By Karly Balslew | Bond LSC

Mariam Teme’s passion for plants started while growing up in Mali, West Africa, as she watched her father — an agricultural economist — interact with plants daily in the lush area where she grew up.

“It’s like my own little bubble of peace when I’m surrounded by plants,” Teme said.

Teme, now a member of the Bing Yang lab, planned to study agriculture for her bachelor’s degree but her university in Istanbul, Turkey, only offered genetics and bioengineering. However, integrated it with plant life for her future career.

“I thought it would be cool to understand the process of genes and everything related to plants, so I decided, why not?” Teme said.

A Fulbright Scholarship brought her to the University of Missouri and Bond LSC in the fall of 2020 as she moved on to pursue a master’s in plant sciences and work on the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris pv. Campestris in the lab of Bing Yang. This bacterium causes black rot, a devastating disease of cruciferous vegetables, such as kale, broccoli, and cauliflower. This disease occurs worldwide and can result in high losses of crops. She is learning essential molecular biology techniques like DNA extraction, genotyping, and how to do a PCR.

“It was a lot of stress at first when I started genetics and bioengineering, it was confusing and hard. But the more you understand it, the more you love it, and you develop a passion for it,” Teme said.

Despite sharing an affinity for plants, Teme didn’t have much of a chance to talk to her father about the topic she knew he loved because he died in 2018, shortly after she received her bachelor’s degree.

“I didn’t get my chance to talk to him about [agriculture] but I feel like I am closer to him because I am in it and it makes me feel good,” Teme said. “I think that is the most rewarding part, but it’s also about having the chance to be part of such a beautiful process and maybe finding something new or a better understanding about bacterial infections.”

Even though genetics can be confusing at times, understanding how plants function is crucial to agriculture and other areas of research. However, Teme said her work is misunderstood at times by community members back home.

“People think we’re playing with nature and that is not true. We try to understand [the genetic] process and we try to find solutions in order to protect the plants,” Teme said. “If we are able to protect the plants, then we can protect ourselves because we use plants to feed ourselves.”

Teme spreads her positive message surrounding plant science and genetics even when it is hard for her to understand. She had to adapt to a different education system and learn on her own when she started her master’s degree, however, her love for plants ran deeper than the fear she felt approaching these new topics.

“I’m the type of person that before I understand something, I only think about that thing and then I start to overthink. I become scared of the process without even starting the process,” Teme said. “Once I started working in the lab with my other lab mates and I started to learn the techniques, it’s not bad at all and it’s actually really cool.”

Outside of Bond LSC, she loves hanging out with friends and meeting up with other Fulbright students from different parts of Africa and from all over the globe.

“I’ve learned so much about their cultures and it always amazes me to learn the differences that we have,” Teme said.

In her spare time, she loves to shop and travel. She admits that since joining the lab, she doesn’t have much time to travel anymore but she loves to visit friends in Houston, Texas, and go to California.

Immersing herself in new places, cultures, and scientific fields comes naturally to Teme. She encourages others to not give up on their dreams because they are difficult.

“Don’t be scared of whatever it is you want to do. You have to go ahead and just trust yourself. Everyone is doing it not because they were born with the knowledge or born with the science, they learned it,” Teme said. “Sometimes we tend to compare ourselves to others, but everybody follows their own path and it’s a whole process. We are all humans and we’re all learning so it’s okay to make mistakes.”

Teme is excited to continue learning as she moves through her master’s program and said she could have not done it without the support of her family members and her lab mates.

“It is a blessing to be able to learn because I know many people don’t get the chance,” Teme said. “I am happy to be here.”