Women Who Revolutionized Agriculture and the World: Part 2
By: Marlia Bosques-Martínez
Barbara McClintock • 1902-1992 • Maize Geneticist • American
Barbara McClintock’s family thought that getting married was more important than studying. Despite this, McClintock started her love affair with genetics in 1919 while she was an undergraduate at Cornell’s College of Agriculture. After finishing her bachelor’s degree, she did her master’s and Ph.D. in plant genetics at Cornell University -an achievement quite exceptional for a 24-year-old woman at that time. McClintock’s pioneering graduate findings began to put cytogenetics and corn chromosome research on the map. Post-graduate school, she stayed several years at Cornell teaching and conducting groundbreaking research with a group of plant breeders and cytologists.
Through cross breeding techniques, McClintock studied ways to observe corn chromosomes through a microscope and described their appearance in the resulting hybrid. She discovered that the hybrid chromosomes were different and in cases when plants had one trait but not the other, parts of the chromosome exchanged location. These findings were recognized as the most significant research in modern biology. McClintock's efforts should have provided enough credentials to be part of Cornell's faculty, but since she was a woman the faculty prohibited it. Her tenacity led to a position at the University of Missouri. The work environment was toxic and discriminatory and her chances for advancement were next to nothing.
After five years of outstanding work with mutations in chromosomes, she decided to pack her bags and venture. McClintock found a place to permanently plant her corn at Cold Spring Harbor. Her experiments showed that genes were able to shut on and off and able to change from one part of the chromosome to another (currently known as transposition). Her radical findings were met with skepticism and hostility. Almost two decades later, when molecular biologists observed the same concept in bacteria, the scientific community began to acknowledge her ideas. This acceptance brought stacks of awards and 35 years after publishing her work in transposition, McClintock was awarded with the Nobel Prize.
Evangelina Villegas • 1924-2017 • Plant Biochemist and Breeder • Mexican
In a period where most Mexican women didn’t aim for higher education, Villegas obtained a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology at the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico. Eager to start her career, in 1950, she started as a chemist researcher at Mexico’s National Institute of Nutrition. In a timespan of seven years, she initiated the Wheat Industrial Quality Chemical Laboratory. Before Villegas became recognized for her research, she decided to go back to school and pursued her master’s degree in cereal technology from Kansas State University and a Ph.D. in cereal chemistry and breeding from North Dakota State University. Determined to make breakthroughs in agriculture, she went back to Mexico to work in the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) as the director of the Department of Protein Quality and Nutrition.
In collaboration with Dr. Surinder Vasal, Villegas was studying ways to combine the chemistry of cereals with different cultivation techniques to develop a variety of corn with a high content of two very important amino acids, lysine and tryptophan. After a year of endless hours of processing corn samples, the Villegas-Vasal collaboration paid off: they developed the high-quality protein corn protein (QPM), a variety with twice as much lysine and tryptophan than conventional corn. QPM efficacy trials were done around the world, including African countries, China and parts of Central America. Studies showed that consumption of QPM led to healthier people that were also at a lower risk of malnutrition disorders. In fact, a study in 2015 reported that children who consumed QPM grew 15% more than those who ate conventional corn. Villegas and Vasal's arduous efforts were finally recognized in 2000 where she became the first woman awarded the World Food Prize. Villegas received several other awards for her contributions that extended beyond science.
“The efforts of Drs. Villegas and Vasal have laid the foundation for what will be one of the most important contributions to food security in human history”, expressed the Former CIMMYT Director General Timothy Reeves.
Dolores Huerta • 1930-Present • Activist • Mexican American
Dolores Huerta (documentary) activist seed was planted at an early age watching her father as a farmworker and union activist and her mother as an entrepreneur heavily involved in community affairs. Huerta earned a provisional teaching credential at the University of Pacific’s Delta College. She briefly taught children but she resigned because she could no longer bear to witness the poor living conditions of her students. This experience encouraged her into labor activism and her lifelong journey of justice for farmworkers and beyond.
Huerta discovered her calling when she co-founded the Stockton Chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO) and founded the Agricultural Workers Association. These grassroots movements led to voter registration drives and pressuring local governments to improve Latinx living conditions. Through CSO, Huerta met a likeminded colleague César Chávez with whom she founded the National Farm Workers Association (currently the United Farm Workers). As a fearless team, Chávez organized the strikes for the farmworkers and Huerta lobbied and negotiated contracts.
The union first took on the Coachella Valley grape growers to improve the working conditions and increase wages. After several years of arduous work, the union signed an agreement with grape growers that initiated unemployment and healthcare benefits and reduced the application of harmful pesticides. Despite the ongoing gender and ethnic discrimination, Huerta led a national boycott of California grapes that resulted in the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, the first law that allowed farmworkers to unionize and fight for better conditions and wages. During one of her campaigns,the infamous phrase “Sí se puede” became the slogan for the immigrants' rights movement. Throughout the 80’s, she kept lobbying to improve worker’s legislative representation.
Till this day, Huerta uses an intersectional lens to challenge gender discrimination in the farmworker’s movement and works to elect more Latinxs and women to political office. As the founder and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, she advocates for the working poor immigrants and travels across the country participating in civil rights campaigns and legislation. Huerta has received many honors including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award, Presidential Medal of Freedom and was the first Latina inducted to the US National Hall of Fame.
