Vania Azevedo: A Fighter for Plant Genetic Resources

ICRISAT’s Head of Genebank discusses her past work and shares her thoughts on the role of CGIAR genebanks now and her vision for the future.

On International Women’s Day, we speak to a rising star in the CGIAR genebank community. Vania Azevedo recently took over as the Head of Genebank at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) after a rewarding career working in plant genetic resources with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa). Vania has applied a fighter’s instinct – she trained for three years as a boxer! –  to ensure the crop diversity entrusted to her is safeguarded. The Crop Trust’s Michael Major recently delved into Vania’s past work and picked her brain for her thoughts on the role of CGIAR genebanks now and her vision for the future.

Michael Major (MM): Vania, you have been the head of ICRISAT’s genebank now for almost a year. What personal qualities do you think the head of a CGIAR genebank needs to have?

Vania Azevedo (VA): I always say that we have to be fighters. Genetic resources conservation may be part of the vocabulary of people in governments, universities, research institutes. However, other areas of science tend to be more valued. We have to fight to remind everyone that nothing can be developed if you do not have a good base, or foundation, which is provided by genetic resources. So, we have to keep showing good work and reminding everyone that all fields of biological sciences depend on genetic resources.

MM: About a third of the staff at CGIAR genebanks are women and are fighting like you to conserve our crop diversity. Do you have any advice for women wanting to enter the sciences?

VA: Never in my life have I allowed gender issues to interfere with my work. Science, in general, is full of competition. I can only say that whoever desires to succeed has to have focus, study a lot and be confident of yourself, your knowledge and your capacity.

A woman in science needs to trust herself and fight for what she believes in and never allow the gender talk to be part of her life. Competency, capacity, courage, dedication and knowledge are not gender related. Not even trust. We need to trust ourselves and get the work done.

MM: So how did you become such an advocate for plant genetic resources? What were your early career aspirations? What attracted you to a life amongst the seeds?

VA: OK, starting from the very beginning… I developed a love of genetics in high school, so I enrolled at the University of Brasilia to study biology. At the time I never thought that I would want to work in the conservation of plant genetic resources. In fact, to be honest, I had never heard about plant genetic resources until I started my internship in 2002 at the Plant Genetics Laboratory at Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology in Brasilia.

I graduated in biology at the end of 2002 and started working with molecular characterization. I worked for one year as an associate scientist for a project related to the conservation of forest genetic resources. In 2004, I did a master’s degree in molecular biology and then a year later I started my PhD in the same field and concluded that in 2007.

MM: So by the time you reached your PhD studies you were well and truly bitten by the PGR bug. What did you conduct your PhD research on?

VA: I looked at the molecular characterization of a timber tree species in the Amazon, with the objective to develop the most sustainable strategy of conservation and use of the forest.

MM: And congratulations are in order – a paper based on your thesis received an award as the best student paper in the Journal of Heredity in 2008!

VA: Thank you! I worked hard on that paper and it helped instil in me a passion for conservation. What really attracts me now is the possibility of making a difference by applying good science to the conservation of genetic resources. The satisfaction of knowing that we are doing something good that can impact society in the long term – to know that we can strive for food security by conserving the biodiversity that underpins it.

MM: You’ve got your newly minted PhD and success in the science publishing world. Then what?

VA: I joined Embrapa in 2007 and continued the work I was doing in molecular characterization for in situ conservation. But I also started to work more closely with genebanks, by characterizing the material in different genebanks and populations in order to guide collecting missions.

MM: Your career seemed to be shifting from strictly molecular characterization to the conservation of plant genetic resources.

VA: Indeed. In 2010, I attended a course at Wageningen University & Research, called Contemporary Approaches to Genetic Resources Conservation and Use. That was life changing for me as I started to become more involved in ex situ plant genetic resource conservation. In 2012, I became the coordinator of the Plant Genetics Resources Project responsible for the conservation of plant genetic materials at Embrapa until 2018 when I left to join ICRISAT.

MM: You’ve now settled into life in a CGIAR genebank. How does genebank management differ now compared to when you first started working in plant genetic resources?

VA: In science, things are changing all the time and we need to be alert and we also need to be proactive. The questions about why, what and how to conserve germplasm are changing all the time. Donors need to believe that the material we are conserving is useful now and that we are not working for the future only.

We now have more tools and knowledge that can help in conservation. Large-scale genotyping and phenotyping are becoming less expensive every day. We can reduce costs and modernize operations, while at the same time increasing knowledge about conserved materials.

