Dil Thavarajah is a researcher who is passionate about combating global obesity and malnutrition.
She is following this passion to help Clemson University fulfill its Land-Grant Mission. In recognition of her achievements, Thavarajah has received Clemson’s highest agricultural research award, the 2023 Godley-Snell Award for Excellence in Agricultural Research.
A professor, researcher and trained pulse crop physiologist in Clemson’s Plant and Environmental Sciences Department (PES), Thavarajah also is a faculty research scholar in the Clemson School of Health. She is working to connect human health and global food by improving genetics and nutritional value of pulse crops such as lentils, dry peas and chickpeas, as well as provide South Carolina farmers with alternative food crops to grow.
She shares her knowledge with people through research, teaching and the Cooperative Extension Service – the three pillars of land-grant institutions.
Thavarajah grew up on the island of Sri Lanka, where her family’s main source of protein was lentils. She is renowned for her innovations in lentil biofortification, specifically for iron and selenium. As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, she established the first discoveries of lentil selenium research using synchrotron-based techniques. Then, she joined the world largest lentil breeding program for the Crop Development Centre in Saskatchewan where she initiated the Canadian lentil biofortification program.
In 2010, she moved to North Dakota State University, where she established the nation’s first pulse quality and nutrition laboratory.
Thavarajah joined Clemson University in 2014 where she leads the Pulse Quality and Nutritional Breeding Program and is studying food systems linking to human health. While at Clemson, she has established a $5.61 million research program which includes a state-of-the-art phenotyping laboratory. Phenomics is the area of biology that helps researchers understand interactions between plants’ genetic information and the environment.
“Pulse crops are vital in the global food system to provide low-cost, high protein, low digestible carbohydrates, and a range of micronutrients for vulnerable populations in developing nations,” said Vidya Suseela, fellow assistant professor and researcher who nominated Thavarajah. “Dr. Thavarajah has done significant service globally as an advisor for lentil biofortification programs and she has been actively engaged in community food system development in South Carolina.”
Thavarajah has published 78 peer-reviewed articles and 12 book chapters, as well as scholarly articles. She also has two patents pending, two invention disclosures presented to the Clemson University Research Foundation, is handling editor of the Elsevier Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, and has been invited to speak to national and international audiences. She also won the 2022 Foodshot Global Award for protein biofortification research. She co-led a team with Cornell University and Kansas State University to develop phenomics tools for Senegal, Uganda, Nepal and Haiti. Her lab’s most significant contribution was developing a method to measure nutritional traits and reduce the phenomics bottleneck in plant breeding.
She also developed new technologies for isolating plant proteins and created a breeding pipeline for developing organic dry pea and lentil cultivars with increased protein quality, color and texture. Pulse crops are also referred to as “poor man’s meat” because they are rich in nutrients, such as proteins, but do not cost as much as meat.
In addition, Thavarajah has served in several national and international capacities including: advisor to the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) lentil biofortification programs in Africa and India, editor for the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, past president of the North American Pulse Improvement Society, American representative for the International Food Legume Research Committee and as a board member for the Carolina Rice Foundation and the International Standardization Organization for pulses and cereals, as well as a visiting lecturer at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka.
Supporting South Carolina through teaching and Extension
As a professor, Thavarajah advises students in doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s programs at Clemson University, as well as students from Sri Lanka and Ethiopia.
She has developed and taught several new courses and has received teaching grants to enhance global learning for PES undergraduate students. One example was the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) that involves students from Clemson and Sri Lanka linking agricultural production with global food security. This course features global conversations with students and experts from around the world.
Through her Extension and outreach programs, Thavarajah has established collaborations with organizations throughout South Carolina related to pulse crop needs. She has conducted Extension presentations and meetings, as well as workshops and training programs.
She also organized and chaired the Organic Plant Breeding Institute, in conjunction with fellow researcher and assistant professor Richard Boyles, to teach people about organic agriculture. The mission is to develop biofortified dry pea and lentil cultivars with increased protein quality and yield that are adapted to South Carolina and North Carolina. Global nutritional security is a top priority for this program which includes two greenhouses, a field laboratory for crop improvement, plots at the Clemson Student Organic Farm, as well as organic on-farm field locations in South Carolina and North Carolina.
The first organic dry pea cultivar/germplasm is expected for release in 2025.
For more information about Thavarajah, go to http://bit.ly/3ZQhwJ2.
Clemson’s land-grant history and the Godley-Snell Award
Clemson University was established in 1889 as part of a land-grant system that began in 1862 with the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act. Clemson University was founded by Thomas Green Clemson whose vision was a high seminary of learning that would benefit South Carolina residents, land, wildlife, natural resources and economy through academics, research and Extension. A second land grant act, the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1890, led to the establishment of land grant institutions for African Americans.
The Godley-Snell Award is named in honor of W. Cecil Godley, former director of the South Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station, and Absalom W. Snell, former associate director. This is the largest annual agricultural research award given at the university and is allocated from earnings of a fund that was first established upon Godley’s retirement in 1986. The award increased in 1988 when Snell retired.
The purpose of the fund is to stimulate excellence in agricultural research by making a personal award to faculty members involved in research through the Experiment Station.
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