A question & answer session to get to know the 2021 GG Scholar Modesta Abugu, a 1st year graduate student in the Horticulture Science Program. She has joined the Yencho & Iorizzo Labs.

What aspect of genetics and/or genomics most interests you?

I am interested in applying genetics and genomics tools to answer questions related to flavor improvement in fruits and vegetables. My project seeks to identify the relationship between some important flavor compounds and consumer preferences in sweetpotatoes. I also hope to identify some of the candidate genes involved in the synthesis of nutrition related compounds in the crop. This research will provide information that will aid breeders in developing healthier and better testing sweetpotatoes for consumers.

What (or Who) influenced you to go into your field of study?

My mother has been my biggest influence in studying plant breeding and genetics. She had a small farm next to our family house where she planted most of the crops that sustained our family. As a child, my siblings and I helped in tilling and weeding the soil using hoes and cutlasses. This was a backbreaking but rewarding experience especially  as we always looked forward to harvest time. Eating self-grown food helped me appreciate how agriculture can be rewarding to an individual and beneficial to society.

 As I grew older, I was inspired to not only learn how crops are developed, but how to improve crops to be more appealing to consumers and supply them with adequate nutrition. Whenever I tell people I work on improving flavor in vegetable crops, most of them say: “Yeah right, it’s about time someone did that.” I enjoy my research so much and meeting consumer needs is my biggest inspiration. The support I got from my previous advisors – Harry Klee and Denise Tieman – also helped me to hone my research interests and become the flavor science enthusiast I am today.

Who or what do you hope benefits from your research?

I hope that many consumers would benefit from my research, especially women and children who lack access to healthy and nutritious diets in many parts of the world. Nutrition insecurity is a major world problem and millions of people are malnourished globally. Sweetpotato is one of the most nutrient rich vegetables, whose potential has not been fully explored. I hope my research will provide breeders with information to improve flavor and nutrition targeted breeding in sweet potatoes.

How can your research be used to inform decision makers (e.g. policy makers, resource managers, health practitioners, K12 educators, etc etc)?

I hope my research will inform policy makers on the need to promote flavor and nutrition targeted breeding across all research spheres, especially from a consumer’s perspective. I also hope that it will inform K-12 educators on the health benefits of consuming sweetpotatoes, and health practitioners can recommend them for patients to supplement nutrition.

What do you think is the most pressing issue or problem in your field of study?

It is heartbreaking to see that many people cannot access quality food in many parts of the world. It is also quite challenging for breeders to specifically breed for flavor and nutrition because they do not have genomic resources for hexaploid sweetpotatoes to fully understand the inheritance of those traits. Exploring some gene candidates for these traits and quantifying consumer preferences will make this work easier for breeders.

How do you expect the GG Scholars program to impact your work?

The GG Scholars program is helping me think outside the box in terms of tools that can be applied to my research and how to make it more collaborative. Working with other cohorts has been an eye-opening experience, as everyone brings in unique perspectives of how to solve global challenges using genetics and genomics tools. The science communication aspect of the program is also helping me understand how to communicate my work to the public.

How would you describe your research interests to a 3rd grader?

Sweet potatoes are superfoods that protect us from diseases just like how Superman protects the world from bad people. They contain many nutrients including vitamins, fiber, and minerals. Many people enjoy sweetpotatoes just because they are sweet, and they think it’s only sugars that make them sweet. But do you know that hundreds of compounds interact with our brain and mouth to produce that sweetness and flavor? I am working to help people describe those compounds and identify which ones are good or bad for taste. In that way, plant breeders can target only the good compounds to improve sweet potato quality.

What’s your dream job?

My dream job is to develop quality food for everyone. I enjoy working with plant breeders and interacting with consumers to get a feel of what they like. I want to work in any crop improvement program with focus on flavor and nutrition enhancement. It will be a great honor to work in the industry or a humanitarian program such as USAID, UN, or USDA that targets nutrition enhancement in crops.