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A globe-trotting corn breeder puts down roots

When corn breeder Kevin Pixley arrived on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in November, one of the first things he had to do was learn to use the word “corn.”

“I had to constantly remind myself to call it corn instead of maize, which was what I‘’d been calling it for 20 years,” explains Pixley, who comes to the UW-Madison agronomy department from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, where the crop is widely known – as it is in most places around the globe – as maize.

By whatever name, corn stands as one of the most important food plants on the planet, a crop grown on every continent except Antarctica. And Pixley’s arrival brings one of the world’s preeminent corn experts to UW-Madison. As a new associate professor of agronomy, he will lead the university’s small-grains breeding program while directing an international research project to improve the nutritional value of corn grown in developing nations.

But first he’s getting over a little culture shock. Although Pixley was born in Chicago, the son of religious missionaries grew up in Puerto Rico, Argentina and Mexico. His only real exposure to the United States came during his university years, when he earned a bachelor’s and then two advanced degrees in crop sciences, before returning to Mexico in 1990 to join CIMMYT, the center where Norman Borlaug led the agricultural Green Revolution of the mid-20th century.

Pixley soon moved to CIMMYT’s Zimbabwe office, where he spent 11 years improving the yield, stress tolerance and nutritional content of corn for sub-Saharan Africa. In 2004, he returned to headquarters to direct the center’s corn breeding programs in Colombia, Mexico, India and Nepal. That same year, he also joined HarvestPlus, an international agricultural research program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a dozen other institutions from around the globe, as leader of the program’s maize project.

“The idea [behind HarvestPlus] is to address malnutrition by bio-fortifying the main staple foods that the poor depend on,” says Pixley. “It’s a fairly substantial program focusing on six different crops, and I’m leading their maize crop team.”

One of the unique aspects of Pixley’s UW-Madison hire is that he will continue to direct the HarvestPlus project as part of his faculty duties. For the first five years of his appointment, he will use research funding from HarvestPlus to continue his work in Zambia, where he is leading a research effort to breed and popularize corn fortified with vitamin A.

The corn, which has orange-hued kernels, could help prevent forms of blindness and other diseases caused by vitamin A deficiencies. To make the project a success, Pixley’s team must partner effectively with many institutions, including the country’s ministry of health, ministry of education, private seed companies, farmers, grain millers and, most importantly, the nation’s mothers, who are in the best position to improve the health of their families.

“The arrangement with HarvestPlus is unusual,” says Irwin Goldman, interim dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “And it gave us the opportunity to bring someone with an extraordinary set of experiences to the university. Kevin is going to be a tremendous asset to our students and the whole university community.”

On campus, Pixley hopes to develop a couple of courses that will allow him to bring those experiences to bear. One, an advanced plant-breeding class, would challenge students to work through the process of designing multidisciplinary breeding programs that address some of the world’s largest agricultural challenges, such as developing crop varieties that enable the sustainable intensification of cropping systems or that contribute to the alleviation of hunger and malnutrition. The link among agriculture, nutrition and health is an area, Pixley feels, that “very few breeding programs think about.”

A second course would compare a handful of real-world cases in which agriculture has been employed to promote development in poor areas. “We‘’ll look at what’s working and what’s not working,” says Pixley. “I don’t think there’s any conclusion to this story. I just want to get students thinking about these issues.”

“Kevin brings a very valuable perspective to campus,” says Bill Tracy, chair of the agronomy department. “He has on-the-ground experience developing crops for people who really need them.”

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