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Scientists Speak - International Day of Women and Girls in Science - Scheffler
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ARS Celebrates International Women and Girls in Science Day: A Different Kind of Curl! - Fighting Cotton Leaf Curl Virus

Jodi Scheffler, ARS Research Geneticist, Crop Genetics Research Unit (Stoneville, MS)

Dr. Scheffler is project coordinator for a collaborative research program with partners in the United States and Pakistan. The project goal is to mitigate the effects of cotton leaf curl virus (CLCuV), a devastating disease that causes millions of dollars in cotton crop losses each year.

What is the objective of your project?

“As a team we share the common goal to mitigate the effects of CLCuV, ... that causes millions of dollars of lost cotton production in Pakistan and most severely impacts small farmers. This fits into my overall research aim ... to shore-up the defenses of the U.S. cotton crop by releasing sources of resistance to cotton leaf curl virus that our cotton breeders can readily incorporate into their variety development programs, should this disease arrive here from abroad.”

Can you tell us about your cotton research project and the international collaboration involved?

“The USAID/USDA Cotton Productivity Enhancement Program (CPEP) is a multi-million dollar partner project with four U.S. research locations and nine Pakistani research groups to mitigate a devastating disease in cotton plants, the CLCuV. The virus has not been reported in the U.S., but it is considered a potential threat and CPEP supported proactive research to develop virus resistant cotton not only for Pakistani farmers, but also for U.S. growers so we would be prepared if the virus becomes a problem here. Through our partnership, we were able to identify new sources of resistance to CLCuV and transfer it to cotton grown by farmers. The Pakistani partners have been working with CLCuV for over 20 years and are the experts. Based on their knowledge of the cultivation practices of their farmers, we identified best management practices that could mitigate the effects of the disease and worked to make them practical for the farmer. Through our partnership, we have been able to establish Farmer Field Schools (FFS) to more effectively reach the small farmers. This program, also gives young Pakistani scientists the opportunity to attend international meetings as well work in U.S. labs through the Borlaug Fellowship Program.”

How has your work with international partners benefitted your project? What skills/expertise/other contributions have they brought to this research?

“Throughout my career at ARS, I have been fortunate to work with a number of international partners and each one has provided new ideas and novel perspectives that have enriched my own research. My nature is to be impatient and quick to form an opinion. From my partners, I have learned to be more adept at stepping back in a new situation, first observing and really listening. It is important not to make assumptions up front and be flexible. These lessons are useful in any new situation, but are especially helpful when working internationally. In my current project, I have the advantage, as a woman scientist, to work more closely with the female students and scientists in the program and am constantly energized by their enthusiasm and determination to find ways to succeed.”

What are some of the critical research areas that still need to be addressed?

“As is often the case, our research is a continuing search for new and better solutions. CLCuV disease can change and overcome the resistance, so we need to find tune our management practices to preserve the resistance as long as possible. To reach more farmers and their families, we are expanding the FFS program to include special schools just for women and starting a summer program of Ecology Clubs for the children.

It is also important to identify additional sources of resistance and combine them into one cotton variety to make it more difficult for the virus to overcome the resistance. The successes achieved through the CPEP partnership model, has attracted attention internationally and encouraged partnerships with other countries sharing an interest not only in CLCuV, but other cotton diseases. For example, a source of genetic resistance to CLCuV originated in Brazil and I working to establish a partnership with Brazilian plant breeders to jointly use these new sources of resistance.”

Since we’re commemorating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, our audience will be thinking about the role and impact of women in science, and what the particular challenges are that they may face. What is one thing that you would like to share, or advice you may have, about women in science, or for women and girls who are considering a career in science?  

“A Mark Twain quote has stuck with me, 'Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great (people) make you feel that you too can become great.' As a young woman, I chose a non-traditional career, and despite some challenges, I would do the same again. I encourage anyone to choose their career path based on what they enjoy and suits their talents, then give it a try. Your first attempt may not be what you do in the end, but the important thing is to try and don’t worry about what others think you should do. I also realized early on in my career the benefits of having a mentor, and I hope that those of us that have benefited from mentors will reach out to those coming behind us and give them a hand up. If you are starting out in your career, don’t hesitate to seek out people for advice and support. You do not have to wait for them to come to you.”