Also, we are moving to a more global strategy of genetic resources conservation, so it is important to be part of the global movement and be recognized for the hard work that we are doing.

MM: Your predecessor, Dr. Hari Upadhyaya, often said that first he is a genebank scientist. How do you see your role?

VA: And in fact, Hari is one of the best scientists I have ever met! I consider myself lucky having the opportunity of working with him.

Genebanks need both managers and scientists. I see myself as a manager and a scientist who will develop the best work as possible to take the genebank to the highest level of management and will keep it at the great level of science where the ICRISAT genebank already is thanks to Hari and his predecessors.

MM: Speaking of management, several years after completing your PhD you went back to school to obtain a bachelor’s in business administration. Do your business skills help you in the day-to-day management of the genebank?

VA: I believe it helps a lot. Usually scientists are managers too. We manage people, budgets, other resources, sometimes without little training or knowledge. The best scientist is not necessarily the best manager. I’m also not the best manager but my studies in business administration help me a lot in managing big projects and genebanks.

MM: Let’s get a bit personal now if I may. You have come to India after spending most of your career in Brazil with Embrapa. Have you experienced a culture shock now working in Asia? How hard has it been to shift from a focus on Brazilian crops to ICRISAT’s mandated crops?

VA: Yes! I have experienced a big shock. The culture, food, clothes … everything is different and fascinating in India. I believe we can never fully adapt to India. Someone has to be born here to be adapted. But the shock has been a positive one for me. I am already a big fan of chapati and paneer, my favorite foods. I love the clothes and female accessories, the Hyderabad pearls and the lovely ICRISAT campus. But I’ll never get used to the spicy food and to the crazy traffic!

Best part of all is that I have a great spouse – my best companion – who left his job in Brazil to join me in this new phase of our lives. He is my fortress and my greatest supporter.

Regarding the crops of the semi-arid tropics – most of those crops are common in Brazil, but some of them, like sorghum and millets are not used human food. Groundnut is native of South America! And a big part of the northeast region in Brazil is also semi-arid, so we have more in common than expected.

MM: Let’s turn our attention now away from Vania to genebanks. Let’s say I just arrived from Mars. Can you explain to me why we need genebanks?

VA: Genebanks provide the source of material for all life sciences. Plant, animal and microorganism genebanks allow science to evolve. Considering climate change and the reduction of natural areas all over the world, the genebanks are the most reliable sources of genetic diversity of almost all living resources relevant to our survival. A lot of the material conserved in genebanks is no longer found in nature or farmers’ fields.

Thirty years ago, the talk related to genebanks was that we were conserving germplasm for the future – to save ourselves in case of catastrophes. Now, it is clear that genebanks are useful today. They are not just for the future. At ICRISAT, we distribute more than 10,000 samples a year to the entire world. Science already depends on and recognizes the importance of genebanks.

MM: Let’s talk about your new job. You have a PhD in molecular biology and experience with molecular characterization and phylogeny. How will you put this experience to work at the ICRISAT genebank?

VA: I have already started that. Last year we started two pilot projects, one under the Genebank Platform and the other with funding from BMZ which focus on the molecular characterization of material in genebanks. We can use molecular markers to answer many questions, such as how much genetic diversity there is among and within accessions, what accessions are duplicates, and what is the impact of successive regenerations on the diversity within accession. Based on that data we can improve our regeneration activities.

It is easier nowadays to genotype the entire collection with thousands of markers, but then also associate those markers to important traits. By doing this, we can really speed up the process of making trait-specific subsets of the collection which are much more useful to breeders. 

MM: And what about your work in phylogeny?

VA: Phylogeny is also another fundamental field for genebanks, especially considering that we receive both wild and cultivated material from many different sources, including breeding programs. Material could be misidentified as to species and race. Phylogeny can easily help us answer many questions about the evolution of crops like groundnut and promote a better identification of the conserved material.

MM: Finally, Vania, pull out your crystal ball. What do you foresee will be the biggest changes in genebank management in the next 20 years?

VA: I’m afraid my crystal ball shows me a somewhat blurry vision of the future! It’s hard to tell because policies and politics beyond our control can impact what we do. The worst scenario, I would say, is that the exchange of material between countries will drastically reduce due to national legislations and restrictions.

The best scenario would be that countries understand the global importance of genebanks to all of humanity and not just their own country. We need a truly united effort to guarantee the efficient conservation of all agrobiodiversity.

MM: Let’s leave it with your best scenario! Many thanks, Vania. Welcome to the CGIAR genebanks community and keep on fighting!