As the first female scientist at Africa Rice Center, Marie-Noelle Ndjiondjop distinguished herself by becoming the “driving force behind molecular biology research at AfricaRice”. Today, she heads the institute’s Rice Biodiversity Center for Africa. Proof that, given the opportunity, women can make their mark in STEM.
As a child, I used to spend my holidays at my grandmother’s house. She lived in a village about six hours from my native town of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon in Central Africa, where I lived at my parents’ house.
My grandmother was my primary role model early in my life. She was a hardworking person who devoted her life to agriculture. She cultivated crops to feed our family and she sold coffee and cacao as cash crops to pay for our school tuition and books.
My grandmother was a renowned farmer in her village and she taught me a lot about growing cassava, maize, sweet potatoes, cocoyams, and yams, which formed the essential part of our diet. She also taught me about farming systems and seed conservation. I remember listening to her with great attention, as I was fascinated when she shared her advice, knowledge, and stories about farming and crops.
Embracing science with passion
Later, I studied biology at secondary school and, after having passed my A-level exams, I studied molecular biology, nutrition, and genetics at the University of Montpellier in France. I made the decision to become a molecular geneticist after an unforgettable experience I had while taking my master’s degree doing gene cloning in the lab of Herve Sentenac, a molecular physiologist at the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA) in Montpellier.
I was captivated by the interesting research and, after that day, I had no problem spending long hours in the lab. The lab work helped me understand the concepts taught during lectures and I realized that being a good researcher requires analytical thinking skills, time, and patience.
I embraced gene cloning with passion, working with Arabidopsis, a member of the mustard family, related to cabbage and radish. I worked tirelessly into very late hours and on weekends, remembering my grandmother’s words of wisdom. I realized then that I had found my way, and began to forge my path in science, drawing on those first, traditional farming experiences with my grandmother.
I received all my higher education degrees from the University of Montpellier. In 1992, I earned a BSc in biochemistry and molecular biology, and in 1993, an MSc in molecular and cellular biology; I then completed a specialized MSc in nutrition for developing countries in 1995.
I applied for and received a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to complete my Ph.D. in plant biology, and, my doctoral degree for research relating to mapping of markers linked to the rice yellow mottle virus-resistant gene in 1999.
I returned to Africa in 1999 to work at the Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice) where I was able to continue my research as a postdoctoral fellow. This work was also supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. After completing my postdoctoral work AfricaRice hired me as their first female scientist. I continue to work there today.
I focused my research on genetic profiling and mapping of new strains of rice suitable for African growing conditions. I chose this research field because I wanted to contribute to increasing rice production in Africa, with a particular focus on reducing the devastating effects of the Rice Yellow Mottle Virus (RYMV). RYMV is indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa and causes significant yield loss.
The only way to eradicate the virus is to identify the resistant gene and use the marker linked to the gene to improve elite varieties susceptible to the virus. I successfully achieved this when I improved the RYMV resistance in some elite rice varieties in West Africa. My subsequent work relates to the genetic resources unit when I took over as head of the unit.
Building a modern-day gene ark
I currently work in the Genetic Diversity and Improvement Program at AfricaRice as head of the Rice Biodiversity Center for Africa (RBCA) based at the AfricaRice Research Station in Mbé, Cote d’Ivoire. I manage the Genetic Resources Unit (GRU), which is the main component of RBCA. I helped develop the new RBCA at AfricaRice, which serves the varied interests of many users throughout Africa and the globe.
I recently oversaw the construction and establishment of a new genebank in Mbé, Côte d’Ivoire, adhering to the international genebank standards established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. I also coordinated and managed the transfer of the entire genebank rice collections from long- and medium-term storage facilities in Benin and Nigeria, where they had been housed temporarily, to the new genebank in Mbé.
I enjoy all the aspects of managing rice genetic resources, including germplasm collection and acquisition, germplasm multiplication and regeneration, germplasm distribution, and germplasm characterization and evaluation. I also supervise the curation of germplasm data to improve its quality as reflected in the Passport Data Completeness Index as well as the Quality Management System.
