On its Independence Day, Finland honors contributions of Ethiopian-Finnish agricultural scientist By Keffyalew Gebremedhin
A grateful nation never bats an eye; it proudly acknowledges and rewards the services its children render it in their areas of competence or expertise, irrespective of their background or origin.
Therefore, on December 6, 2014 on the occasion of its 97th independence anniversary of 1917 from Russia, Finland smiled on Dr. Yeshitila Degefu, an agricultural scientist of Ethiopian origin. It conferred on him the 2014 Isänmaan Hyväksi Award – the nation’s Cross of Merit of The Order of The White Rose. It is an acknowledgement of the services the scientist has provided “For the Well-Being of the Fatherland”.
Accordingly, on that day Dr. Yeshitila received his award from President Sauli Ninistö in recognition of the high impact research and development work he has carried out in modern molecular diagnostics of plant pathogens of potato. This work is done, he says, via processes safeguarding the high-grade seed potato production from emerging diseases, which in the past had been threat to food security.
In other words, a grateful nation has seen it fit to acknowledge the success of Dr. Yeshitila Degefu’s outstanding contributions to the stock of food in Finland and also prosperity of the country’s seed potato industry.
The Cross of Merit of The Order of The White Rose is sixth, out of Finland’s eight honors that can be granted for military as well as civilian merit, according to the Office of the Republic’s President.
Since he left Ethiopia about 23 years ago, the focus of Yeshitila’s research has rested on trying to understand the mechanisms of how plant pathogens attack plants and how plants defend themselves against such attacks.
In that context, he observes, “Over the last decade I have been more focused in the development of technology to detect pathogens in seeds and planting materials before they increase in number or are able to cause infection and damage.”
“This information is very crucial for farmers,” he pauses to stress and adds, “in order to evaluate their risks and avoid disease and crop losses and thereby avoid heavy use of agricultural chemicals, which is damaging to human health and the environment.”
The making of a scientist
Dr. Yeshitila Degefu was born in 1958 in Ethiopia. As a graduate of the once famous and reputable Alemaya College of Agriculture, he taught for a while at Addis Abeba University as senior lecturer, in a country he left 23 years ago.
His love of higher education began at the Alemaya College, which by the time he graduated from there with BSc Degree in Plant Sciences in 1982 was already 30-year old institution. Alemaya College’s origin was in US-funded project and was for decade and a half “recipient of major institutional development assistance from Oklahoma State University”, to enable it offer its students B.S. and M.S. degrees.
Hungry for further education, Yeshtila came to Finland in 1983 to continue his MSc studies. With completion in 1986 of his MSc degree, he returned to Ethiopia to his teaching and research post only to return to Finland in 1991 to pursue his doctoral studies.
Yeshitila completed his PhD degree with distinction in molecular plant pathology and biotechnology in 2003 from the University of Helsinki, Finland.
His PhD dissertation dealt with the molecular mechanism of pathogenicity of the fungus causing serious disease of maize in Ethiopia and other maize growing parts of the world.
At the Helsinki University, Dr. Yeshitila Degefu continued his engagement in research work and teaching through 2004, following which he assumed the post of Senior Research Scientist at Agrifood Research Finland, connected with Oulu University in north Finland.
Summing up his successes in research work, Dr. Yeshitila Degefu notes:
“I have cloned the genes encoding the enzymes (natural weapons) the fungus uses to dissolve the natural external barriers of the maize plant and developed the genetic system for the analysis of the molecular cross talk between the fungus-and the maize plant. That work opened new understanding and knowledge, filling the existing knowledge gap in the field and provided a roadmap and new insight for future plant disease research geared towards sustainable disease management. It served as a model system for other pathogen-plant interactions.”
Awards, honors and affiliations
In addition to The Cross of Merit of The Order of The White Rose of Finland Medal, he has also received:
* Best Doctoral thesis of the year award, University of Helsinki (2003)
* Doctor primus (honor of Highest Ranked Doctor) on the occasion of the 2008 Solemn Conferment of Doctor’s Degrees (Promotion of Doctors), Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki
Dr. Yeshitila Degefu is a member of several consortium of scientists worldwide. He is also the Chief Editor of the Ethiopian Journal for Research and Innovation Foresight (Ee-JRIF)