Dr. Carlos Iglesias: Growing Connections

WRITTEN BY Jennifer Terlouw, jlterlou@ncsu.edu

On Friday, February 21st, CALS SAIGE hosted Dr. Carlos Iglesias, the new Director of the Plant Breeding Consortium at NC State, for an international seminar presentation. Dr. Iglesias opened his seminar by quizzing the CALS faculty and students in attendance, “What is the crop with the highest farm gate value in Sub-Saharan Africa?” The responses were overwhelmingly in favor of cassava, given its sustainability, but Dr. Iglesias revealed that yams were, in fact, the correct answer.

Dr. Iglesias, pictured right, with cousins and the new generation of his family

The breeding of yams is complex, according to Dr. Iglesias’ expertise, but they’re believed to produce a phytochemical called diosgenin that is involved in current studies to measure its beneficial effects on cancer. Through this example, Dr. Iglesias was able to easily demonstrate the ways that plant breeding can act as an interdisciplinary bridge to connect agriculture to other sciences. However, connection is a much broader theme in Dr. Iglesias’ experiences.

Growing up in a farming community in southwest Uruguay, Dr. Iglesias’ grandmother ran the local post office, where his interest in international connections first began. Dr. Iglesias was fascinated by internationally addressed mail as a child, always looking to see if there were new countries he hadn’t yet seen mail from.

Issues of John Deere’s The Furrow were also of great interest to him, when they arrived in the mail. As a child, he always hoped to see new wheat balers in the magazine, determined that he would one day work in baling. Dr. Iglesias recalls that upon graduating elementary school, he presented his mother with the copy of The Furrow in which Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize, telling her that he wanted to become a farmer one day.

Dr. Iglesias went on to obtain a degree in agronomy from the Universidad de la Republica,-Uruguay, a doctorate in plant breeding and crop physiology from Iowa State University, a master’s degree in agricultural economics from Purdue University, and an MBA in food and agribusiness from Indiana State University. His change of paths is attributed to an encouragement from his grandmother, Blanca Rosa de Los Santos de Iglesias:

“Study so that you can help people.”

Dr. Iglesias also stressed to CALS students the importance of forming new connections and nurturing existing connections, especially those with advisors and faculty under which they’ve studied.

One such connection of Dr. Iglesias’, Dr. Richard Shibles of Iowa State University, is the perfect example of the ways that these relationships change lives and remain important long after someone’s time working with a specific program has ended. With Dr. Shibles’ help, Dr. Iglesias was able to work from Brazil to assist with cassava farming in Africa. This arrangement allowed Dr. Iglesias to take his family with him while pursuing his dream, ensuring a healthy work and life balance for him.

Recently, feeling called to contact Dr. Shibles again after years of separation, Dr. Iglesias found his contact information and reached out to him. According to Dr. Shibles, he had not heard from another student in 6 years.

In Dr. Iglesias’ view, the people we meet on personal and professional journeys and our connections to them matter the most. If the conversations with connections stop, it’s important to pick them up right where they left off. Connections are always ongoing and growing them over time develops a healthy personal and professional network.

Dr. Iglesias, pictured right, with farmers in Africa on a cassava project.

Dr. Iglesias describes plant breeding as an industry in a similar way. What was once a “one man band” operation that required one professional to execute many jobs at once has now become a collaborative team effort that requires connections and interdisciplinary skills. This higher awareness of connectivity scales across the plant breeding industry, in fact.

Over the last forty or fifty years, Dr. Iglesias has perceived a shift from an industry focus on food security to a broadening focus on food availability, affordability, nutritional quality, safety, sustainability, and transparency. The growing connectivity between international agricultural communities has offered a window into the nuanced needs of differing groups, allowing for the plant breeding field to address a broader set of needs. To quote Dr. Iglesias,

“Diverse partners [in research] can bring great synergy and results.”