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First recipient of award supporting the advancement of women in plant science recently named

Published October 16, 2014
Robb Fraley, left, introduces Laura Chatham, center, as the first recipient of the Fraley Borlaug Scholars in Plant Science scholarship. Photo by Miranda McCarthy, College of ACES.

URBANA, Ill. – The first recipient of the Fraley-Borlaug Scholars in Plant Science scholarship, established to support women studying plant biology and biotechnology in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, was recently announced.

Laura Chatham, a first-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Crop Sciences, was introduced as the first Fraley-Borlaug scholar during ACES’ annual Salute to Ag Day on Sept. 6. The scholarship was established by Monsanto and U of I alumnus Robb Fraley, who serves as Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. Fraley, who was named one of three 2013 World Food Prize laureates, announced last year that he would use his share of the financial award, along with a match from Monsanto, to establish the endowment, initially totaling $250,000 for the College of ACES.

Fraley said establishing the endowment was not only a way for him to help with an under-representation of women in plant science and biotechnology, but a way to honor Norm Borlaug, recognized as the father of the Green Revolution and as having saved one billion lives as a result of improved wheat production. Borlaug created the World Food Prize in 1968 to honor those who make significant contributions to improving the world’s food supply.

“I knew Norm Borlaug very well during the last 20 years of his life. One of Norm’s passions was education, and he spent a lot of time training students,” Fraley said. “After I won the World Food Prize, I was looking for a way to recognize Norm. I have a personal passion for diversity and ensuring that there are more women in agricultural sciences. Establishing this award blended my experience and relationship with Norm and my own passion.

“As I look around the world, particularly in Africa, women play a real and important role in agriculture and the decision making. In North America, we are seeing a whole new renaissance of women in agriculture, I think particularly because of an interest in food security and food production,” he said.

Fraley added that particularly in the areas of plant breeding and agronomy, there is a need to have women who are trained in those sciences who can move into the workplace. “There is an opportunity for many more women to enter and provide leadership in a historically male-dominated industry. I hope this scholarship encourages more women to get degrees and move into that space,” he added.

Chatham’s research at U of I will be focused on replacing artificial dyes in food with natural colorants developed from corn. She will also work with Jack Juvik, a professor in crop sciences, researching cancer-preventative properties in brassica vegetables.

The newly named scholar said she sees the value in an award aimed at encouraging women to study in this field. “There is a disparity between the number of men and women in the STEM fields, and I’m not sure why the numbers still haven’t evened out,” she said. “Maybe this award will help in removing some of the obstacles for women getting into this field, and maybe it will inspire women to take this route when they might not have.

“It’s encouraging that such a successful company has realized this and is supporting women in an area that has long been male dominated,” she added.

Juvik said that currently about 38 percent of graduate students in crop sciences at U of I are women, a number that is up from 10 percent just 10 years ago, he added.

“The establishment of this scholarship sets a theme that is very important. By far the majority of students who graduate with specialties in plant breeding and genetics in our department, and others, are men. There is a real issue about women and their roles in agriculture in a number of countries. Much of the agriculture in developing countries is affiliated with women so it would be helpful to have women in positions of leadership that other women can look up to. These leaders could influence agricultural processes that would lead to improved sustainability in the food supply,” Juvik said.

He added that this endowment will provide opportunities for women to gain training and confidence to perform and provide leadership not only for their gender but for plant breeding and food sustainability for the future.

Chatham will be joining Fraley and others this week at the 2014 World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue Oct. 15 -17 in Des Moines, IA, where she will again be recognized as the recipient of the scholarship. This year’s dialogue will address the challenge of sustainably feeding nine billion people on our planet by the year 2050.

“There has never been a more exciting or more important time to be in agriculture with the challenge that the planet faces with the food supply,” Fraley said. “It’s going to take all the innovation and tools possible. It’s not only a noble mission but a great area from the point of view of a great career to participate in. The science is changing very dramatically, and all of the phenomenal advances in biology and information technology we’re seeing coming together on the farm leads to the recommendation that no matter what aspect of agricultural research or science you’re involved in, having a broad training background that encompasses both biology and information technology is key.”

A new recipient of the award will be chosen each year, and Juvik said he would like to see international students be considered for the fellowship as well.

Read more on the Fraley-Borlaug Scholarship and women in agriculture on a recent blog written by Fraley at http://monsantoblog.com/2014/09/10/launching-the-fraley-borlaug-scholars-in-plant-science-scholarship/

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Jack Juvik, 217-333-1966