FOJBI Friday: Sarah Dohle, The 'Lima Bean Queen'

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FOJBI Sarah Dohle

The "Friends of Joe's Big Idea" is a vibrant community of talented people we think you should meet. FOJBI Friday introduces some of these cool communicators of science, in their own words. This week: Sarah Dohle


I'm a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis studying lima beans — aka "butter beans." I'm working to develop insect-tolerant varieties, and tools to understand the mechanisms of resistance. I have spent part of my time as a grad student with the Genetic Resources Group at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, studying the diversity of lima beans.

Passion for science communication

It's vital as a plant breeder to listen to what growers want in their crops and to be able to help them understand what's biologically realistic for the plant. Creating a new bean variety that tastes and looks similar to a well-loved (or completely new) variety and is tolerant to insects may allow growers to use fewer insecticides — but only if the new varieties are adopted by growers.

Our bean team presents research findings to growers at the annual UC Davis Dry Bean Field Day and at other stakeholder meetings. These events give researchers the opportunity to provide explanations about how understanding the genetic mechanisms associated with stress tolerance (to insects, drought, etc.) may facilitate faster breeding in the future. The growers also get to see improved bean varieties in research fields before they're on the market, so they can give input about what new types of beans they want to add to their fields.

Science communication away from the bean field

Beyond talking directly with the thriving community of lima bean growers, I also find that opening a conversation about science, agriculture or genetics is easy after I say I do research on lima beans — it makes people laugh. Lima bean genetics is not intimidating and people feel comfortable asking questions and sharing their own thoughts about food production, genetic engineering and organic food choices. If we all know a little more about what goes into food production, it helps us make informed decisions about how we eat and how we can support agriculture.

The classroom is another great space for science communication. I've co-taught a class on crop evolution that draws on evidence from linguistics, archaeology, botany, genetics and history (which is potentially conflicting and incomplete) to piece together the story of crop domestication and agriculture over the past 10,000 years. We hope the students develop the ability to critically weigh different types of evidence from various sources and choose the most probable conclusion. The fun details — about which crop came from where and how — are just interesting points to grab students' attention. For example, there were no tomatoes in Italian food before 1492, when Columbus brought them back from the Americas to Europe.

Future plans

Next spring I'll be joining the plant science faculty at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pa., a primarily undergraduate school with strong agriculture science programs. Teaching will be a good platform to share my enthusiasm for science and spark curiosity in students, whether they want to pursue science as a career or just use it to start interesting conversations.

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