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Catherine Feuillet: Champion of the Wheat Genome

Bayer’s Head of Trait Research, Dr. Catherine Feuillet, discusses the mindset needed for scientific success and talks about her professional life at Bayer.

Too often women believe they aren’t qualified enough, thereby limiting themselves to express their full potential.

Dr. Catherine Feuillet encourages women to take on high management positions.

Being a scientist is a double-edged sword: It’s highly gratifying when you make a discovery, but it takes a lot of patience and resilience. It’s a long road to success. My own path is a good example.

In 2017, after eleven years of collaborative research efforts worldwide, the International Wheat Genome Sequencing, that I helped launch and manage, obtained the reference genome sequence of bread wheat. A genome sequence is like a cookbook that contains recipes to build an organism. Sequencing bread wheat was a huge challenge, even considered by many as impossible to achieve for many years. With 17 billion base pairs, the wheat genome is five times larger than the human genome and far more complex. So, decoding the wheat genome was like finding a needle in a haystack. But the effort was worth it. Knowing which genes are responsible for important characteristics such as yield enables us to optimize gene combinations through various breeding techniques.

The long path I was on, both as a scientist and a leader, towards this success illustrates that resilience is one of the most important traits (at the end, it is all about traits!) a researcher needs. In reality, our experiments don’t rather work out most of the time, and resilience is needed to go through the series of failures and lessons learned that research is all about. But the day it works, this is an incredible feeling and satisfaction to be able to advance our knowledge and our contribution to providing solutions to farmers.

From Academia to Industry

Before I joined Bayer as a Head of Trait Research, I worked for 20 years on wheat genomics at academic institutions in Zurich (Switzerland) and Clermont-Ferrand (France). At Bayer, I can apply my experience in wheat research to develop practical solutions for productive and healthy wheat crops. Wheat feeds one-third of the world population, and way too many people go to bed hungry. Thus, working on wheat matters for society, and it is also a scientific challenge: this is a perfect combination of factors that has driven and energized me to accomplish challenging projects with my teams for many years. I’m delighted to be able to continue doing this in a broader context and with a company that is ready to take on these challenges.

With my teams in Trait Research, we use biotechnology approaches to improve native genes or bring completely novel genes to help crops deliver enough yield and withstand biotic and abiotic stresses. This complements the work that breeders do to improve crops genetics by crossing hundreds of lines together and selecting the best combinations. I always listen to public concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and believe that we need to address these proactively – go beyond the scientific facts and speak with our emotions. We need to get out of our labs, stand up for what we do and explain why we do it. This is why I’m getting more and more engaged in social media, and I like to engage with the public and participate to outreach educational activities.

Self-Confident Women in Science

At Bayer, I lead research groups in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA, and in Ghent, Belgium. The role I hold today came because I developed courage and met people who gave me some push and confidence that I could accomplish things for which I initially thought I would not be qualified enough. When I was originally contacted about the job at Bayer, my first reaction was to give the name of somebody else. I notice a similar lack of confidence among some of my female colleagues and friends. Too often women believe they aren’t qualified enough, thereby limiting themselves to express their full potential.

Though I’m very passionate about my job, I also try to keep a work-life balance. Next to enjoying art in different forms, keeping in touch with my friends and refueling in nature, I really enjoy riding my motorbike. I’ve been riding and owning motorcycles since I was 18 years old. When I turned 50, I bought a Harley Davidson! I live at full speed – in private as well as in my professional life.

CV Dr. Catherine Feuillet

1965: Born in Orléans, France

1990-1993: PhD thesis in cell biology and plant molecular biology at the University Paul Sabatier, Toulouse (France)

1994-2004: Postdoc and assistant professorship at the Swiss Federal Research Station for Agroecology and Agriculture and the University of Zurich (Switzerland)

2004-2013 Research Director at the INRA center “Genetics, Diversity and Ecophysiology of Cereals” in Clermont-Ferrand (France)

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