Rebecca Nelson has dedicated more than 25 years to research on pathosystems of global importance and to the application of scientific understanding to enhancing the food security of resource-limited smallholder farmers. Nelson is a passionate scientist and a leader and innovator in both the international agriculture research community and in the classroom. Her insights into complex ecological and microbial systems, coupled with her ability to design elegantly simple solutions, have gained Nelson global recognition. Her enthusiasm for improving rural livelihoods through agroecological intensification of smallholder farming has inspired researchers and policymakers as they work to address modern food security challenges.
Nelson was born in Washington, DC, to two inspired medical researchers, and she aspired to be an agricultural scientist from early youth. It took her a while to get there. She earned a B.A. degree from Swarthmore College in 1982 and a Ph.D. degree in zoology in 1988 from the University of Washington before starting her agricultural career. While studying gene networks in fruit flies for her dissertation research, she did a short stint assisting a more senior graduate student, Sunny Power, in her studies of the corn stunt spiroplasma system in Nicaragua and thus discovered her future path—international plant pathology.
In 1988, she married Jon Miller and the newlyweds headed for the Philippines, where Nelson started a post-doctoral fellowship with Hei Leung and Jan Leach at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). She soon joined the IRRI staff, investigating the rice blast and bacterial blight pathosystems and giving birth to two sons. After 8 years, the family moved to Peru, where Nelson joined the International Potato Center. There, her research focused on management of late blight in potatoes. Nelson’s work on both rice and potato included molecular genetic analysis of disease resistance and of pathogen populations. In addition, she worked on farmer-participatory disease management in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. She regards her work with farmer field schools in Vietnam and Peru as her finest hours. She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1996.
Nelson has been at Cornell University since 2001. She is a professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science and a member of the fields of plant pathology & plant microbe-biology, plant breeding & genetics, and global development. Her research group’s interests have focused on the genetic basis of quantitative disease resistance. The Nelson research team collaborates with maize geneticists and breeders at Cornell, North Carolina State University, Mississippi State University, the University of Delaware, the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa Hub in Kenya, and elsewhere.
Nelson’s current research aims at understanding the ways in which maize defends itself against multiple pathogens and the trade-offs involved in various forms of resistance. While much of her lab’s research involves basic genetics and molecular analysis, the team has an increasing emphasis on the problem of mycotoxins in the African maize-based food system. The Nelson group’s work on mycotoxins includes the genetics of resistance, surveys of toxins in the African food system, and approaches to reducing toxin accumulation and human exposure. Nelson is currently collaborating with groups at Cornell and in East Africa to design a trial to assess the role of mycotoxins in human stunting.
Since 2001, Nelson has provided scientific leadership to The McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). As the CCRP’s scientific director, Nelson provides support to more than 70 research projects located in a dozen countries facing food insecurity. The program, which is cofunded by The McKnight Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, serves three Andean counties and nine African countries. Teams of local and international organizations are funded by the CCRP to undertake research projects with the aim of generating technical and social innovations to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. The CCRP focuses on under-researched crops of importance to rural families at risk for inadequate nutrition.
Nelson is frequently called upon to contribute to the work of organizations active in international agriculture, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). She serves as cochair of the SDSN Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Thematic Group (TG7) and by serving on the SDSN’s Advisory Council and Executive Committees.
Nelson has continually supported the growth and empowerment of scientists both in the United States and abroad. She is a loving mentor to her lab members and students; alumni of her laboratories are now gainfully employed in academia and industry on multiple continents. With her support, the CCRP has adopted the concept of scientific Communities of Practice (CoP) in which scientists, development partners, and communities work together to strengthen institutional capacity to generate knowledge and spark innovation in agricultural research and development. This CoP model has given hundreds of scientists access to peers who can collaborate to improve all aspects of research and application.
Leading by example, Nelson fosters an innovative spirit among scientists with whom she works. She is continually seeking innovation and looking for ways to take advantage of developments in pathology, molecular biology, genetics, and engineering. The Nelson lab is currently validating plant health sensors and developing assays to detect the presence of mycotoxin in grain samples. She is championing the development of a network and database that could connect researchers internationally who share related research interests or objectives. One of many potential benefits of this network is that it could fast track research that requires trials across a broad range of environmental gradients.
Nelson’s work has helped to advance thinking in a multitude of scientific sectors on a global scale. She has worked endlessly to develop innovative and collaborative workspaces for scientists. Coupled with her breadth of research contributions, Nelson has strengthened an already vibrant scientific community. Nelson is the definition of outstanding international service. Her passion and enthusiasm toward improving rural livelihoods through rigorous scientific inquiry is infectious and she continues to inspire a generation of scientists to tackle some of the world’s most complex food security challenges.