Thomas Dubois: Young scientist on the rise

Thomas Dubois, IITA
Thomas Dubois, IITA

Thomas Dubois joined IITA in 2003 to manage the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)-funded regional biocontrol project for banana, based in Uganda. This project has now made significant progress: banana infected with certain strains of endophytic fungi grow more vigorously and are better protected against pests and diseases. The development of this novel “bioprotection” is an exciting research theme that has the potential to revolutionize current thinking on biocontrol. Current focus of this project is to optimize inoculation techniques and scale up activities with commercial producers of tissue-cultured (TC) plants as part of a recently funded Eastern African Programme and Research Network for Biotechnology, Biosafety and Biotechnology Policy Development (BIO-EARN) project in Kenya and Uganda.

In 2006, Thomas received the prestigious CGIAR Young Scientist Award. At present he is heading a BMZ project on improving market pathways for TC banana centered on commercial TC producers and nursery distribution centers. He is also spearheading the 2008 International Banana Conference in Mombasa, Kenya, as Chair of the Organizing Committee.

How did you come to IITA?
I studied bio-engineering first and then some foreign exchanges spurred my international ambitions. After my studies, in 1998, I was placed with IITA in Onne, southeast Nigeria. I absolutely fell in love with the then cowboy attitudes: nothing beats eating goat head, listening to Afropop in between oilrigs and blown up tankers! I liked the applied work, screening banana plants for nematode resistance, working under the supervision of Abdou Tenkouano and the late Paul Speijer. While I was at Onne, I was accepted at Cornell University to do my PhD studies in Insect Pathology. As I told Lukas Brader, the DG at that time, “I will be back.” After my PhD studies I was quickly involved in a fairly high-profile project with the United States Department of Agriculture, combating a devastating invasive insect species in the northern US; I traveled to China every year for prolonged periods of time. I toyed with the idea of entering Business School and tried to get into private industry. I settled with management consulting firms, using the Ivy League degree as leverage. I tried to get back into the CGIAR system and landed an 8-month stint with IITA in Uganda in 2003. This was a short project related to the use of endophytes, with no job security but ideal to get my foot in the door. I have been at IITA ever since.

What are some of your memorable experiences in research in the field or in the lab?
I like the applied and hands-on work. You can get much more done with a large dedicated team of staff, sometimes with less access to good infrastructure and facilities. I had to play farm manager for more than a year, doing activities from supplying water, fuel, and satellite dishes to keep the station running, to chasing away cows from encroaching the research fields in my spare time.

What are your realizations on the job?
I have come to appreciate several important realizations. First of all comes focus. It is easy to be carried away and drift into the development aspect of things. We are first and foremost scientists, on the applied side of science, publishing our work through peer-reviewed journals. It should be up to partner organizations to feed high-tech science upstream or to implement the work downstream. So choosing the right partners is essential. Secondly, teamwork is important. I started to fully appreciate this fairly late. Competition is natural in low quantities but, by definition, has no place in an institution that aims to do Research to nourish Africa. By working synergistically as a team and sometimes reaching out to other “competitor” organizations you would be surprised at what can be achieved in a short time and how the relationship can be swiftly turned into fruitful collaboration. Thirdly, at IITA, the sky seems to be the limit but sometimes you have to let go. One person simply cannot run two large international projects, write some more, fly to DR Congo to help with restructuring the agricultural sector, correct PhD theses, be a webmaster, and run a massive conference at the same time. My workload is insane but it is partly my fault.

What are your future plans?
In the immediate future, I would focus on my project on improving market pathways for TC banana centered on commercial TC producers and nursery distribution centers. Also, commercialization of the technology with private enterprises—this is what the BIO-EARN project is trying to do. At some point later, I hope to leave science and secure a managerial position with more job security as well. Deep down I know I am not a scientist “pure sang”. Moving on to the bigger scheme of things can be anything, ranging from research management, policy, advocacy, consultancy to donor relations.

Dubois examining a banana plant. Photo by IITA
Dubois examining a banana plant. Photo by IITA

Any advice for colleagues?
I am among the youngest at IITA so I should be receiving advice from others! A strong focus has been on mentoring students and I would hope that some colleagues would train more students. I have been supervising over 25 students in the last 5 years, both those from within Africa and European-based MSc students who do their research at IITA-Uganda. Benefits are manifold for them and IITA. Secondly, I think IITA folk could benefit if they “sell” themselves a bit more, through radio, TV, websites, and the popular press. Benefits include changing donor conceptions and misconceptions, putting science in the forefront, and ultimately benefiting farmers. Thirdly, it has helped me to think a lot out of the box and be a generalist. I came as an entomologist with a title of “biocontrol specialist”. Now I am running a socioeconomic project entirely focused on market pathways for banana seed systems. One could look out of the box for good private sector players or partners. This is essential, in my opinion, for long-term sustainability.

What is your dream for Africa?
I hope Africa will, at some point, be weaned off the many donor agencies, volunteering organizations, and NGOs that seem to be becoming a sustainable big-bucket business rather than a means to an end. A conducive climate for private sector development, together with good governance, is what I wish for sub-Saharan Africa.

4 thoughts on “Thomas Dubois: Young scientist on the rise

  1. A great profile written in an enjoyable style with humor — true tongue in cheek Dubois style. Shows Dubois’ versatility.

  2. Nice! I especially like the part on playing “farm manager… chasing away cows”. It gives a more “human” side to researchers/ scientists, which most people tend to think as always being in clean laboratories and wearing white coats.

  3. I am reading this in 2013, five years after it was written and one year after I met Thomas. I believe Thomas meant exactly what he said and I am not suprised at the progress that he is making. I like his dream for Africa and it is a shared dream.

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