Meet the Board - Janet Lewis

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Dr. Janet Lewis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, home of Michigan State University (MSU) the land grant institute of Michigan. Today, Dr. Lewis is a Board Member of the Borlaug Training Foundation (BTF), Consortium Developer for the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC), and wheat breeder.

“I grew up in the suburbs with parents that worked in offices,” said Dr. Lewis, “I expected that ‘career life’ meant that I would be in an office somewhere. One summer during college I went with a friend to set up a dental clinic in Guatemala, and we were hosted by the Catholic church. So, I was staying in this small village in a nun’s house, and I would wake up hearing the neighbors using power tools to grind their corn every morning. After a little while, the nun started telling me that people there lived for corn, and they didn’t believe a meal was complete without corn. Even if they had other hearty foods like beans, people would still prefer corn even though beans were more nutritious. I looked at these very steep hillsides that people were planting corn on – and granted I am from Michigan which is really flat, but these were mountains and I thought to myself, ‘My goodness, these people are putting in so much effort just trying to plant their food.’ Keep in mind, this is an area where people live with one set of clothes. It was there that I started thinking I could do something to help with food production and agriculture.”

Dr. Lewis knew that if she could do something, no matter how small, it could have a big impact on subsistence farmers.

“I didn’t know much about wheat at the time, and I had no idea wheat breeding was a profession. While in my undergraduate degree at University of Michigan (MU/UM?) I went and visited with the Pathology Department Head at Michigan State University, because I knew they had an agricultural focus. I explained my ideas about improving crops with disease resistance, and he said, ‘Well, why aren’t you meeting with plant breeders,’ and my reply was, ‘Who?’”

Inspired by the book, “Who will feed China?” by Lester R. Brown, Dr. Lewis’s fascination for maintaining food security for the growing population of industrious countries, and subsequently the world, was met with equal interest by Dr. Richard Ward, wheat breeder and professor at MSU. When Dr. Lewis graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1997, she moved back to East Lansing to complete her master’s and Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Genetics under Dr. Ward.

“Where I feel at home is working on projects that include social benefits for the poorest among us,” started Dr. Lewis, “In every job you have different incentives and reward systems that motivate you. For example, in universities, a lot of the reward is centered on publications and grants – and those rewards are not dependent on social value. A lot of grants these days want you to be on the cutting edge of research, and while cutting-edge is good, I’m not motivated by research for the sake of research. I am motivated by what tool I need to use to get to the result – having a deliverable at the end that the farmer can plant.”

Dr. Lewis worked as a wheat breeder for MSU for 4 years before moving to the private industry to work for Bayer in 2011. As a breeder, Dr. Lewis’s motto is, “plants can't swim in a flood, run from a fire, or water themselves in a drought. As we experience increasingly dramatic storms, droughts and wildfires, we must also improve plans for food security.”

In 2018, Dr. Lewis became a board member of the BTF, bringing a strong personal interest in mentorship and really getting to know the trainees. “As someone who has lived overseas myself, I have such a respect for those who travel the world to come to a place and build their lives there. It’s incredible to see people raising families, changing languages and cultures while learning at the same time. I think about these trainees and what they’re taking back with them. This program is a big opportunity for a lot of people, so how can we, as a board, facilitate connecting some of the trainees together so that it’s not a scenario where someone comes to CIMMYT once and then feels like they’re on their own.”

Jennifer NelsonComment