most things in check. In particular, I try not to spend too much time overthinking things that I do not have control over!

Posted in Interviews