A series introducing the next generation of innovators. We asked prominent British Columbians to nominate people they're watching.
Nominator: Sarah Otto, evolutionary geneticist, professor and director of University of British Columbia's Biodiversity Research Centre, 2011 winner of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation's "genius grant."
Innovator: Loren Rieseberg, the founder of the Rieseberg Lab at UBC's Biodiversity Research Centre, where he is also a professor of botany. He is a distinguished professor of biology at Indiana University and a past MacArthur Foundation fellow.
"Loren is a true innovator. He sees a problem – whether it be as basic as how do species form or as pervasive as how do we feed a burgeoning human population without expanding our ecological footprint – and tackles it." - Sarah Otto, professor and director of University of British Columbia's Biodiversity Research Centre
Outside Loren Rieseberg's office in UBC's biodiversity centre is an image from the popular television series Game of Thrones. Except here, Dr. Rieseberg is king.
His students have expertly pasted his head over King Joffrey's and dubbed their professor, "King of the biodiversity centre" – but just while his boss, Sarah Otto, is on holidays. The soft-spoken evolutionary biologist doesn't remotely resemble his egomaniacal on-screen counterpart.
Growing up in B.C., Dr. Rieseberg was raised by his mother, who passed on her appreciation of the outdoors. He cemented his passion for food and science at the age of 7.
"I took a course on edible plants. That was it."
As the Canada Research Chair in plant evolutionary genomics, Dr. Rieseberg is working to solve the world's global food-supply problem.
He said between the increasing numbers of droughts, shrinking arable land and decreasing soil quality – it's not just climate change that he's seeing. He's concerned about the way crops have been cultivated and domesticated.
"Most of our modern breeding has been focused on increasing yield, and one of the by-products of that is that we lost a lot of the genes that make crops environmentally resilient."
Dr. Rieseberg has partnered with commercial businesses and governments to provide "prebreeding" intelligence for the sunflower industry – the thirteenth most-grown crop in the world and worth more than $20-billion every year in production value.
He and his team are working to develop sunflower breeds that make the most of their natural environment and grow in some of the harshest climates in the world. His research lab maps and identifies the gene sequences of unique, wild sunflowers. The information is used to cultivate domestic sunflowers that are more resilient with higher yields "We have species [of sunflowers] that occur in salt marshes where the salt concentrations are greater than what's found in the ocean," he said.
He pulls out a photo of tall sunflowers growing out of sand dunes:
"We have species that occur in the desert that are highly drought tolerant."
His research is critical to countries such as Uganda, where he's worked to help tackle famine and year-round arid conditions.
Earlier this year, he co-founded DivSeek, a database of plant genes made available to help fellow researchers and breeders "exploit biodiversity in all crop plants."
Despite the strides he's made, he warns that progress can be slow.
"We'll be very lucky if we could feed the world by 2050."
But it's likely his research will speed things up to minimize the typical ten- to 15-year breeding cycle, as breeders can do fewer tests in the field.
Despite his successes with sunflower genes, he notes his greatest achievements have to do with his own.
"Oh, those two," he says without hesitation, pointing proudly to a photo of his smiling son and daughter.