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Ruth Bekele on food product development

Championing women in science and realising a childhood dream of feeding the hungry

Ruth Bekele
Ruth Bekele in the lab at Roslin

Ruth Bekele, Associate Researcher and National Food Science and Nutrition Research Coordinator at the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research, is spending time at the Roslin Institute as part of her Fellowship with African Women in Agricultural Research and Development and funding from the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health through a BBSRC Global Challenge Research Fund’s Strategic Training Awards for Research Skills award.

In this interview, she told Science Writer Catriona Kelly about her research work and time spent at the Roslin Institute.

Can you please tell me about your research in a nutshell?

My research focuses on food science and nutrition. I work with industry and farmers on projects such as complementary foods for children or for pregnant or breastfeeding women, and how to make nutritious food from locally available crops or livestock. In developing countries we have a problem of malnutrition and most of our research is to tackle this.

Also I work on food education, for example families may have a chicken but they will sell its eggs rather than use these to feed their children, because they don’t know the nutritional value of eggs. We also tackle cultural taboos or misconceptions about food passed through generations, such as women should not eat bananas when pregnant– we try to give factual information and if people hear this from scientists, they will believe it. We also include religious leaders as nutritional champions to support this education.

Besides that, I am a committee member of government-led nutritional programmes in Ethiopia.

How did you come to be an AWARD fellow?

I love learning and I am the only woman in my family to be educated to degree level. I was mentored by my brother and my uncle, but I wanted a female mentor. I applied to AWARD after finishing my first degree in agricultural and biological engineering in Harmaya, Ethiopia, but failed to win a place. I applied again after my masters in food processing technology at Anand Agricultural University in Gujarat, India, but was again unsuccessful. Then I won a place through the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research, where I work. This fellowship provides a platform to meet women scientists who face the same challenges as me and are determined. Sometimes it’s not only about qualifications or experiences – it’s about meeting someone inspirational. Even my being here at Roslin may inspire others. I’m grateful to Roslin, the University of Edinburgh, AWARD and all my colleagues - I can’t thank them enough, It’s not only that I have the opportunity to be here, but that I have been made very welcome.

What has your fellowship entailed?

My fellowship is a six month programme. One week each month we have training in a range of topics – advanced science skill development, leadership, mentoring, proposal and scientific paper writing, networking or communications, and gender-responsive research – for example, understanding that women want food to cook and men want food to sell; or that farming equipment should not be too heavy for women to use.

During the programme, we have a mentor who we meet regularly to reflect and plan. In preparation for my work at Roslin, I spent time working on a Global Challenges Research Fund project in Nairobi, Kenya, with the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health, where I undertook classroom training in bioinformatics and genomics.

At Roslin, I am supervised by Dr Emily Clark and am working on techniques such as immune cell panel development, RNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and bioinformatics.

I also spent time with Jessica Powell in Dr James Prendergast’s group learning immune cell isolation and with Dr Alewo Idoko-Akoh in Dr Mike McGrew’s group to develop skills in chicken cells culture for genome editing.

What do you want to get out of your experience with Roslin?

I want to learn scientific skills on Genomics and Bioinformatics and to seek collaborations. I want to meet others, learn about ongoing projects here and discover what potentially can be done with my institution –I hope I will be able to come again with other projects.

What lesson have you learned from challenges faced during your career?

I think the challenges for women in developing countries are the same as for many in the developed world; for example, if I was married or had children, to come here would be difficult. Not all AWARD fellows are able to travel, because of family commitments. When you support female scientists, you support the whole community. I am here representing other women who cannot undertake this opportunity– I are here to make it better for others in future.

What drove you to become a scientist?

By nature I am very curious. As a schoolchild I would make my own experiments, I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor; I was interested in chemistry and biology. During my school holidays I saw children asking for food and I would cry with them, or give them my lunch. I was so sad that others had no food, I wanted to have a farm and use it to feed others.

I was encouraged to study engineering because my grades were good, and I discovered agricultural engineering. Later when I read the literature, I understood that it’s not only about the methods used to work the farm, but that much of the food produced is lost post-harvest. I was exposed to labs during my masters in India and I loved the research environment and discovered that I am good with experiments.

If you hadn’t been a scientist, what would you do?

I would be an evangelist, and spread the word of God. I have a very strong faith. Many scientists find it hard to believe in God, but because I am a scientist, I hope to have a common understanding with other scientists which enables me to talk about Jesus with them. I believe I am here to help others.

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