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From Addis Ababa to Aarhus University – a synergy effect

PORTRAIT: For Grum Gebreyesus, there were never really any doubt about which direction, his studies would take. Today, his research as tenure track assistant professor focuses on digital technologies, and how they can revolutionize breeding in agriculture. For him, it is a win-win situation doing research that also improves the livelihood in African countries.

Completing his master’s degree in animal genetics and breeding at the Haramaya University in eastern Ethiopia in 2010, Grum Gebreyesus continued as a teacher in animal genetics and breeding for undergraduate students for two years at the Jijiga University. Becoming increasingly interested in research, he joined the International Livestock Research Institute, which has its headquarters in Nairobi, but has a campus in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, where he mainly worked. He coordinated projects and worked as a research associate.

- What made you choose genetics and genomics?

‘- I think my fascination in genetics and breeding goes back to when I was in Ethiopia, and when I see the diversity in livestock breeds that we have, and how genetics can contribute to sustainable utilization of these breeds. When I read how genetics and selective breeding have been used in developed countries to improve livestock productivity, I saw a big potential to improve the livelihood of farmers through these powerful tools. When I realized that just by using genetics, without additional inputs, you can have a substantial improvement in productivity and production, and you can use it for conserving diversity. We have a lot of diversity in traditional breeds in Ethiopia, which might be important in the future.’

While working at the International Livestock Research Institute, Grum Gebreyesus saw the huge potential of the research area. The idea of doing a PhD was always there, and then the right opportunity came.

- Why did you choose to apply for a PhD position at QGG?

‘- From the literature and from my information on the networks and everything, I could see that Denmark is an ideal hub for genetic research in agriculture. The cutting-edge technologies that are needed for undertaking research in my area, genomics, genetics, they are quite there.’

‘- The global leadership in sustainable agriculture; Denmark is there, and it makes it easy as well to have international network and collaboration, because it's already established here, especially universities like Aarhus University, which are globally leading in genetics applied to livestock production.’

‘- It could give me a nice opportunity to link internationally, so these are the factors professionally that I looked into when I applied to Denmark. My PhD was an Erasmus Mundus programme, where you have to have two different institutions in two different countries. So, one was Aarhus University Denmark, and the other one was Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Both institutions are global leaders when it comes to animal breeding and genetics and genomics.’

What is a tenure track position?

The position as assistant professor/researcher can be filled as part of a tenure track course, where the employee after a maximum of 6 years moves to an appointment as associate professor/senior researcher. The transfer requires that the employee is assessed as professionally qualified to lecturer/senior researcher level.

(From Act on position structure for academic staff at universities (Retsinformation))

The common denominator

Looking at Grum Gebreyesus’ professional profile it becomes clear that it is not only about fine gene mapping and genomic prediction in dairy cattle, as was his PhD project. There are now projects with both cattle, fish, and insects.

- What is the common denominator in your research these days?

‘- In my PhD, I started with genomics and genomic prediction models and things like that. And then, the more I worked in this area, I saw that one of the limiting factors in breeding now is the phenotype, getting the data for accurate genetic evaluation. And so, I started to move around that area in what we call phenomics, exploring how we can collect accurate phenotype data on individual animals so that we have better prediction models,’ Grum Gebreyesus explains.

‘- Then I came in close contact with the rapidly evolving area of using high throughput digital systems to measure and monitor animal performance, and I'm currently working on using computer vision and other sensors, deep learning approaches to measure different traits in different livestock.’

‘- I’m beginning to work in fish with the new selRAS project, I’ve been working on insects from 2021, and we have publications also, from using computer vision to monitor and phenotype insects, because they are quite small for manual measurement, and we found out that computer vision can provide a very robust and useful tool to take measurements in these small and fragile individuals,’ he continues, before concluding that the common denominator, the red thread in his research, is application of technologies to measure different rates in different species of animals at high throughput.

- So, is that what you will be doing as a tenure track?

‘- Yes, that would be what I plan to do in my tenure track. That would be my primary focus, primarily computer vision, using the regular cameras as well as multi-spectral cameras to measure animals' welfare and health, growth in insects, in fish, in livestock, and develop innovative ways to apply these systems in livestock breeding. It could be helpful for implementing selective breeding programs. It could be helpful generally for making informed decisions in livestock management.’

