Food Security in the 21st Century: Envisioning R&D Strategies for Meeting the Demand

Lee Foundation Rice Research Fellowship Program between the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)

IRRI Lee Foundation Scholars Video (mp4, 580MB)

The Lee Foundation Rice Scholarship program offers students in South and Southeast Asia a unique opportunity to gain an advanced education in a key area of rice science. Established in 2013 through a USD 3 million grant from the Singapore-based Lee Foundation, the scholarship program aims to train a new generation of rice scientists. The challenge of ensuring food security requires innovation in the science of rice production. IRRI, through the Lee Foundation Rice Scholarship Program has developed an innovative, theme-focused, capacity-building approach to combat rice food security issues. The program is educating a strong cadre of highly competent graduates who are essential to advancing research and initiating a second green revolution in rice production.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) College of ACES has partnered with IRRI to train an initial cohort of nine PhD students. Each student is mentored by advisors from both IRRI and UIUC, with faculty advisors travelling to locations where their students are conducting research. The Illinois Plant Breeding Center (IPBC) and Department of Crop Sciences are the administrative home for the fellowship program.

The rational for developing a more strategic relationship between IRRI and the College of ACES can be understood by examining each institution's strengths. IRRI's focus on rice places it at the center of international efforts to increase food security and reduce poverty. IRRI is committed to initiating a second green revolution with the training of young scientists in the newest technologies. IRRI has generated a nested set of objectives: 1) create the next generation of rice scientists; 2) establish a career - long relationship with these scientists to maintain an international research network; 3) develop a fellowship program that targets priority and focused research programs of mutual interest; 4) create a significant cohort of young scientists that will result in an informal international network that includes many nationalities; and 5) develop relationships with Illinois faculty that will stimulate research interest in rice.  

The College of ACES is a world-renowned agriculture school dedicated to finding solutions to the world's most critical challenges through the creation of abundant food and energy, promoting a healthy environment, and facilitating successful families and communities. Within ACES, the Department of Crop Sciences faculty conduct cutting edge research and train graduate students in plant breeding and genetics, crop genomics and bioinformatics, crop protection (plant pathology, nematology, entomology, and weed science), agronomy, agroecology, biometry, and crop modeling. The IPBC has become the premier institution in the U.S. for supplying skilled and innovative plant breeders to the global job marketplace and the national model for education and research in this field. ACES expertise in food science and human nutrition, water use efficiency and modeling; global climate change and mitigation, genomic biology, and post-harvest loss prevention are just a few of the units/programs that also are complementary to IRRI's mission.

The IRRI/Lee Foundation scholars work on four strategic themes involving rice food security, jointly developed by the two organizations including: 1) gene discovery and bioinformatics, 2) modern rice breeding, 3) future rice systems to ensure food security, and 4) economics and policy. Students selected into the program are from one of the following South and Southeast Asian countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, East Timor, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The students spend the first five semesters (not including summer sessions) at UIUC or what time is required to complete required coursework, craft and defend a research proposal, and pass their preliminary examinations prior to returning to IRRI or various locations in South and Southeast Asia. There they conduct dissertation research typically for a period of 18 months to two years involving projects associated with the improvement of rice production. After their onsite research, students return to UIUC for a final semester on fellowship support to craft and defend dissertations and complete all requirements for the PhD degree. The specific periods the fellows can spend at UIUC and at onsite research location in Southeast Asia may vary depending on the student and their research projects. After receiving their degrees most or all of these students will be in a position to immediately return to South and Southeast Asia with established employment opportunities with research or educational institutes located in this region.

According to Robert Zeigler, previous Director General at IRRI, the Lee Foundation gift represents the largest and most important investment in the education and training of Asian rice scientists by a philanthropic foundation based in Asia in IRRI's 53-year history. The Lee Foundation is a charitable foundation in Singapore founded in 1952 by philanthropist and businessman, Lee Kong Chian to aid the advancement of education, medicine, and cultural activities; helping the poor; and assisting victims of fire, flood, and famine.