From Plant Biology 2022: Creating an Inspiring Scientific Environment to Discuss Climate-Smart Agriculture

Highlights of the ASPB African Researchers Network Workshop and Hackathon


By Sessen Daniel Iohannes and Modesta Abugu

Square that says Plant Biology 2022 Session RecapCurrent agricultural ecosystems are threatened by ongoing climate change and weather extremes that affect crop production, biodiversity, and dynamics of pests and diseases. We need to rethink how we do agriculture to bridge the gap between productivity, resilience to environmental stresses, and sustainable livelihoods.

During the Plant Biology 2022 Meeting, the ASPB African Researchers Network held a workshop and hackathon titled “Enhancing Climate-Smart Agriculture to Foster Resilient Systems” to promote discussions on strategies for enhancing climate-smart agriculture. These integrated strategies include research on plant stress biology and its applications, climate change impacts assessments and modeling, adaptation and mitigations policies, and science communication.

The opening workshop featured presentations that highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of the problem, including the role of plant stress biology research, climate policy, and science communication. Prof. Thelma Madzima of the University of Washington, Bothell, presented her research on plant epigenetic responses to drought, using maize as a model organism. Her talk mainly focused on MOP1 (mediator of paramutation1), a component of the RNA-directed DNA methylation pathway involved in regulation of gene expression during responses to drought stress in maize.

Dr. Edmond Totin of the Université Nationale d’Agriculture, Benin, shared his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation strategies in Africa. He provided important recommendations for mitigating the impacts of climate change in vulnerable environments, including funding climate research, improving climate literacy and capacity building and supporting data flow.

Photo and quote: “I liked all the topics presented because they addressed real cross-cutting issues that you can find in both rich and developing countries”. Iman Yangaza, PhD Student Department of Botany, University of Dar es Salaam

The third presentation featured Nigerian filmmaker and director Umanu Ojochenemi Elijah, who showed a trailer of his new movie on the effects of soot pollution in Nigeria. “My motivation to tell this story about the damaging effects of environmental pollution on Nigeria families comes from the need to tackle this challenge while correcting some of the misinformation out there on the science of climate change,” he said. Elijah called on policy makers to prioritize research and awareness creation to tackle this challenge.

Group photo of all the Hackathon participants.
Group photo of all the Hackathon participants.

The highlight of the workshop was the agricultural technology hackathon, supported by ASPB, Bayer Crop Science, New Phytologist Foundation, and Galy. Over a 48-hour interval, seven teams composed of students (57%), early career researchers (24%), and faculty members (19%) hacked possible solutions to a series of challenges ranging from plant stress-biology, climate change vulnerability assessments, carbon sequestration and mitigation strategies, and science communication.

Image and quote: “It was my first experience participating in such an event. It was great to make new connections and to be creative to address practical research questions out of your expertise.” – Gurleen Kaur, PhD candidate, University of Florida

More specifically, the hackathon challenges focused on: a) developing strategies to modulate plant immunity; b) establishing standards for collecting and sharing crop variety traits for AgMIP crop models; c) enhancing interactions between crop and soil (or synthetic) microorganisms for improved carbon sequestration; d) developing a scaled-up technology for in vitro cocoa production to meet consumer needs; e) proposing strategies to communicate climate change uncertainties to policy makers; f) developing a crowdsourcing strategy to assess farmers’ vulnerability indicators to climate change; and g) identifying barriers and proposing solutions for the adoption of climate smart agricultural practices among farmers.

Image and quote: “Collaborating with others and sharing our ideas to different people was the highlight of my experience. I also enjoyed hearing all the different topics and wonderful proposed solutions. The feedback from others was also excellent!” – Jaber Husiny, MSc Student, University of Guelph

Three judges, representing ASPB, Alliance for Science, and the African Researchers Network evaluated the solutions developed by the teams for their creativity, innovation, collaboration, and presentation. The first team received a travel award to participate in the Plant Biology 2023 Meeting in Savannah, Georgia. The second team received free registration to the Plant Biology 2023 Meeting, and the third team was awarded $100 gift cards.

In summary, the workshop and the hackathon gave participants the opportunity to form new networks and discuss creative solutions to address interdisciplinary research questions.

Five people standing together, three of them showing winning certificates
First prize winners, Team E. From left: ASPB’s Mary Williams and Crispin Taylor with first-prize winners Jitesh Vijayan, University of Nebraska Lincoln; Jyoti Ranjan Behera, East Tennessee State University; and Boris Lazarevic, University of Zagreb
Four people standing together, two of them showing winning certificates
Second Prize winners, Team D: From left: ASPB’s Mary Williams and Crispin Taylor with the second-prize winners Cindy Chan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Liz Cooper, University of North Carolina Charlotte.
Four team members standing together, all showing winning certificates
Third prize winners, Team F. From left: Gurleen Kaur, University of Florida; Jaber Husiny, University of Guelph, Ontario; Mohit Rajabhoj, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Thiruvananthapuram; and Jason Williams, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.


Photo and quote: “I enjoyed working in a team with talented and motivated young scientists during this hackathon. I also got to meet new people with different backgrounds and shared ideas with them. This experience provided a positive atmosphere for young scientists to compete in teams.” – Boris Lazarevic, Associate professor, University of Zagreb


Graphic showing a laptop computer that says "Plant Biology 2022 Extended, registration opening soon, stay updated at


Sessen Daniel Iohannes is a PhD student at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and was previously an ASPB Conviron Scholar. Modesta Abugu is a PhD student of horticultural sciences at North Carolina State University. Sessen and Modesta, together with Prince Zogli, are the coordinators of ASPB’s African Researchers Network, which works to connect plant biologists on the African continent with African scholars studying abroad and those collaborating with scientists in Africa and allies.

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