Featured image above: Laura Boykin (centre) and her colleagues.
The University of Western Australia‘s biologist Dr Laura Boykin has long been fascinated by science. But it wasn’t until she started working in East Africa to help farmers that she truly realised its power to make a difference.
Once she did that, she was hooked.
It’s this feeling of making a difference that lures her to some of the poorest regions on earth to understand and control whiteflies (Aleyrodidae), and their menace on the cassava crop that feeds some 800 million people in the developing world.
Understanding whitefly and its impact on cassava not only increases yields but also tackles poverty. Aiding the crop’s growth is quite literally saving lives.
“Cassava is dying at an alarming rate and a lot of people are worried that if this plant is not on farms there’s going to be a large portion of people without enough to eat,” Boykin says.
So now does she help? Whiteflies kill cassava by transmitting viruses to the plant when they feed on it.
The native whiteflies are increasingly turning to cassava as a food source as temperatures warm and other food sources disappear.
Boykin and her colleagues from East Africa have come to realise there are many different sorts of whitefly, with varying degrees of impact.
So they have been studying the genome sequence of the whiteflies to determine which ones pose the most risk. And they hope to eventually develop a whitefly-resistant variety of cassava.
In the meantime, Boykin and her colleagues help where they can by advising farmers when to plant what species of food in a bid to prevent whitefly impact.
In doing so, they are also building the capacity of East African scientists wanting to work on genomes and the supercomputing required to decode DNA sequencing.
Helping her fellow scientists in this way is what really fires her up.
“If you look around in science, you’ll see it’s a white person’s game,” she says.
“I don’t think that’s right and it’s boring. Scientists in East Africa are brilliant – they just don’t have the same access to resources. So I want to do everything I can to help remove those barriers.
“When I’m in a nursing home I’m not going to remember the papers I’ve written, I’m going to remember the people—that’s what gets me out of bed and makes me so excited about my work.”
Boykin is sharing tales of her fight against the whitefly at Pint of Science Australia.
– Samille Mitchell