The year 2017 marks a milestone for scientist Catherine Feuillet. After eleven years, she and her international fellow scientists of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (www.wheatgenome.org) have achieved a breakthrough by identifying the genome sequence of bread wheat. This achievement was particularly daunting. A genome sequence can be pictured as a book that contains all of the information for the make-up of an organism. Sequencing bread wheat, specifically, provided a massive challenge: “With 16 billion base pairs, the wheat genome is five times larger than the human genome and far more complex. Each wheat plant cell contains three sets of chromosomes that carry multiple copies of the same information,” explains Feuillet. “So, decoding the wheat genome was like assembling a puzzle with 80 percent of the pieces looking the same.”
We try to identify genes that are responsible for yield and that have natural resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses, then improve and bring them into enhanced varieties.
“But these years of collaborative effort are paying off for all wheat scientists and breeders around the world,” adds Feuillet. There is now access to an entirely public genome sequence that can accelerate the improvement of wheat varieties. “Knowing which genes are underlying key traits such as yield will enable us to optimize gene combinations through breeding. It will also help us discover even better versions, as well as engineer some genes to increase the efficiency of the pathways that lead to higher yields,” explains Feuillet.
In Brief – Catherine Feuillet
1993: PhD, University Paul Sabatier – Toulouse, France
1994: Postdoc, Swiss Federal Institute for Agroecology
1997: Junior group leader, University of Zurich
2004: Research director, Clermont-Ferrand
2009: Prix Foulon from French Academy of Sciences
2010: Legion of Honor
2011: AAAS Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
2012: Prix J. Dufrenoy from French Academy of Agriculture
Experts like me need to get out of our laboratories and proactively and transparently communicate about what we are doing and why we are doing it.
Key Drivers of Scientific Success
On her long path to this scientific success, Feuillet knows that resilience is one of the most important traits a researcher needs: “Scientists have to be resistant to frustration. Otherwise, they’re permanently disappointed. Working in research, 80 percent of the time our plans won’t work out as expected. It's a series of failures and lessons learned, but each time we advance our knowledge and its application to provide new and better solutions to farmers.” Feuillet and her colleagues also need patience to see the fruit of their work in a product reaching the customers. “If I start something now, I won’t see the results of it on the market for 10 to 15 years but farmers should have access to solutions as soon as possible.“ Despite these ups-and-downs, Feuillet remains passionate about research and maintains a permanent sense of urgency: “When developing our strategy for research projects and improving our operational efficiency, I always have in mind that we need to find ways to accelerate our timelines and ensure that our solutions reach the farmers as quickly as possible.”
Collaboration is another factor that is essential for producing scientific results, says Feuillet: “Several minds collaborating in the same room is better than working alone in a corner.” Against the complexity of scientific challenges, Feuillet is a fan of integrating various experiences and skills: “Collaborations – between biologists, chemists, agronomists, informaticians, and even physicists and mathematicians – is the future. I’m glad Bayer has this vision of an integrated, multidisciplinary research and development organization.”
From Academics to Industry
Feuillet had been working for 20 years on wheat genetics at academic institutions in Zurich (Switzerland) and Clermont-Ferrand (France), before she joined Bayer as the Head of Trait Research. “Now I can apply my research knowledge to develop practical solutions for resource efficient production of healthy wheat crops. Wheat feeds one-third of the world population. “Knowing that more than 800 million people are still starving, I feel a moral obligation as a scientist to help solve this problem and I can fulfill this purpose at Bayer.” As a result, she especially enjoys contributing to food security through her work on crop improvement along with the scientific challenges of working on complex crops and biologies such as wheat and yield. “It is this combination of purpose and challenge that drives me.”
Feuillet and her teams main research area focuses on biotechnology which complements the work of breeders by improving native genes or using completely novel genes. Her groups use different approaches such as mutagenesis and the creation of genetically modified plants to achieve this. “We try to identify genes that are responsible for yield and that have natural resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses then improve and bring them into enhanced varieties.”
As a researcher in this area, Feuillet understands public questions about genetically engineered crops (e.g. GMOs). For her, consumers have fear of GMOs due to a lack of scientific understanding and lost knowledge about how agricultural production works. “Experts like me need to get out of our laboratories and proactively and transparently communicate about what we are doing and why we are doing it.” To support this goal, Feuillet is actively engaged in social media through twitter, GMO answers, and blogs. She is always eager to answer questions from journalists and meet with the public. Recently, she participated in the “March for Science” held in Paris, France, with 5,000 other scientists and science supporters to advocate for scientifically-based decisions and show that scientists are open to discussions with society. “Society is losing faith in science as a source of progress,” she observes. “As scientists, we need to share our passion and purpose and explain how what we do benefits society.”
Self-Confident Women in Science
Catherine Feuillet leads Bayer research groups in the US in the Research Triangle Park near Raleigh North Carolina, and in the northwest Belgian city of Ghent. The role she holds today, she says, came because she developed personal courage along the years. When Feuillet was originally contacted about the position at Bayer, she couldn’t imagine that she was the one they wanted to talk to: “My first reaction was to give the name of somebody else.” She notices a similar lack of confidence among some of her female colleagues: “I think this is one of the biggest barriers among women. Too often we believe we aren’t qualified enough.”
As the Head of Trait Research, Feuillet aims to inspire her entire organization to constantly improve by trying new approaches and challenging themselves in a trustful Environment: “We work together in a culture of trust, innovation and collaboration. I’m providing my groups with the space to experiment. I want them to know they can try bold things even if there is a risk of failure. While we have to deliver results with speed and quality on our current objectives we should still have the room to experiment and discover even better solutions.” As a scientist who has already achieved the research goal of a lifetime, she still has further goals ahead. To reach them, she encourages her team, and herself, to think big. “That’s the only way to achieve breakthroughs in science,” she adds – with a smile on her face.
The biggest barrier among women is that they think they aren't qualified enough.