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USask PhD graduate Zelalem Taye with his family; wife Kalkidan, son Amen, and daughters Haleluya and Barkot. (Photo: Submitted)

Budding plant scientist thrives in USask PhD program

Zelalem Taye studied in Africa, Asia and Europe before making the journey to the University of Saskatchewan (USask) for his PhD.

Taye will officially receive his doctoral degree in Plant Sciences at USask Spring Convocation, celebrated online May 31 to June 4.

Originally from Harar, Ethiopia, he discovered USask when he saw a PhD vacancy posted by Dr. Eric Lamb (PhD). Lamb was looking for students for his project titled, Linking Soil Microbes to Crop Productivity which is under the Phenotyping the Plant Microbiome theme in the USask Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre (P2IRC).

Excited by the project, Taye contacted Lamb, who connected him with current and previous students in his group, to see what the lab experience was like. It was a unique selling point he didn’t receive with other potential PhD programs.

“I knew I was in the right place,” said Taye. “I was looking to match my academic goals with a place where I can raise my young family—only Canada and USask provided that. At USask, there is opportunity for everyone to excel.”

Taye made the journey to Canada in 2016, with his wife Kalkidan, son Amen and daughters Haleluya and Barkot joining him later in 2017.

“My international travels throughout my academic journey have shaped my world view and crafted me, said Taye. “I believe this will be my children’s experience as well.”

He was met with innovative learning methods at USask. Automated Agricultural Analysis, a course led by professors involved with P2IRC, brought together computer science, engineering and plant science students for the first time.

“This collaborative course broke down boundaries among the disciplines and pushed students to find common ground to tackle challenges in agriculture,” said Taye.

When the pandemic began, Taye was thrown into remote learning, as a student, teacher and parent. He was a sessional lecturer teaching PLSC 423: Landscape Ecology and Vegetation Management, while writing his thesis and homeschooling his two oldest children during the shutdown.

“My advice for remote learners is to set small goals within the day accompanied by short breaks to help with focus and to differentiate between work and non-work time,” said Taye.

In January 2021, Taye successfully defended his PhD thesis, titled Beneficial Plant-Microbe Interaction in Agroecosystems: Deciphering the Rhizosphere Microbial Community in Field Grown Brassica napus L. His research into the rhizosphere bacterial community will provide insights to design new strategies that combine both biocontrol and breeding approaches to address challenges in canola production and other agricultural challenges.

Although unsure about defending his thesis online, Taye’s defence went well—very well.

“My PhD thesis defence was one of my best presentation experiences,” said Taye.

It was so good that Taye was nominated for a USask PhD Thesis Award. He also received the 2019/20 award for the Outstanding PhD Student in the Department of Plant Sciences, the USask Teacher-Scholar Doctoral Fellowship, and the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission Graduate Scholarship.

Currently, Taye is working as a post-doctoral research fellow in the Department of Plant Sciences at USask. His goal is to obtain a faculty position. Taye’s academic journey has taken him across the globe and to his new home in Canada.

“I am grateful for Canada and for one of the best universities in agriculture—the University of Saskatchewan.”

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