Nida Ghori still remembers the college class in her native Pakistan when the professor told students about the work of a great American scientist whose technological advances in agriculture helped to alleviate world hunger.
Iowa-born Norman Borlaug, an agricultural scientist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, is known worldwide as the “father of the Green Revolution,” signifying the advancements he made to develop semidwarf, disease-resistant wheat varieties that could produce high grain yields under harsh climates. Borlaug his colleagues bred many newer varieties that produced higher yields and lessened hunger in developing countries.
“In Pakistan,” Ghori says, “the wheat varieties that he developed in the 1970s were grown in the region that I lived in. In my country, we always heard that name in agriculture. His work helped to feed a lot of hungry people.”
Ghori’s connection to the American scientist grew even stronger recently when she was named a 2021 Norman Borlaug scholar by the National Association of Plant Breeders. The program was established in 2018 and is funded by the Agronomic Science Foundation to develop the next generation of plant breeders who are attending U.S. universities and planning to enter the workforce in the next two years.
Ghori is one of just 18 graduate and six undergraduate students who received the honor for 2021, and the first ever from Kansas State University.
“It was a big moment for me to get this award,” Ghori says. She came to K-State in 2017 as a Fulbright scholar. “I am incredibly honored to have my name associated with Norman Borlaug. It is like a dream come true.”
As a Borlaug scholar, Ghori will be mentored by Peggy Akins, who specializes in molecular genetics of plant development at the University of Georgia.
“Our mentors will meet with us throughout the year, and help us transfer smoothly from student life to professional life,” says Ghori, who will graduate in May with a doctoral degree in agronomy. “They will also help to provide me with connections to the scientific community.”
Hessian fly resistance
Since 2017, Ghori has been working in a lab managed by K-State adjunct professor and USDA research molecular geneticist Guihua Bai to develop diagnostic markers in wheat genes that will allow breeders to build resistance to the Hessian fly, a tiny insect that causes millions of dollars in yield losses in U.S. and world wheat fields.
Using modern genomic tools and technology, Ghori says she’s getting closer to cloning a resistance gene that, if successful, will not only help to improve future wheat yields, but also reduce the need for pesticides and other management control practices.
“As a scientist, and especially in the work I’m doing, I’m trying to give something to breeders that they can use in their programs, in applied form,” Ghori says.
Bai says growing resistant cultivars “is the most effective, environmentally safe approach to minimize Hessian fly damage.”
“Currently, wheat breeders find it difficult to breed for Hessian fly resistance due to a lack of selectable DNA markers that have been identified,” Bai says. “So, developing diagnostic markers for resistance genes — and cloning these genes — will speed up the breeding process and quickly deploy resistance genes in new wheat cultivars.”
K-State wheat breeder Allan Fritz calls Ghori’s work important on “multiple levels.”
“It will give us new tools to develop varieties that provide protection against the Hessian fly,” he says. “In addition, understanding the interaction between plants and insect pests adds to our knowledge, and can help us develop effective strategies for insect pests that are important to wheat and other crops.”
The Norman Borlaug Scholar award is the latest in an already-decorated career for Ghori. She has earned numerous travel grants and awards to present research, and in 2020 received K-State’s prestigious Don C. Warren genetics award from the College of Agriculture, which is given to just one graduate student per year.
After graduation, she already has a teaching and research position waiting for her at the University of Agriculture Faisalabad in Pakistan, where she studied before coming to K-State.
“It has been quite a journey for me. I have had so much inspiration from the teachers and mentors that I have had during my academic life,” Ghori says. “I really want to be a mentor, and I think being at a university is the best way I can do that.
“As a researcher,” she adds, “I want to have an impact on wheat and humanity. My aim is to save humanity, to provide them with food, like Borlaug did. He himself once said, ‘We can’t build a peaceful world on an empty stomach.’ That’s what I want to do.”
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