The steps scientists take to uncover the intricacies of the world we live in are taking effort, resources, and an extraordinary amount of time. For Jan Leach, professor, and Associate Dean for Research in the College of Agricultural Sciences, her research is not for the sake of research itself but to solve real-world problems in the shortest amount of time possible.
Originally from the outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska, Leach grew up with a deep-rooted connection to nature instilled by her grandmother. For her undergraduate and graduate education, Leach studied microbiology at the University of Nebraska. Since the beginning of her career, Leach’s goal has always been to work on important problems that help people.
When Leach was an assistant professor at Kansas State University, she searched for a crop to research. At this time, The Rockefeller Foundation had announced they would fund rice research to bring rice production up-to-speed with other staple crops. Then and today, rice is a major crop feeding over half of the world's population. “I thought to myself; this is really interesting!” Leach said. “About that time, some interesting papers were published on a disease of rice that's important throughout Asia and Africa. I knew that these organisms were going to be genetically tractable.”
Despite the lack of knowledge known about the disease, Leach wrote a grant to The Rockefeller Foundation. “No one had really worked with them before. I had never seen a rice plant. I had never seen the pathogen. I had never seen the disease – and they funded me. It opened the door my whole career was built on.”
For many years, Leach has taught a workshop in Senegal with AfricaRice. Each year, Leach brought between eight and ten U.S. students for the two-week workshop to assist in educational programs. Training included planting rice fields, genome editing, and molecular breeding. Although coronavirus has halted the workshop, for the time being, the hope is that it will resume soon. “[The training] changes how the students view agriculture in general, and some people have even said it's been life changing,” said Leach. “We hope that we can show people that agricultural sciences are exciting. It's not only important, but what we're asking is exciting, and the solutions we come up with will have a real impact down the road. That's what we want to inspire these students and participants to understand.”