The truth about yams

Published: Wednesday | October 21, 2009

Professor Helen Asemota - Winston Sill/Freelance Photographer

It has taken 30 years of hard work for Professor Helen Asemota to get to this stage. However, that work is yet over. Yams and potatoes are foods many people don't think much of in Jamaica. They are always available and their use outside of being a replacement for our staple rice diet has not been thought of much.

Professor Asemota has thought of it. Hailing from Nigeria, the professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the department of medical sciences at the University of the West Indies (UWI) has made the journey across the middle passage and is daily achieving feats that benefit Jamaica in untold ways. Those benefits have earned Professor Asemota the 2009 Gleaner Honour Award in the category science and technology.

Over those 30 years, and more, Professor Asemota has not only worked with a number of universities, but has been integral on a global level, of developing and executing new and improved research in her field.

While her work in biochemistry, molecular biology and biotechnology is renowned, has recently she added the fairly new and certainly very exciting area of nanotechnology to her extensive résumé.

Prof Asemota earned her professorial status at UWI but has found the time to also give service to Shaw University in North Carolina where she is head of the Nanobiology Division of the Shaw Nanotechnology Initiative - the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Research Centre. So respected is the woman that though she is only with Shaw University part-time, she is also the chairman of the Shaw Institutional Research Board.


Just as interesting as Professor Asemota's professional achievements, are her beliefs and the things that drive her. A quote from Prof Asemota on UWI's website states: "The best thing that has ever happened to me is becoming a mother and entering into a personal relationship with the Almighty Father through Jesus Christ."

Telling of her relationship with her students, the professor said: "My students have come to know that with me nothing is considered done until it is done." That mindset comes, not just from her faith, but from personal experiences.

Her daughter was very ill at age 16, going into a coma. According to Professor Asemota, all her organs had shut down. Having her daughter survive that ordeal has meant much to her and has been one of the main drivers in her work today. She doesn't intend to quit.

"I have a commitment to serve and worship God through selfless research and teaching," she is quoted as saying.

The quote goes on to speak about her research and the integral role Jamaica played in its development.

Trained PhD scholars

Dennis Lalor (left) and E. Nigel Harris welcome Professor Helen Asemota.

"My research into yams, which originated in Nigeria and was fostered in Germany, became buttressed in Jamaica and has since radiated to many parts of the world, resulting in many UWI-trained PhD scholars.

"With its strategic location and active research framework, UWI has served as a most suitable hub for the enhancement of this research."

Yams doesn't sound like an interesting topic but her research on the improvement of yam, using biotechnology, has been admittedly beneficial to Jamaica and other countries around the world in no uncertain manner.

The recent economic downturn and the more long-standing issue of food security come to mind immediately. Improving the quality of yam and the efficiency of the processes that bring the tuber to bear are more important than most realise.

Not only has she broken ground in the area but Professor Asemota has brought many charges along with her. The work she started will continue, as it includes teaching at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Furthermore, the good-natured professor has also developed state-of-the-art technology courses and programmes that are still followed in places she has used them.

Outside of university life she has also provided consultancy services to various international organisations like the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN). In 1994, she was the technical expert in her field with the EU, and in 2001 she served as a consultant for biotechnology to Syria for the UN.

International consultant

For the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Professor Asemota was the international consultant for biotechnology to the Republic of Tajikistan from 2003 to 2007. In that position she provided technical leadership for the Tajikistan National Seed Potato Production Programme. The work she did there went a long way toward making that country food-sufficient. Prof Asemoto's seed-production work still continues with the UN on an on-and-off basis with various countries around the world.

Even with all this, Professor Asemota has still found time to write and is the author of more than 250 publications. More than 80 of those can be found in internationally refereed journals.

Some of the most interesting, if still experimental, of this work comes from her research into using nutritional supplements as tools for harm-reduction in illicit addiction. The idea of using food to stand in for addictions has implications that are boundless.

While that is most interesting, of more importance, is the professor's extensive research into the improvement of production and exploitation of tropical tuber crops for sustainable development. The first step towards achieving financial and other kinds of success on a global scale is your ability to feed your country.

Professor Asemota is also a big player in the idea of conserving biodiversity. For her, the different types of food, plants, animals and people on the planet are important to its survival.

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