Robert S. Zeigler is currently the director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. This position caps an exemplary career of more than 20 years in international agriculture, with a focus on improving crops for developing countries. His service started after receiving his undergraduate degree in biological sciences from the University of Illinois, when he joined the Peace Corps as a secondary school science teacher in Mokala, Zaire. He returned to the United States to complete his M.S. degree in botany, with a specialization in forest ecology, from Oregon State University and his Ph.D. degree in plant pathology from Cornell University. He turned his skills and energies again to international agriculture, where he has held positions at the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT), Cali, Colombia; the Institut des Sciences Agronomique du Burundi (ISABU); and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, Philippines).
From early in his career, Zeigler viewed that all possible tools must be at least tested for application to crop improvement. Beginning with leading the effort to routinely use rice anther culture as a breeding tool in the 1980s in South America, he steadily adopted and developed new molecular techniques and approaches to solve resistance breeding and disease management problems to some of the most recalcitrant plant pathogens of rice. Zeigler was an active participant in the Rockefeller Foundation Rice Biotechnology Network from its inception. He has led innovative research on applying molecular markers in both crops and pathogens to predict effective resistance gene combinations and aid breeders in combining these in finished varieties. In recognition of his many accomplishments and contributions, APS bestowed upon him our prestigious International Service Award.
Over his career, Zeigler’s research has targeted problems involving viral, bacterial, and fungal plant pathogens. His research has involved many important crop species, including potato, cassava, corn, rice, wheat, and sorghum. In addition to crop- and disease-specific research, he also participated in and led cropping system and natural resource management research in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Thus, he has an exceptionally broad understanding of the range of issues confronting crop improvement globally and is keenly aware of the biophysical and socioeconomic circumstances that set crops and cropping systems apart.
In addition to his impressive research credentials, he held senior research management responsibilities in two international agricultural research centers (CIAT in Colombia, and IRRI in the Philippines) and was department head in plant pathology at Kansas State University. In these positions, he had direct responsibility for complex multidisciplinary research programs that included plant breeders, pathologists, entomologists, agronomists, plant physiologists, crop modelers, geographers, biometricians, rural sociologists, anthropologists, and economists. Zeigler conceived and led a number of important initiatives to bring U.S. and international scientists together in collaborative research programs. These efforts were in part successful because of his in depth understanding of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). He conceived and led the development of the Global Cereals Comparative Genomics initiative that linked the strong U.S. basic cereals genomics and bioinformatics research community with cereals improvement programs in the CGIAR and national agricultural research programs in developing countries. The Cereal Comparative Genomics initiative planted the seed for the Generation Challenge Program (for which Zeigler became the first director).
While at Kansas State University, Zeigler was a key figure in the development of the National Plant Diagnostic Network, which links our nation’s public agricultural institutions into a distributed system that provide a means for rapid identification and response to introduced pests and pathogens critical to national agricultural security. This effort considerably revitalized the extension network within the United States. During his time as director of the Generation Challenge Program, Zeigler made his mark with a wide range of donor communities, including a large block of supporters under the European Union. In his first year with the Generation Challenge Program, he raised more than 10 million dollars to support research activities across a range of new research partnerships. Two important aspects of visionary leaders are that they can effectively implement their vision and that they recognize, adopt, and integrate the vision of others. Zeigler has exhibited both aspects, and he is very careful to credit others for their contributions to the vision.
Zeigler also chaired or was a member of a number of regional international research oversight and management committees in Latin America and Asia, including the Asian Rice Biotechnology Network. Years of working with committees whose members came from diverse cultures in Latin America, Africa, and South, Southeast, and East Asia helped him develop skills in forging consensus among scientists, administrators, farmers groups, and nongovernmental organizations from very different backgrounds and with very different expectations. He is an excellent, trilingual communicator who has interacted often with the press and electronic media and is frequently invited to speak on many issues, for example, agricultural biotechnology and biosecurity. He has been an invited speaker at many APS and other international symposia and colloquia over the years.
Zeigler became the director general of the IRRI in 2005. Under his leadership, IRRI has embarked upon a new strategic plan to address poverty, human health, and environmental issues via a vigorous rice research agenda. His quality as a leader and strong advocacy for quality science mark his first 2 years at IRRI.
Zeigler has a rare breadth and depth of research and agricultural development experience that nicely complement and provide credibility to his leadership skills. His communication skills are superb—making him a perfect “ambassador” for international agriculture, in general, and plant pathology specifically. These combined attributes of quality research and leadership that Zeigler has directed at international agriculture have earned the formal and high-profile recognition by our society embodied in the APS Fellow Award. This award will suitably recognize his outstanding scientific achievements as well as his superb contributions to leadership important to the society and our profession.