Francis Onyilo was a Spring 2015 Borlaug LEAP Fellow and joined the program from the East African country of Uganda. He is currently a Lecturer at Muni University in Arua, Uganda, supporting the establishment of a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture programme. He is also awaiting his PhD thesis public defensein Molecular Plant Pathology and Biotechnology at MakerereUniversity. His research is focused on the use of genetic modification in African banana and plantain plants to help combat the black Sigatoka disease, caused by the Pseudocercosporafijiensis fungus. As bananas are an important crop across Africa, for both income and food, helping stem their loss due to disease is crucial to the livelihoods and well being of many people. His concern is that while Uganda’s population is increasing, food production has seen an overall downward trend, bananas and plantains included. He identified genes that are responsible for development and virulence of Pseudocercosporafijiensis. He hopes this knowledge will help in developing banana cultivars for resistance to Pseudocercosporafijiensisand which could then help increase overall production.
Throughout his academic career, Francis has studied internationally across Africa, Belgium, and the United States. As a part of his Master's thesis, he did research on potato gene resistance to the potato cyst nematode. Francis worked as a Part-time Lecturer at Gulu University and Makerere University. He has also worked as a crop protection research supervisor with the Kinyara Sugar Company, where he designed and implemented field trials for pest and disease management. While his work is mainly focused on agriculture and food security, he knows first-hand just how interconnected poverty, poor education and food insecurity can be, having witnessed the destruction that 20 years of war and unrest brought to Uganda. As a Scout Leader, Francis has been a part of community mobilization efforts to bring better hygiene and sanitation knowledge to rural areas. He also created a farmer-to-farmer community extension program while working as an intern with Action Against Hunger. He hopes to continue to model good leadership skills while mentoring youth and other students.
During his fellowship year, Francis worked with Dr. Bryce Falk at the University of California, Davis and Dr. Leena Tripathi, currently at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nairobi, Kenya. Dr. Falk is a distinguished professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and he mentored Francis on the technical aspects of plant breeding and genetic modification. Dr. Falk also helped him refine his goals and monitor his research progress. Dr. Tripathi is the team leader and senior scientist in biotechnology at IITA. She provided hands-on experience for Francis in her lab, in the area of transgenic research and experimentation. While there, he had the to opportunity to interact with many other young, international scientists who are currently working in similar fields. Francis completed his PhD research and published in (i)Front. Microbiol., 16 May 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2017.00830 and (ii)Front. Plant Sci., 13 March 2018 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2018.00291. He expects to finish his PhD by the end of 2018.