The services provided through the RBCA and genebank, and the results generated from research projects in which I and my colleagues participate, are just a few things that translate into tangible benefits to resource-poor farmers (the target beneficiaries of the CGIAR Centers).
The genebank houses and conserves rice genetic resources, and makes them available freely, and the research we do results in the development of new varieties with traits that help farmers cope both with changing environmental conditions due to climate change, and new pests infestations that reduce crop yields.
A champion for plant genetic conservation
The study of plant genetic resources in Africa and their preservation and importance in the fight to combat food insecurity should receive more attention. These include food crops that are vital to nourish and keep us healthy and productive as well as others that are important in medicine or pharmaceuticals.
Some of these genetic resources thrive in their native habitats and are as prolific as weeds. As a result, they are easily destroyed by humans inadvertently. More attention should be directed to their preservation, conservation, and use because they are a veritable gold mine for Africa.
In addition, more attention should be paid to finding ways to eradicate or limit diseases and pests that destroy or reduce the yields of food crops, some of which may have been brought on by climate change.
Science with no borders
Despite numerous managerial tasks, I continue to conduct research. I collaborate with AfricaRice researchers as well as colleagues throughout Africa and worldwide with other CGIAR Centers like IRRI, public- and private-sector universities, companies, and research institutes.
I continue to actively publish research articles in peer-reviewed international journals; to-date, I have 49 published articles on topics ranging from rice genetics resources to genetics and pre-breeding. Most recently, I led a research project in which we generated extensive phenotypic and molecular data in an effort to promote the use of rice genetic resources.
Role models in science
I had several precious advisors who have influenced the course of my life in science.
These include Dr. Sentenac who convinced me that scientific research was my vocation. Indeed, while I was doing my MSc training in his lab, one of my projects involved developing a type of flour from maize or cowpeas for use in baby food used by Cameroonian mothers. My mother used to feed my young brothers and sisters with baby food made from wheat flour (wheat is not a common crop in Cameroon.)
I was also strongly influenced by Drs. Alain Ghesquière and Mathias Lorieux, both rice geneticists at the French National Research Institute (IRD), taught me about rice genetics and genomics. Prof. Michel Lebrun at the University of Montpellier, and Mr. Jacques Longerinas, head of the French Cooperation Mission in Cameroon assisted my travel to France for my education. They guided me when I was looking for a fellowship.
My friends, Mmes. Eve Simo de Baham and Felicie Lopez were also important influences in my life; I worked with them for many hours and learned that solid research takes time. Dr. Susan McCouch, a professor at Cornell University; Dr. Monty Jones, a former breeder at AfricaRice; Drs. Kanayo F. Nwanze and Dr. Papa Abdoulaye Seck, former AfricaRice directors general AfricaRice and current AfricaRice Director General Harold Roy McCauley have been very supportive of my work.
And of course, I am thankful to the Rockefeller Foundation for graciously supporting my Ph.D. work in Montpellier and, later, my post-doctoral work at AfricaRice.
Lighting the torches of others
I also enjoy mentoring. I have trained, mentored, and supervised genebank and RBCA staff, and undergraduate and over 10 MSc and Ph.D. students, some of whom are young women. Being a role model for them, I draw their attention to the important role women play in agriculture and science worldwide.
I have established molecular biology laboratory facilities in national agricultural research system institutions in The Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso. I also established a cutting-edge platform for genetic and genomics of rice in Africa when I was in Cotonou. We hope to see the crop breeders in these countries and elsewhere use these molecular tools for crop improvement and higher crop production.
I continue to mentor and train young women scientists and hope that they eventually will take higher-level positions and make contributions equally important to those of their male colleagues. Women are equally capable of making important contributions in science and agriculture.
