Dr Laura Boykin, computational biologist and recently appointed 2017 Senior TED Fellow, spoke with Maddison Howard about the growing food security crisis of cassava plants in East Africa.

When I think of scientists, I imagine white-haired, white cloaked, pale-skinned old men, tapping away at their keyboards in secluded offices and mixing crazy chemicals in their fluorescent-lit laboratories. A preconception proved completely wrong upon meeting with Dr Boykin – an enthusiastic, life-loving woman with plenty of passion, and a keen desire to use her scientific prowess to make a change in the world.

Dr Boykin is one of many faces in a team of scientists, students and farmers, working on East Africa’s cassava-whitefly crisis. Cassava, a starchy, white-fleshed sweet potato like plant is a major source of food for Africa’s population, and in fact, the world’s population generally. At current, it is under immense threat from whitefly bugs which act as carriers for two crop destroying diseases. If a cassava crop becomes infested with either mosaic or brown-streak disease, it can mean the complete loss of food provisions and income for East African farmers and their families. Dr Boykin and her team have so far identified 34 different types of whitefly bugs, and are now working on determining which of these 34 are transmitters of the viruses to the cassava plant.

One of the key challenges in the fight against cassava infestation is that there are different species of whitefly inhabiting different areas of Africa, and exposed to different quantities of the cassava disease. This means that a solution for the problem in Malawi, will not necessarily equate to a solution in Uganda – because whitefly behaviour may differ across space. Dr Boykin explains that “there are people who are trying to generate cassavas that are resistant to whiteflies and the viruses themselves, to do that they need to make sure they are getting [cassava] resistant to the right thing at the right space. For example, in Malawi there is a different species of whitefly than in Uganda, so to help farmers in Malawi we need to make sure we don’t give them the Uganda cassava necessarily but that we make a special attempt at getting it resistant to the right thing there”. It is apparent that the issue is a very complex one, and that developing a universal solution could be years in the works. Dr Boykin acknowledges that a true fix to the problem is “a way off,” but does envision a positive end to the project. “The end goal of this whole thing, the day I’m going to be like ok I’m going to retire is [when] we walk out into the field and the farmers have been given varieties of cassava they can grow that are actually resistant to whatever pests and diseases they have. That’s the ultimate goal, to get a plant to them that is robust enough to handle whatever might happen.”

A major question I had for Dr Boykin was, ‘why persist with cassava?’ I couldn’t understand why cassava was so important to continue dealing with, particularly in light of it being attached to such a problematic infestation. Why not just plant a different crop that is less susceptible to whiteflies? The well-reasoned answer, “Its very high in calories, so if it is there (cassava) it’s a good source of people staying alive” also, “it’s really low input, so with the climate changing and it getting hotter and drought being a thing, cassava takes zero input. It’s really drought tolerant, so [suitable] for people in places where its really dry.” Additionally, Dr Boykin made the argument for cassava’s cultural importance, “Imagine if rice wasn’t in Asia – there would be a crisis. It is farmer preference, farmers like it, it’s money for them.”

Thinking for possible quick-fix solutions to the whitefly, I asked about insecticides. Why not use them on the little guys? It turns out that much like the anti-biotic superbugs causing anarchy in our hospitals and health care facilities, whiteflies are capable of becoming resistant to insecticides very quickly. Dr Boykin made the point that “big developed countries play the insecticide game and some do it very efficiently but you have to have this integrative pest management approach. You can only use them for so long because then they’ll be resistant, and so the big places like here can do it because there is money, but in East Africa they have zero money. And so insecticides are hard – if they are used improperly then they are 10x worse.” I was beginning to understand the true difficulties of this food security crisis, not just from the scientific perspective, but also from the farmers’. According to Dr Boykin, 80% of the farmers in East Africa are women, and despite extensively planning and preparing their crops to ensure a year’s supply of food, they are often blindsided by diseased cassavas. These women don’t just plant cassava though; they have a plot of land with a variation of beans, tomatoes, maize and sweet potatoes. Cassava is actually planted as the back-up crop, but once the other seasonal crops have been used and the family is in need of an extra food source, they will harvest the cassava to help them get by. You can imagine then, the heartbreak that comes with thinking you have enough food to get yourself and your family through the winter, and then when you go to tap into those provisions they are rotten, infested, and unusable. Suddenly, your family is down to one meal a day and starving, from events that were completely out of your control.

It’s in this fashion that Dr Boykin’s work emerges as being not only scientifically notable, but also outstanding for humanitarian issues in Africa. One of the things I most admire about Dr Boykin is her deep yearning to truly help people who need it the most. She is passionate about making science for people other than “old white men”, and aims to do so by empowering the people of East Africa with knowledge and training. Over her numerous trips to the countries of East Africa, Dr Boykin has conducted training courses, made contacts to host students in Australia, visited and educated prisoners about cassava viruses and whiteflies, and developed facilities in places that, pre-Boykin, didn’t even have internet. Dr Boykin is all about being part of the solution, actions not words, and collaboration with the people of the land, who really know about the cassava problems and who have all the big questions for scientists to answer.

Despite all the fanfare around Dr Boykin, her impressive accomplishments and endowments, and her installment into the prestigious TED organisation, she remains humble and forever thankful to the people she works with. When I asked my final question, ‘what it means to be a TED fellow’, Dr Boykin responded in gushing compliments of the people she meets and networks with at TED events. She says, “its like they’ve collected all the cool people, all the optimistic people and put them in one thing…TED fellows are hope”. Undeniably, after my hour with Dr Boykin and hearing about her visions for the future of science, I agree that TED fellow Boykin is indeed, hope.

Interview by Maddison Howard, art by Bernice Ong

This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 1 HEAT