September 17, 2020, by Andrew Edwards (Ed)
Resistance to disease in tropical crops – an interview with Professor Pathmanathan Umaharan
Professor Pathmanathan Umaharan (‘Uma’) is the Director of the Cocoa Research Centre, University of the West Indies. The Future Food Beacon is proud to welcome him as an Honorary Professor for the 2020/21 academic year. We spoke with Uma about his research career, current projects, and collaborations with Future Food.
Tell me about your work. What is your research about?
I am a geneticist, with most of my early work centred around understanding the genetics of resistance to bacterial, fungal and viral diseases in a number of tropical crops such as: cowpea, tomato, capsicum peppers, anthurium and now, cocoa. In brief summary, my work, and that of my graduate students, has led to:
the development of cowpea varieties resistant to cowpea severe mosaic virus and Cercospora leaf spot diseases;
tomato varieties resistant or tolerant to bacterial blight and the begomovirus complex;
anthurium varieties resistant to bacterial blight and bacterial leaf spot diseases; and
enhanced populations of cocoa resistant to blackpod and witches’ broom disease.
Our work has also resulted in high yielding, year-round pigeonpea varieties with improved nitrogen fixation ability as well as capsicum pepper selections.
During my tenure at the University of the West Indies, I became interested in genetic resources, the necessary raw material that was driving my genetic studies and breeding efforts. I collected, characterised and established a Caribbean collection of hot peppers and anthurium.
In 2010, I was appointed Director of the Cocoa Research Centre of the University of the West Indies, the custodian of the International Cocoa Genebank and a research centre recognised internationally as the oldest in its class. Here I became interested in using genetics to solve problems facing the cocoa industry such as cadmium in cocoa beans, negative impacts of climate change and inconsistencies in cocoa quality.
Our team was also interested in developing molecular markers for important agronomic traits. It is here that my path crossed with that of Professor David Salt of the Future Food Beacon, University of Nottingham.
How did you become interested in this field? How did you become interested in science?
I remember following my grandfather in his garden and asking questions. He was a master farmer of his time, with paddy fields, coconut groves, vineyards and vegetable gardens. He was entrepreneurial, curious and very successful and was recognised as a master farmer by the Government of Sri Lanka, with several awards. That is where my curiosity in science and agriculture took root, I think. I have also been lucky to have had mentors and collaborators in every stage of my career who have helped me to sharpen my thinking, skills, and confidence.
Tell me a little about your research career?
I had a very colourful early life, having been born in Sri Lanka. I then followed my doctor father to the UK, where I pursued primary education. I returned to Sri Lanka for my secondary schooling and university (University of Peradeniya), before I went off to Trinidad and Tobago to pursue my doctorate at the University of the West Indies. I completed my postdoc at the prestigious Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, USA.
I joined the University of the West Indies as a lecturer soon after my PhD and I have dedicated my life to solving problems facing the agriculture sector. I was promoted to the position of Professor of Genetics in 2008 and became the Director of the Cocoa Research Centre in 2010. At the centre, I have the opportunity to give back by nurturing and mentoring younger scientists to reach their potentials and in that process support the development of the cocoa sector locally, regionally and globally.
What current projects are you working on?
Our team is presently working on climate resilience, tolerance to high illumination, cadmium mitigation, improving quality and developing molecular markers in cocoa. Each of these are very exciting projects, with prospects for the future.
In addition to this, we have embarked on a developmental project to use data science to support management and decision making in cocoa industry development. We have also projects in Latin America and the Caribbean to extend some of the findings to countries in the region.
Is your research easily applicable in ordinary settings?
The mandate of our research centre is to conduct application-oriented projects to solve local, regional and sometimes international problems. Often the application-oriented research that we do takes us into fundamental research to gain a greater understanding.
I have had very rewarding collaborations with many universities and research centres in North America and Europe. To leverage these findings to support the cocoa sector we have set up an International Fine Cocoa Innovation Centre as an outreach mechanism.
Why Future Food? What would you like to accomplish while you are part of Future Food?
From my early interactions with Future Food, I realised that both our institutions have so much in common. We both seek to solve big ticket global problems that can have an impact on the economies of countries and livelihoods of farmers. Being part of Future Food will allow us to capitalise on our strengths to go after big grants to solve global problems. The Future Food Beacon has a strong multidisciplinary team behind it and I am optimistic that, together, we can make great strides.
Can you explain your research to an ordinary person?
Finding genetic solutions provides sustainable solutions to agricultural problems without driving costs up.
I was fortunate to have been part of a number of industry groups where stakeholders discuss the problems they face. I structured my research around these problems with the singular belief that such problems can be solved through the application of genetics. Often this requires identifying the sources of genes from germplasm collections, understanding the genetic control, developing a breeding programme or biotechnological approach to solving the problem and testing and releasing the variety.
Do you have a greatest career moment?
Often, when you follow your passion, every finding appears to be the greatest career moment to you. Although you don’t expect it, when you receive awards from your peers, I guess you feel fulfilled. I was fortunate to have received a number of University Awards for excellence in teaching and research but also for the release of a number of varieties by the WIPO and the industry.
Do you have any advice for young scientists?
I take pride in mentoring young scientists and when they excel it gives me immense satisfaction. My advice to young scientists is to follow their passions. See the big picture and craft your small role within the big picture. Be patient and follow your dream and you will see the picture becoming clearer and more vivid with time.
Does your research impact on ordinary people’s lives? How?
I would like to think that the work that I have done has impacted, in whatever small way, upon the lives of farmers and ordinary people. I hope that it will continue to impact upon their lives in the future.
Solving a problem is like a lifting a boulder off the shoulder of the farmer. I recall a farmer in tears at my door when acres of her anthurium farm was destroyed by a devastating bacterial disease. Working with the farmer and six graduate students, we were able to solve a number of her problems. It is the most gratifying experience for a researcher, when you are able to solve real-life problems.