Dr Zelda Bijzet (54) yearned to be a pharmaceutical researcher when she graduated from high school. But, at the time, women were not able to work as researchers. Instead she pursued agriculture, creating a path to her dream career.
Genetics and plant genetics became an opportunity to become a researcher and plant breeder at the Agricultural Research Council. She says, “Plant breeding is the art and the science of manipulating heritability in plants for human benefit. The diversity and knowledge that I contribute as a plant breeder improves the wellbeing of the new cultivars farmers plant and impacts food security. Putting healthy fruit on your plate.”
If you’re like Bijzet and love plants and science then follow the links below to find out more about how to get involved. This job is in high-demand so get cracking on finding out what it take to work in this field. Over the next few weeks we will feature many more careers to choose from in the agricultural sector on Food for Mzansi and 19 radio stations all over the country.
Now over to Dr Zelda Bijzet, researcher and plant breeder at the Agricultural Research Council Researcher who will tell you how to, one day, possibly step into her shoes…
1Could you sum up your job for us? Plant breeding is the art and the science of manipulating heritability in plants for human benefit. I am mainly a citrus breeder, which in its broadest sense refers to the purposeful genetic improvement of all types of citrus, including rootstocks, through various practices such as hybridisation, selection, mutation induction, and molecular techniques.
However, there is a wide scope of exciting possibilities for the breeder. Breeding programmes exist for many fruits, nuts, herbs, ornamentals, trees, crops and flowers. The plant breeder, as part of an international fraternity, also has the opportunity to travel regularly to international conferences and workshops.
2So, what does the day-to-day of your job entail? My day definitely does not follow a set routine, but involves many aspects. A plant breeder has a busy daily routine that includes greenhouse work, field activities, laboratory research, and office tasks. You have to design and maintain the breeding programme for your crop or crops as it is a long-term project.
Breeding a new fruit cultivar can take as long as 15 to 20 years. This project includes writing proposals in addition to the actual research and development work. Involving many management aspects such as human resources, finances and funding. You also write articles for scientific publications and give presentations on national and international platforms.
What qualification do you need for this career? A BSc Agric (honnours) in plant breeding preferable with additional horticultural subjects.
4What are the character traits you need to be great at your job? If you want to be a plant breeder you have to be prepared to work long hours in the field. You also have to be inquisitive and innovative and highly organised as the project involve a lot of data over many years.
If you do not see yourself doing field work, you should rather specialise in laboratory based sciences such molecular biology or biotechnology. They develop and implement tools for the breeders such as sequencing of the genome and finding breeding markers. Other jobs include ovule or embryo rescues using highly specialised tissue culture techniques.
5What subjects do I need to become a plant breeder? The most important subjects are genetics and either horticulture (if you want to breed fruits and vegetables) or agronomy (maize, wheat, etc.). A basic knowledge of biometry (statistics), disease resistance, entomology, plant physiology and soil science is also needed.
6What do you love about agriculture as a space to work in? I bring diversity with the knowledge that I am contributing. Farmers are able to grow the new cultivars contributing to their well-being. I can have an impact on food security as well as put healthy fruit on the consumer’s plate.
7Don’t be modest, tell us about your proudest career moments? I was extremely proud when I read the comments on my PhD, but even more proud when I see the students that I mentor grow and their MSc’s and PhD’s are regarded as outstanding work.
8What do you do when you’re not at work? Although spending time with my family is obviously on the top of my list, I also like to read mystery novels and relax with creative hobbies such as knitting, crocheting or other art projects.
9Any advice for young people who are inspired by your career story here on AgriSETA Learner Connect? Your ideal job might not be the normal run of the mill or even known to you yet. Never be afraid to change direction when you discover a career that you can be passionate about. Never believe it when someone says that you cannot do it. If you can find a mentor that can share your enthusiasm about something and you put all of yourself into it, you will make a success of it.
10Where can I study to become an plant breeder? The best option is a BSc Agric in Plant breeding (a four-year programme) and can be obtained from the University of the Free State. You can also obtain a BSc Agric Plant and Soil Sciences at Stellenbosch University or the University of Pretoria, or alternatively a BSc Agric: Agricultural Plant Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal or University of Limpopo. All these universities also have a molecular biology or biotechnology option for the candidate that prefers to work in a laboratory.
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