Maria Isabel Andrade • 1958-Present • Plant Breeder • Cape Verdean (African)
Even though Maria Isabel Andrade's parents had limited formal education, they valued the importance of education and encouraged her to keep studying. Andrade was a high school teacher before being recognized by USAID to attend college in the United States. The African American Institute Scholarship opened the door to study agronomy at University of Arizona where she earned her B.Sc. and M.Sc. in plant genetics. With financial help from USAID, she earned her Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Physiology from North Carolina State University. Andrade rapidly developed a passion for a crop long neglected by the world, sweetpotato. She learned that biofortified crops provide significant nutritional benefits to malnourished people so she took leading role to improve food security in Africa.
Andrade’s pioneering work began in the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) at Mozambique as the regional cassava and sweetpotato agronomist. Under her leadership, the IITA released nine drought-tolerant varieties that were distributed to farmers in Mozambique. Andrade also coordinated a five-year project that allowed over one million farmers to receive planting material of the best high yielding varieties of cassava and sweetpotato. In 2006, she joined the International Potato Center (CIP) to lead the Sweet Potato Action for Security and Health in Africa and worked on breeding drought-tolerant sweetpotato varieties in collaboration with plant breeders across Africa. In three years, Andrade and her team released 41 new varieties, 30 of which are pro-vitamin A, orange-fleshed varieties and 20 of which are drought-tolerant. Top-yielding varieties were distributed to 123,000 households and drought-tolerant varieties were adopted by half a million farmers.
Over the years, Andrade’s ability to incorporate the value-chain approach and recognize the importance of collaboration with nutritionist and ag economists has resulted in improving food security, malnutrition and income generation. Her contribution to her field and beyond have awarded her the 2016 World Food Prize and 2017 Swaminathan Award for Environmental Protection. Andrade currently works as CIP’s country manager in Mozambique addressing requests from Government officials and entities.
Andrade expressed to a reporter, “My work in sweetpotato means that people don't have to go to sleep without dinner… It feels good. We can't do everything but we do whatever we can to reduce the suffering of one or two people”
Temple Grandin • 1947-Present • Animal Scientist • American
Temple Grandin (HBO film) was diagnosed with autism when she was a toddler and since then she received therapy to reinforce communicative abilities. Her deep connection with animals started when she visited her aunt’s ranch where she noticed that she and animals both depend on visual stimuli to navigate the world. Regardless of the obstacles, Grandin earned a Bachelor's degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College. As the editor of the Arizona Farmer Ranchman, she noticed that methods used to slaughter cattle caused a huge amount of stress and anxiety. This experience instigated her to pursue a master’s degree in Animal Science from Arizona State University, followed by a Ph.D. in Animal Science from University of Illinois, Urban-Champaign.
At the end of her M.Sc., she founded her own company, Grandin Livestock Handling Systems. Grandin’s extreme sensitivity to noise and visual stimuli permitted her to become an expert in animal handling in slaughterhouses. Her designs allow livestock facilities to eliminate pain and fear from the slaughtering process. Although controversial to many, Grandin’s willingness to work with fast-food companies and slaughterhouses has significantly improved animal treatment all across the globe. From her many contributions, she developed an objective scoring system for assessing handling cattle and pigs that improved animal welfare in many large companies.
In the 1980’s, Grandin became publicly known in autism advocacy circles and ever since she has actively helped and educated about autism spectrum disorder. In Oliver Sack’s book, An Anthropologist on Mars, depicts Grandin’s personal narrative of autism alongside her innovative achievements. Grandin is also author of Emergence: Labeled Autistic, Think in Pictures, and co-author of Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and Autism and Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships. In the Animal Science realm, she has authored over 400 articles and written several books including Animals in Translation and Animals Makes us Human. Grandin is an advocate for neurodiversity and believes that her contributions were possible due to her awareness and sensitivity that result from autism. Currently, she is an associate professor at Colorado State University where she continuously teaches and researches animal treatment and welfare.
There are countless forceful women worthy of accolades with much more to come as agriculture moves forward. In developing countries, women represent 43% of the agricultural labour force. Women are the backbone of agriculture, yet they don't receive the same pay, rights, and respect as their male counterparts. Join #WomenInAgScience in honoring all the astounding women, past and present, who have revolutionized the world and our love for agriculture. What woman inspires you?
Andrade, Mwanga, Low and Bouis. (2016). Retrieved from World Food Prize website: https://www.worldfoodprize.org/en/laureates/2010__2017_laureates/2016__andrade_mwanga_low_and_bouis/
Biography: Temple Grandin Ph.D. (n.d.). Retrieved from Temple Grandin Website website: https://www.grandin.com/temple.html
Brennan, C. (2006). Temple Grandin Biography. Retrieved from Encyclopedia of World Biography website: https://www.notablebiographies.com/newsmakers2/2006-Ei-La/Grandin-Temple.html
Dolores Huerta. (2020). Retrieved from Dolores Huerta Foundation website: https://doloreshuerta.org/dolores-huerta/
Lopez, A. (2017). Evangelina Villegas Moreno: la bioquímica que desarrolló la QPM. Retrieved from Mujeres Con Ciencia website:
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Pearse, Y. (2018). Meet Barbara McClintock, who used corn to decipher “jumping genes.” Retrieved from Massive Science website: https://massivesci.com/articles/barbara-mcclintock-nobel-corntent/
Ravindran, S. (2021). Barbara McClintock and the discovery of jumping genes. PNAS, 109(50), 20198–20199. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1219372109
Take a bite out of Maria Andrade. (2017, September). Retrieved June 27, 2020, from International Potato Center website: https://cipotato.org/blog/take-a-bite-out-of-maria-andrade/
Vasal and Villegas. (2000). Retrieved from The World Food Prize website: https://www.worldfoodprize.org/en/laureates/20002009_laureates/2000_vasal_and_villegas/