Pioneering plant scientist Des Hautea turns curiosity into a career

By Joan Conrow

February 11, 2022

Des Hautea has always been curious. Even as a child, she loved to tinker and learn.

But it wasn’t until she began studying the emerging field of biochemical genetics in agricultural college that Hautea saw a way to channel her inquisitive nature into breeding new crop varieties. “No one else was doing that and I was an undergraduate,” she says. “It was pretty cool.”

By the time Hautea earned her PhD, agricultural biotechnology was just starting to take off, offering her a new palette of tools and opportunities. She ultimately applied them to developing genetically modified pest-resistant (Bt) eggplant, but first she had to deal with a more rudimentary problem: building the first molecular lab at the University of the Philippines.

At the time, biotechnology was not yet mainstream even in the United States, where Hautea earned her graduate degrees with the support of Fulbright and Rockefeller scholarships. So, when her professors asked if she could take the technology back to the Philippines, Hautea readily agreed, giving herself 10 years to complete the task.

It was a daunting undertaking, but Hautea, who calls herself an “upstart,” soldiered on.

“We didn’t have any equipment,” she recalls. “We didn’t even have distilled water.”

She adapted research techniques to make them usable in the Philippines — “Like we can’t use radio isotopes because they get hung up in customs,” she explains — and bought supplies every time she went to the US. “I had the most unusual hand-carried items on my flights.”

Collaboration and perseverance

Hautea also turned to other local and international organizations, like the Department of Science and Technology, International Foundation for Science, IAEA, the Rockefeller Foundation, University of Minnesota, the World Vegetable Center, CIMMYT/ADB, CIP/UNDP, and the International Rice Research Institute, for assistance. Through collaboration and perseverance, she met her goal within the decade deadline and went on to help establish molecular labs at other institutions and mentored students and research staff.

“I believe you can always build from scratch if you put your mind to it, but you have to think out of the box,” she says. “The other thing I learned from the entire experience is there are people willing to help, even strangers, if you can communicate what you want to achieve and demonstrate that you’re doing the work. Things open up for you.”

With the steadfast support of the USAID/Cornell consortium, Hautea applied that same tenacity to the Bt eggplant project, which consumed half her career. “I have no regrets,” she says of the time spent. “I’m a student of learning. This project showed me all the different aspects, from the bench to the fork, including all the court litigation.”

Despite legal efforts to halt the project, Hautea finally saw significant results last year when the Philippines government approved Bt eggplant for direct use as food, feed and for processing. The last remaining hurdle is commercial approval for propagation.

Never give up

“I just knew I would never give up until I saw it in farmers’ fields,” she says. “Even with the difficulties, I have never resented the people who opposed it, even highly educated people. I was sometimes irritated and disappointed, but it helped me understand why people think that way. I was very interested in understanding how to break through the barriers. It’s so much more challenging with food because food is culture.”

Hautea feels hopeful that agricultural biotechnology will benefit from the positive publicity around the use of genetic engineering to develop effective COVID-19 vaccines. “I believe this technology is the technology of the future,” she says. “Once people can understand its benefits in their lives, with cultural sensitivity, I think it will be embraced, not hated. If we want to be able to survive, we have to embrace science as part of the solutions to our problems.”

Though Hautea, who recently retired as professor at the Institute of Crop Science (ICropS) and a senior researcher at the Genetics Laboratory, Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB), was a one of the first women in her field, she says she never encountered any gender bias. However, she did experience racial discrimination as a graduate student in the US, mainly off-campus. It was subtle, but  real.

“I’m not going to be here for the long term,” she recalls thinking. “I turned the other cheek.”

Hautea also managed to juggle motherhood and marriage throughout her demanding research career. “I was lucky because my husband (the late Randy Hautea, also a renowned plant scientist) was very supportive,” she says. “We never competed, we collaborated. I feel so privileged and thankful I was able to do the work I love with someone I love.”

Noting that she received a lot of help during her doctoral studies, Hautea is eager to mentor and assist her own students. “We’re not here to change the world, but if we can make a difference in one person’s life, that’s worthwhile,” she says.

She also likes to give her students a few words of advice, based on her own experiences and approach to life. “Don’t give up easily. Remain optimistic. Even in the darkest moments you have to believe that it will come to pass. And you should not settle for OK. Average is mediocre. You have to excel.”