Jean Hanson: Building the next generation of genebank managers

Recipient of the inaugural Crop Trust Legacy Award

Nicola Temple, Scriptoria and Michael Major, Crop Trust

In the early days of her career, Jean Hanson often wondered what the future would hold and where her career path would take her. Jean, the retiring leader of the Forage Diversity Project at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), wondered out loud to her mentor, the renowned University of Birmingham botanist Professor Jack Hawkes.

“Jack replied that it was better not to know so you could be open to new ideas and challenges and make the most of what life has to offer,” Jean said. She followed the sage advice of her mentor throughout her career and followed the opportunities that came her way.

And little did she know in those early days that she would retire from ILRI not just once … but twice.

Jean retired from ILRI at the end of 2010 after 24 years with the agricultural research center. It was hardly retirement for Jean, since she kept busy as a consultant. Then in 2014, ILRI asked her to return to her previous role as project leader on forage genetic resources until they recruited a new leader.

That temporary position turned out to last four years.

“We started to build the new genebank building and labs. That was challenging and needed continuity in staff. But it was very interesting for me, so I stayed until it was completed,” Jean said.

Being part of the new construction at ILRI’s campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was an unexpected, but exciting, opportunity that Jean embraced and exactly what Professor Hawkes had advised. And it turned out to be a most rewarding experience culminating a 40-year career in seed conservation and genebank management.

The path to Addis Ababa

While studying for her undergraduate degree, Jean read an article about conservation. That article inspired her to focus her career on conservation efforts and join the famous Birmingham MSc course on genetic resources conservation. Her PhD at the University of Birmingham focused on seed longevity in storage.

With a newly minted PhD in hand, Jean embarked on a journey to Mexico and became a post-doctoral student with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and managed the center’s maize genebank from 1976 to 1978. With her post-doc complete, Jean accepted a position as a Technical Cooperation Officer for the UK Government and conducted research on storage of recalcitrant seeds of tropical tree fruits in Indonesia. Then, between 1983 and 1985, she relocated to Rome to help the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (now Bioversity International) with their seed conservation activities, visiting national programs in several countries in order to provide advice on seed storage and genebank management.

In 1986, Jean moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to become the genebank manager at ILRI (which was known as the International Livestock Centre for Africa at the time). Three years later she was leading ILRI’s project on forage genetic resources and remained in that position until her first retirement in 2010. “I have stayed true to my original interests and have always worked with conservation of genetic diversity throughout my career, just on different crops in different countries,” Jean said.

Four decades of change

Jean’s scientific contributions over the last 40 years have earned her international respect and recognition among the crop conservation community. She had to work hard for that respect. When she began her career, she was working in a male-dominated environment and found it hard to make her voice heard. Committed to supporting women in science, Jean served as a mentor for the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development fellowship program, which is still supporting the development of Africa’s leading women in agricultural science.

However, it is not merely gender equality that has changed over the span of Jean’s career. The analytical methods and techniques available for studying crop variability have progressed with extraordinary rapidity. Jean started managing genebanks before there was genotyping. “You described different plants with a ruler and color charts,” Jean said. “Now, high-throughput genotyping and sequencing technology can provide unprecedented knowledge of the biodiversity held within genebank collections.”

Jean believes that the vast amounts of data generated through genotyping will support more informed decision-making for users as well as the genebanks themselves. “The data is giving us a better understanding of population structure and trait distribution,” Jean said. “We can now better identify duplicates and redundant copies, and change the way we look at and manage accessions as genotypes or populations.” This, along with the introduction of DNA barcoding and Digital Object Identifiers for managing and tracking accessions, will significantly change the management of genebanks over the coming years.

Less pipetting, more policy

The political context within which genebanks operate has also changed substantially. In 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was adopted and formally recognized the special nature and importance of agricultural biodiversity. “I started before the CBD at a time when it was more about science and feeding the world, and less about policy,” said Jean. “The CBD introduced issues around access and benefit sharing, and the ownership of genetic resources, making it more political. Now, policy is an important aspect in genebank management.” It is indeed this political context that Jean considers to be the greatest challenge for genebank managers of the future: “The policy environment is crucial in determining how easy it is to provide germplasm to users.”

