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Modesta Abugu: Improving Sweetpotato Flavor for Nutrition Security

Modesta Abugu harvesting sweetpotatoes
Modesta Abugu in a Sweetpotato field in Clinton, NC. Photo credit: Simon Fraher, NC State University.

Modesta Abugu came to North Carolina State University from a smallholder farming community in Enugu State, located in southeastern Nigeria, where she grew up helping her mother on a two-acre farm planting, weeding and harvesting cassava, corn and cowpeas. During that time, Abugu had first-hand experience with the struggles of small farmers, including pest, diseases and poor access to quality seeds. She decided to pursue plant breeding as a career so she could help farmers, like her mother.

In 2013, Abugu earned her bachelor’s degree in plant biochemistry and then worked for five years in an outreach and advocacy initiative called Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Nigeria, where she engaged a broad range of stakeholders to promote access to innovation for small farms. She also trained as a fellow of the Alliance for Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she built and applied unique skills on strategic planning, grassroots mobilization and science communication.

Early in 2019, Abugu moved to the United States for her master’s degree program in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida (UF), where she focused on horticultural crops and flavor breeding. For her master’s thesis, Abugu worked on introgressing superior flavor volatile alleles into a modern commercial tomato variety.

Currently, Abugu is working under the supervision of Craig Yencho in the Sweetpotato Breeding and Genetics Program and Massimo Iorizzo in the Plant Genetics and Nutritional Genomics Lab to conduct a genetic analysis of volatile flavor compounds in sweetpotatoes.

Why and when did you get into horticulture and plant breeding?

I got into horticulture because I believed I could contribute to achieving food and nutrition security to improve the quality of life globally. I became increasingly interested in horticultural crops and flavor breeding during my master’s research experience in Harry Klee’s lab at UF. There, I learned how plant domestication inadvertently caused complete or partial loss of genes controlling flavor traits, thereby reducing the quality and nutritional contents of most fruits and vegetables. I enjoyed working to restore some of those flavor traits in a commercial tomato variety and decided to pursue this flavor improvement effort in other fruits and vegetables as well.

What brought you to NC State?

I chose NC State mostly because of the interdisciplinary programs they offer in the Genetics and Genomics Academy, and the great reputation of the Sweetpotato Breeding and Genetics Program. Since I have a background in agricultural biotech advocacy, I wanted a Ph.D. experience that allowed me to combine advocacy with plant breeding, and NC State was the only university I found with this interdisciplinary opportunity.

In fall 2021, I joined the Genetics and Genomics Scholars program, where I learned about the diversity and wide application of genomics and genetics tools to improve livelihood for mankind. The program also offered me a great, cohort-based exposure to settling and adapting in grad school. 

I’m also a fellow of the AgBioFEWS program of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center, where I’m learning about the science, policy and public engagement impacts of agricultural biotechnology on food, energy and water. I’m doing this alongside my Ph.D. research in the Sweetpotato Breeding and Genetics Program, as well as a minor in food science.

Can you tell us about your research?

Modesta Abugu with a string of sweetpotatoes
Modesta Abugu displaying a sweetpotato line with excessive secondary root development. Photo credit: Ken Pecota, NC State University.

When I talk to people about my research, I usually ask them to first describe the flavor of cooked sweetpotatoes to me. Usually, the first word they say is “sweet.” While it is true that sweetpotato contains mostly sugars, the cooking process generates so many volatile flavor compounds that work together with the sugars to give us the “sweet” flavor perception we taste.

My research is to identify those volatile flavor compounds and their sensory attributes. This would help us develop a lexicon, a meaningful language, that could be used to better describe the flavor of sweetpotatoes. Using that information, I would explore the genetic mechanism involved in the production of the flavor compounds. My research will equip breeders with information to select and develop more flavorful varieties to increase sweetpotato consumption and ultimately enhance nutrition security.

What upcoming project are you most excited about and why?

I’m excited about the  Quantitative Trait Loci (QTL) mapping study I will be conducting on a DC Mapping population. This population was obtained from a cross between a yellow-fleshed, high dry matter sweetpotato (NCDM04-0001) with an orange-fleshed, low dry matter (Covington) sweetpotato and is segregating for a wide range of flavor traits. I’m looking forward to identifying the compounds that influence flavor perception in the population and also map the chromosomal regions influencing the production of these traits. This mapping study is important for the identification of responsible genes that drive consumer acceptance, and it will give breeders a toolkit for developing high quality sweetpotatoes.

You are the co-founder of the ASPB African Researchers Network. Can you share the network’s impact?

I started this network after I attended my first online American Society of Plant Biologists Plantbio20 conference. It was during the COVID pandemic, and was my first shot at networking with people online. I attended numerous plenary talks about how plant biologists are developing tools that will improve African crops. However, none of these talks were given by African scientists or graduate students. Together with some colleagues I networked with during the conference, we created the African Researchers Network (ARN) to promote representation of Africans in plant biology meetings, at least at the grad student level.

One major impact of the network is that the group expanded beyond the African level to involve diverse stakeholders in various plant science areas. In two consecutive plant biology conferences, we hosted two workshops and a hackathon where grad students, postdocs and faculty members developed effective solutions to some global agricultural challenges in 48 hours. The hackathon attracted a lot of industry partners to support and fund some of the winning ideas. We have also created visibility and supported the participation of about 20 Africa-based scholars to attend the plant biology conferences.

What has been the highlight of your graduate school experience so far?

Modesta Abugu showing wolfie hand
Modesta Abugu showing her wolfie while wearing NC State gear. Photo Credit: Amobichukwu Amanambu, University of Florida.

In addition to the technical skills I’m building through my research, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting and sharing experiences with the students, faculty members and staff of the Department of Horticultural Science. The collaborative work we do here has made my Ph.D. experience rewarding.

What are your future goals?

I would love to explore career opportunities that combine horticultural and food science-related research in an international research organization, the industry or an NGO targeting food and nutrition security programs. I have a passion for research, outreach and capacity-building, and the skills I’m building from my Ph.D. experience will strategically equip me to apply those skills into diverse roles.

Do you have any advice for incoming graduate students?

Take it one step at a time because with confidence comes skills. This may sound like cliché, but as someone who is used to multitasking, I’m learning that grad school is not a sprint, but instead a marathon. I’ll advise incoming grad students not to let the overwhelming amount of information, competition and pressure in grad school get to them. Don’t feel pressured to do everything on your own, always ask for help. The people here are kind and are always willing to help. Also, they should make use of social media.We may not realize it at first, but the best helpers, mentors and potential employers are there.

Are you interested in studying horticulture?

The Department of Horticultural Science provides a hands-on academic path that provides real-world benefits and applications. Explore our undergraduate and graduate programs to learn from expert faculty and have career-focused experiences.

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