The University of Sydney's property at Narrabri. Source: University of Sydney

World Food Prize winner, dengue expert earn honorary doctorates

15 May 2017

Dr Sanjaya Rajaram and Professor Scott O’Neill have been honoured at the Agriculture and Environment graduation ceremony for their ongoing contributions to agricultural research and development.

The University of Sydney has bestowed honorary doctorates for Dr Sanjaya Rajaram and Professor Scott O’Neill, both highly regarded scientists who have dedicated their careers to beneficial agricultural causes and research, contributing greatly to global knowledge, providing solutions and laying the foundations for future endeavours.  

Professor Scott O'Neill standing, while Dr Sanjaya Rajaram looks on; addressed by University of Sydney Professor of Digital Agriculture and Soil Science Alex McBratney.

L-R: Professor Scott O'Neill standing, while Dr Sanjaya Rajaram looks on, addressed by University of Sydney Professor of Digital Agriculture and Soil Science Alex McBratney. Top of page: the University's research crops in Narrabri.

In recognition of his exceptional achievements and eminence in the fields of international agriculture and wheat breeding, and his important benefits to food security in the developing world, Dr Sanjaya Rajaram, an alumnus of the University of Sydney, was admitted to the degree of Doctor of Science in Agriculture (honoris causa).

Dr Rajaram said after the ceremony on Friday that although his generation made significant contributions to alleviating hunger, current challenges were incredibly complex.

"I implore [agricultural science] graduates to use technology, find solutions and tackle feeding the world in the face of climate change, which brings the complex challenges of extreme temperatures, increased salinity and drought,” he said.  

Dr Rajaram was born in 1943 near a small farming village in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northeastern India. He completed his Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, and Masters in Wheat Breeding and Genetics in India by 1964. In 1965 he came to Australia and studied wheat breeding and genetics for his PhD at the University of Sydney, supported by a scholarship provided by the Rotary Club of Narrabri. He was located at the University’s Plant Breeding Institute in Narrabri, and his supervisors were Professor I.A. Watson and Nicholas Derera. He was awarded his PhD degree in 1968.

He then returned to India as a Rockefeller Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi. During this time, Professor Watson recommended Dr Rajaram to the future Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dr Norman Borlaug, who was then Wheat Director at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico – and this set in motion Dr Rajaram’s distinguished scientific career in wheat research.

During his time at CIMMYT, Dr Rajaram held various positions in the Wheat Program. He began as a Postdoctoral Fellow, moved into a leadership position in the Bread Wheat Breeding Program from 1972 on Dr Borlaug’s retirement, and his CIMMYT career culminated in his appointment as Director of the CIMMYT Wheat Program in 1996, a position he held until 2003.

Dr Rajaram then transferred to the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas then in Syria, where he was a senior advisor and Director of Integrated Gene Management until 2008. Since retirement in 2008, Dr Rajaram has continued breeding wheat in Mexico through his own company, which cooperates with wheat researchers around the world, including those at the University of Sydney.

“It has been an incredibly important facet of my work to maintain international connections. The organisations I have worked for are truly international and the objectives of the wheat breeding and genetics work I have led have global outlooks, inputs and impacts,” said Dr Rajaram.

After Dr Borlaug’s work led to the ushering in of the Green Revolution, Dr Rajaram focused on continuing research to raise the yield potential of wheat and building in drought resistance, pest and disease resistance or tolerance, and improving grain and flour quality.

Dr Rajaram’s varieties helped sustain the momentum of the Green Revolution through the 1980s and 1990s until the beginning of the current millennium. Through his sustained efforts, improved wheat varieties were developed which contributed to yield increases and farmers’ prosperity. This was the golden age of wheat breeding and production.

Dr Rajaram had an extraordinary ability to visually identify and select wheats possessing a wide range of desired characteristics that increased global wheat yield potential by 20-25 percent.

Dr Rajaram’s leadership and commitment to the improvement of bread wheat resulted in the prodigious release of more than 500 varieties in the past three decades. This is a unique achievement – more than any breeder of any plant species, and one that is unlikely to be matched. These varieties have been grown in more than 50 countries on six continents and are widely adopted by both small and large-scale farmers.

These wheat varieties have increased yield potential, wide adaptation and resistance to important diseases, and are grown on more than 60 million hectares worldwide. Importantly, all these varieties were developed as part of ‘international public goods’, and researchers, farmers and seed producers everywhere have free access to them.

“I have had many career successes, but some of my greatest personal highlights surround germplasm improvement; my practical responsibilities in the area of global rust susceptibility, and improving disease resistance; and continuing and expanding Dr Borlaug’s work to increase yield potential and diversity of wheat species,” he said.

Dr Rajaram has many honours. He is a Fellow of Indian National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was a Friendship Awardee of the People’s Republic of China, and has a Derek Tribe Award from the Crawford Fund in Canberra. 

In addition, two globally significant prizes have been presented to Dr Sanjaya Rajaram; the Rank Prize for Nutrition in 1998, and the World Food Prize in 2014. The World Food Prize is recognised as the ‘Nobel Prize’ for food and agriculture.

Dr Rajaram’s varieties helped sustain the momentum of the Green Revolution.

The second alumnus to be admitted to the degree of Doctor of Science in Agriculture (honoris causa) is Professor Scott O’Neill.

Professor O’Neill has made outstanding contributions to the field of infectious disease research, which has influenced the thinking and general well-being of the wider community.

Scott graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture with First Class Honours, specialising in entomology. A string of esteemed research positions in Australia and the US followed, and since 2011, Scott has held the role of Dean of Science at Monash University.

The majority of Professor O’Neill’s research has centred on infecting mosquitoes with parasitic Wolbachia bacteria to reduce the viability of dengue-fever carrying mosquito populations in south-east Asian countries. His work on successfully infecting dengue-carrying mosquitoes with a naturally occurring bacterium that stops the development of the deadly disease has found a way to stop the spread of a problem affecting millions of people and farm animals worldwide – and reduces our dependency on insecticides. His research branded ‘Eliminate Dengue’ has received significant support from numerous bodies including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Australian and Brazilian governments.

Congratulations are extended to Dr Rajaram and Professor O’Neill. Their contributions are inspirational for our students graduating from their agricultural degrees and heading out into the world to make their own agricultural history. 

Vivienne Reiner

PhD Candidate and Casual Academic
  • Integrated Sustainability Analysis,