These changes have meant that genebank managers have had to develop an ever-expanding skillset. Not only do they require a strong foundation in science and exceptional organizational skills, they need to be financially shrewd, politically savvy and capable of seeing the big picture while also attending to the details. “Genebank managers need to be diplomatic, but willing to push to get things done,” Jean said.

Are there people out there with such diverse skills? Jean thinks so. “I think there are qualified candidates for genebank manager roles, but some are not interested in working in another country that is far from family, or having to learn a different culture and language. So, there is a shortage of people interested in working for international genebanks.”

And yet genebank management is fundamentally important to food security. Genebanks continue to play a critical role in not only maintaining an archive of biodiversity, but also as sources of information for exploiting that diversity in order to overcome food insecurity in increasingly uncertain times. “Some species and genotypes are already lost and others will be lost in future,” Jean said. “Genebanks may be the only source of some of the diversity available in the past.”

Jean feels that the sense of urgency for collecting and conserving plant genetic resources is not as strong as it was. “There are those who believe that we already have sufficient diversity in genebanks and we have conserved enough,” Jean said. “But we need to do the genotyping to see what we really have, and then collect in emergency situations.” In 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that there are over seven million accessions held in 1,750 genebank facilities worldwide. “With finite resources, it does seem sensible to put effort into understanding what’s there,” Jean said.

Defining her legacy

It is one thing to look back over a career and recite a list of accomplishments; it is another to be able to define your legacy.

Jean has also contributed to many heavily used tomes, including genebank management manuals, the FAO Genebank Standards and the Crop Genebank Knowledge Base. “I would like to be remembered for establishing a functioning, well-organized and documented genebank,” Jean said. “But I think the people who carry on after me will be the legacy that I leave behind.”

Her colleagues at ILRI certainly believe she has defined her legacy. “ILRI is incredibly fortunate to have had such a dedicated professional genebank manager for over 30 years,” said ILRI’s Director General Jimmy Smith. “Jean has tirelessly contributed her outstanding expertise of genetic resources management and conservation to nurture ILRI’s 19,000 forage accessions. ILRI’s is the only CGIAR genebank dedicated entirely to forage species and Jean has maintained the profile of this rather unique collection of genetic resources. She will remain part of the ILRI family and we look forward to continuing to benefit from her passion for science, a passion only matched by her ability to clearly communicate her work and why it matters so much.”

While Jean’s colleagues could no doubt provide a long list of her successes over her career, she prefers to dwell on who she leaves behind – those countless people around the world she has mentored and supported in order to help build the capacity of the next generation.

Luigi Guarino, the Director of Science and Programs at the Crop Trust, was one of those many people. “I’ll never forget a trip we did in southern Africa together in the late 1980s,” Luigi recalled. “Jean was a great teacher on that trip, and has been ever since.”

Supporting the professional development of people is, in fact, so important to Jean that when she retired from ILRI the first time in 2010, she viewed it as a new career phase during which she would have the time to share the wealth of knowledge she had acquired over her career. Rather than taking leisurely walks or curling up with a good book, Jean moved into consulting in order to build capacity and train students in her field. She also saw this as an opportunity to continue to learn, not only from the people she mentored but from the process of mentoring itself. “I like challenges and being busy. When I retired in 2010, I still felt young and active, so I was glad to still be working.”

Jean not only leaves behind a cadre of skilled genebank managers, but also tens of thousands of accessions she has safeguarded in the ILRI genebank. Does she have a preferred accession? Jean responds as any responsible parent would when asked to choose a favorite child: “No. A good manager should treat them all as equal!” However, she does confess that some of the fodder trees and forage legumes have such strikingly beautiful flowers that they could be ornamentals. When pushed, Jean admits that there is indeed one species that perhaps stands out for her. “Napier grass, because we have done so much work on it over the years and it has great potential for smallholder dairy systems.”

“I have been privileged to have a career that was so interesting that work was never a chore but rather something to look forward to every day,” Jean said in conclusion. “I can’t really see myself giving up work entirely and staying home. I would like to contribute to the debate on how to improve accession management in genebanks, sharing some of the things that I have learnt over my career with others and inspiring the next generation of genebank managers.”