PlantLink Researcher in the Spotlight – Lise Lykke Steffensen

Lise Lykke Steffensen is the managing director of Nordic Genetic Resources Center (NordGen) and have the responsibility for the strategic and operational research program at the institute. What does it take to be the head of a profound research organisation, and what are NordGen’s priorities? Read the interview below!

What is currently on top of your research agenda?

We live in a challenging time with climate change, loss of biodiversity, demands for more plant-based foods and a war in Ukraine that has put the wish for self-sufficiency of food high on the agenda. It talks into the research agenda of NordGen and the needs for genetic resources and development of new plant varieties, eco-system services, bio-based solutions and focus on societal impacts.

Top of our research agenda is to improve and develop techniques and knowledge on genetic resources conservation. Further, it is to facilitate the use of our genetic resources  in  research and development projects. Our research projects can both be rather small in size or part of a larger consortia.

We are usually providing a key role in the first preparatory phase of the project as we provide the biological research structure, first phase findings or services and then getting involved in the compilation of data, coordination of inputs and dissemination. For the moment we have a strong focus on key stable crops like oats, protein sources like peas and beans, potatoes and crop wild relatives. From simple phenotyping to advanced genotyping. We are looking into phenomics and genomics to unlock the potential of both large and minor species. It is our aim to find research funding to further expand our work on hyperspectral image analysis for research and management, do more protein and chemical fingerprinting. 

Very high on the research agenda is the crop wild relatives (CWR). They play an increasingly important role in the biodiversity and climate change agenda. In particular, we need the CWR to identify the valuable different resistance genes needed for future plant breeding and to enhance food production.

On the farm animal side, we have a busy research agenda with research and development of cryopreservation of endangered species, genomics, phenomics, and development of sustainable breeding within horses, cattle and the brown bee. What we do think could be of very high relevance is the cross-sectorial research to find synergies across research fields, societal impacts and the linkages between ecosystems and the societal impacts. We just finalized a project on the Nordic Mountain Cattle which covered new ground and combined the disciplines of genomics, phenomics, history with art and societal impacts. This very interdisciplinary project did make quite some headway in the understanding of various aspects of the Nordic Cattle in the past, today and the future.

Tell us about your latest publication

My role as head of NordGen is very often to be included in the first phases of idea generation for a new research application or research consortia to be facilitating the scoping of the project in the early days. To help and to ensure that the project is in line with our professional strategies and to ensure that the project gets a good start with prioritized resources. I can come up with my suggestions and inputs for the research that we undertake. Being able to do this, it requires a solid insight into both our own capabilities and professional wishes for our research as well as what are the societal challenges and possibilities.

What I also can bring in the early phases of scoping new projects is my very widespread network within the Nordic and European Universities, breeders, food companies, research funds and even the political engagement. I guess that we all are aware that human relations are always important when you choose your next research collaboration and funding opportunity.

I was asked about my latest publication. My focus is on the research agenda and strategic research management, which leave limited time for actual research. The two latest articles of a more research-oriented nature were an editorial in Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica A. on animal sciences on Nordic genetic farm animal resources research and an article on the Svalbard Global seed Vault in the Indian Journal for Plant Genetic Resources.

What led you into your particular field of research?

Since a very young age, I have been interested in agriculture and horticulture. The importance of what and how we decide to grow and produce our food. There is something very special within agriculture, how you get close to nature, experience the seasons, see plants, animals and forest grow and develop. That is why working with genetic resources conservation and utilization have been a natural interest and passion for me to do a difference within this field. The almost past 25 years I have been involved with different aspects of genetic resources on national, Nordic, EU and international level. I guess that  once you have worked and understood the importance of genetic resources – it stays with you forever.

What are the implications of your research for the society?

The research conducted at NordGen contributes to sustainable use of genetic diversity important for food and agriculture. In other words, we are both practically working with conservation of agricultural biodiversity and promoting sustainable use of this biodiversity, for example by developing breeding plans for endangered farm animal species, disseminating Nordic research on forestry and gathering Nordic foresters annually in different workshops and conferences. Additionally, we provide plant breeders worldwide with the biological infrastructure which they need to breed new plant varieties which are required to feed the world.

Finally, let´s say you got unlimited research funds; where would your research be five years from now?

What a dream scenario to have unlimited research funds. If unlimited research funds for the next five years, I believe that we would still focus on our main research areas. We would for sure add resources to enlarge the scope and to speed up our timelines. On this high-flying agenda, we would expand our partnerships to have a world-class evaluated seed collection with developed new seed screening technologies and relevant phenomic/genomic data within research projects that make an impact on our challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity, new plant-based foods and higher degree of self-sufficiency.

Thank you for a very interesting interview, Lise! We wish you the best of luck and success in your future paths!

(Photo: personal communication)