Since his first biology course he realized that it was a fascinating topic. Studying at the American University of Beirut in the Lebanese Republic and in Michigan State University in the United States confirmed his passion for bioscience, genetics and plant breeding. Being appointed as honorary member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) confirms that his choice of research field was correct; that his passion lies between strategy and method, and that his teamwork philosophy is what has given fruits during all these years.
He is Joseph Tohme or simply Joe, leader, mentor, and manager, and he could also even be called the scientific guru of generations of researchers that have learned beside him a particular way of making science. His trajectory as Director of the Agrobiodiversity Research Area at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) is a sum of achievements reached together with his working team, supporting cassava, beans, tropical forages and rice research.
Not only is it science. It is also the creation of synergies
Rice holds an important place in Tohme and his working team´s research agenda. Part of the recognition made by AAAS includes the advances carried out in the areas of molecular markers and biofortified plant studies to increase iron and zinc levels in rice.
Tohme mentions that “the case of rice is very interesting. From a global perspective rice is the most important food crop among cereals, however, from a scientific point of view and thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation and USAID´s[i] past investments, we have a broader knowledge on rice compared to any other crop”, and this is regarding opportunities generated by biotechnology and plant breeding integration.
An example of this synergy is the sequencing of 3000 rice genomes financed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) that is a highly important input currently being used by CIAT. “This genetic information is giving us tools to help breeders identify important agronomical traits. Currently, different teams in CIAT are using it for Hoja blanca and Pyricularia diseases and grain quality. All this effort will help breeders broaden their selection accuracy with greater success”, indicates Tohme.
And with this effort, Joe Tohme has formed an inclusive gear that has allowed the gradual arrangement of research pieces for a common good.
“We needed to be able to communicate and talk between molecular biologists and plant breeders because we spoke two different languages. When this synergy and the conversation started to flow we were able to narrow down the gap that separated us. There is strength in biotechnology that has been demonstrated, but it does not solve problems on its own. We need both, the plant breeders in the field as well as the molecular biologists in the laboratory. In this sense, Joe Tohme has been mediating between these two worlds”, explains Gerardo Gallego, CIAT´s Head of Laboratory of the Biotechnology Unit that has worked beside Tohme for 23 years.
“Joe has demonstrated that he has the capacity to integrate all disciplines that deal with agricultural development, including biotechnology, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, and physiology, with the objective of developing better varieties to be handed over to farmers, consumers, and in benefit of all the Latin American population”, assures Fernando Correa, CIAT´s Rice Program Leader.
From FLAR´s synergy
FLAR has also benefited from Joe Tohme and his team´s great contributions. Gonzalo Zorrilla, Director of INIA´s National Rice Program in Treinta y Tres, Uruguay, recognized that his presence has increased according to the new dynamics that determine rice research in Latin America: “He is a scientist that has the great virtue of understanding very well which are the agricultural problems, especially in rice, that must be dealt with. He has done a tremendous work in guiding science, true science, and the latest technologies of any type in search of concrete solutions and value products for rice production”.
Eduardo Graterol, FLAR´s Executive Director stated that being Joe Tohme CIAT´s representative in FLAR´s Administrative Committee, he plays an important function as scientific referent: “Joe has opened our eyes towards potential opportunities, taking much better advantage of research platforms, of CIAT´s genetic breeding capacities, and more precisely, with the new technologies focused towards finding even more interesting traits”.
Some of the collaborative efforts that are being carried out by CIAT and FLAR with support from the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) are genetic breeding, search for genes with important agronomical traits, identification of cold tolerance markers, better grain quality, genome sequencing to understand the genetic structure of hybrid material, and a big capacity development component.
However, his input to FLAR goes beyond the research field and is placed into the institutional level. Whenever he is able to he works as an ambassador highlighting FLAR´s importance as the main organism that responds to the sector´s prime needs in the region through its partners. “There is a strategic compromise within CIAT to strengthen FLAR. CIAT is part of FLAR and we are committed to reach our goals in benefit of producers”. Tohme affirms that “FLAR´s 21st birthday is an additional proof of the alliance´s strength between the Latin American rice sector, FLAR and CIAT”.
Joe Tohme is surrounded by a group of what he calls “a collection of high value people” that shares his knowledge vision and his science philosophy: find the way to solve problems through collaboration and teamwork.
There is no doubt that his outstanding qualities as mentor, teacher, and guide, as well as his scientific point of reference were aspects that drew AAAS´s attention on his trajectory and recognized it. But Joe Tohme is not only a scientist he is also a person with his own particular style always thinking on how to contribute to the formation of those that surround him.
Maybe his utmost recognition is the fact that his influence lies in hundreds of scientists that one day will be noted by their extraordinary achievements in science.
[i] United States Agency for International Development
Authors: Alejandra Crespo and Maria Ximena Escobar