I already have had the opportunity to mentor many young Africans, to introduce them to new tools and practices in science, and this has helped them choose careers in science and become better scientists. I would like to know that I was able to change the lives of young Africans by contributing to their skill development and helping them realize how rewarding life in science can be.
Nurturing a new generation of women in STEM
Girls need to be encouraged to go into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from a young age; this education should begin early in the home. The manner in which children are educated from their very first years has a lasting effect on their lives.
Girls who show an interest in STEM are frequently steered away from those areas by their parents, and even society, when they erroneously believe that these are too difficult for girls; that it is not a career intended for women; or that there would be no jobs for women in those areas, even if properly trained.
Even if parents themselves are not scientists, or know much about science, they could encourage their daughters to show a natural curiosity in the world around them. Parents are a great influence on what their children are exposed to so they could bring home age-appropriate books and read to their daughters about science, talk to them regularly about the importance of these subjects, and present opportunities for them to be involved in things such as gardening, explore natural habitats, discuss animal behavior, or watch the night sky.
Parents could ensure their children watch programs that teach about nature, plants, animals, space, and other scientific subjects. These are things even small children, boys as well as girls, may find interesting and ignite that spark of curiosity that will put girls on the path to a career in science the same way that farming with my grandmother did for me years ago.
Schools and employers can help in other ways to encourage girls’ interest in STEM. Boys are encouraged to tackle and excel in STEM knowing there will be a place for each of them. Girls need to know that there is a place for them, too.
Schools could offer laboratory and computer instruction in early primary education and teachers should encourage girls to excel in STEM with the same level of enthusiasm usually reserved for boys. Employers can help parents by offering flexible work schedules to accommodate involvement with their daughters’ science education.
Science has no gender
I haven’t doubted my abilities as a scientist. I have had excellent training and experience as a molecular biologist, just as many of my male colleagues have had. I am equally – if not more – qualified to do my job than many men.
In 2005, I received the AfricaRice Director General’s service award for impressive fund-raising efforts and contributions to the strengthening of the scientific capacity of our staff.
In 2012, I was awarded the AfricaRice Robert J. Carsky Award for my outstanding contributions to rice research, training, and research support in Africa.
In a Rice Today article, I was referred to as the “driving force behind molecular biology research at AfricaRice.”
I have, however, doubted the ability of some men and even of our society to progress to the point of acknowledging that women are intelligent and capable as scientists in the field of agriculture, and should be given equal opportunity.
When I was hired by AfricaRice in 2002, I was the only woman scientist. Since then, there has been some progress made to bring in more women scientists and I have tried my best to make that happen, but I am a bit disheartened at how slowly this change has come.
Challenges of being a scientist…
As a scientist and manager at the genebank, the biggest challenges relate to the ever-tightening budget. There have been significant cuts to the funding of all CGIAR Centers, which means our genebank budget has also shrunk. It is very difficult to budget for all the many important things we need to be able to offer a top-class, functional genebank resource for the international community.
But I have also faced professional challenges coming from other circumstances. In 2002, we were forced to suddenly stop working in the lab because of the civil unrest in Côte d’Ivoire. We were relocated to Mali without any possibility of continuing our work. As a lab researcher, I searched for labs and equipment. I set up a lab again and resumed activities.
While I was unable to do lab work, however, I used my time to raise funds and increased the scientific capacity of my team. We moved back to Bouake, Côte d’Ivoire but for a short time.
In 2004, when Bouaké was bombed, we were again forced to evacuate. We left for Cotonou in Benin to work at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture regional campus. Unfortunately, it had no facilities for biotechnology.
I wrote a proposal for establishing these facilities and I was able to secure funds with which I set up a cutting-edge platform for genetic and genomics for rice in Africa at AfricaRice in Cotonou and hired new staff.
…and a mother
As a single mother with a young son, it was a significant challenge for me to travel. I could not pick him up at the end of the school day, have lunch with him every day, or assist in his school activities. I had to rely on the help of family members or nannies while I traveled.