Grum Gebreyesus gives a concrete example:

‘- Let's take animal welfare or health. For the human eye, they are quite subjective. But computer vision can allow us to have a more objective method of measuring this and give us more objective, more repeatable, and higher throughput, because having humans measure all these traits all the time is impossible. It takes time. It's costly. But you can have a camera 24-7 and you can have a system that automatically measures some of these traits.’

‘- Now, we are using a lot of these systems for just herd surveillance. But there needs to be a lot of research to be done to integrate that into the breeding programs. To have individual level data of this and to make them more user-friendly, to optimize the cost-benefit.’

‘- So, I think my tenure track will focus on this. It will not be limited to one species. It will be in diverse species. But the core part will be the application of technology for animal monitoring and phenotyping in the production context,’ he concludes.

A focus on digital technologies

With a focus on digital technologies in the progress of your tenure track, one of the most fascinating things is the possibilities that lie in computer vision. Is it actually possible to measure and distinguish black soldier flies and small, tiny larvae?

‘- Yes, we were able to even determine to some degree of accuracy the sex of black soldier fly larvae, which is difficult to measure, because you cannot tell with the human eye whether a larva is male or female, but the machine learning model was able to do that. But more importantly, we were able to measure body weight and larval lengths using machine learning models, and this has been the main bottleneck in our efforts towards implementing selective breeding. We have to make a biomass of insects; you need to have large amounts of them, and they are quite small.  So, to do selection as we do in other livestock, you have to measure all the candidates for the different traits, you are interested in, which makes it impossible because there are too many, they are quite small and they are moving, they are changing life cycles every day, they are larvae, the next day they are pupae, then adult, then egg. And they are quite small, you cannot identify them individually,’ Grum Gebreyesus explains.

‘- In other animals, we put ear tags or something to mark each animal so that we can take recording of these animals. But it's very difficult on insects. And one of the approaches that we find to be highly innovative and helpful is the application of computer vision. At least it's almost the phenotyping component. We are having good progress on that, and we are hoping to get more progress in this area so that we can have a system that can be readily used in the industry.’

A future big research and production area

Producing insects for human food is still something that will take time, mainly because of people’s resistance to the idea of consuming insects. However, the production of feed for livestock is growing fast, says Grum Gebreyesus. Big companies like Enorm in Denmark, which inaugurated a new complex just some months ago, have automation of the production chain, but also countries in Africa are moving forward. Since the production of e.g. Black Soldier Fly can be done in quite small lots, there are already small landowners in mainly Kenya and Uganda that make a living producing insects in a small scale.

Grum Gebreyesus elaborates: ‘- Despite its growth, despite the interest, despite the enormous potentials in terms of the circular economy, reduced emission and food security benefits, the system is still at infancy. It's just beginning. This insect sector is quite new. So, there is a lot of room for research to make it more sustainable, more efficient, to increase even further the substrate in the waste degradation and utilization abilities. We're going to have to be very careful to maintain the genetic diversity, and we are now at the basics of making this system work, but there are many opportunities for research.’

And it helps improve the livelihood in your home country at the same time, so is it a win-win for you as a researcher?

‘- Yes, but not in my home country… We don't have many insect productions in my home country, it’s really at the beginning now, but in other African countries, in Kenya and Uganda especially where I work on the FLYgene project, it’s really making a lot of difference to people's livelihoods. So many farmers and young graduates take up the business. It requires less land and less investment compared to having livestock, you just need a couple of eggs to start with, and a small area. The water requirement is less and there are challenges of course, it's a new industry, and people need training, there could be different factors that could lead to the colony collapsing, and technical issues, but that's also what the project is about. But in general, it’s a big opportunity for job creating, so there is really a lot of benefits on that regard, and I think, yeah, it's a win-win. Hopefully we will have something also in my own country, but I think in other African countries it's working well.’

Grum Gebreyesus’ research has taken him from Addis Ababa to Aarhus University and from here, he has also developed and joined a substantial web of networks, both nationally and internationally, among others the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST in short), which are interdisciplinary research networks under the auspices of the EU. More precisely, Grum Gebreyesus participates in two EU COST Actions, the European Network on Livestock Phenomics – EU-LI-PHE and Improved Knowledge Transfer for Sustainable Insect Breeding (Insect-IMP).

The work-life balance

For the 41-year-old father of 2, one of the things he appreciates the most in Denmark is the work-life balance. It allows him to be productive in his research and daily work, while also spending time with friends and family, reading books and go trekking in the beautiful hills around Viborg, where he currently lives with his family.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced?

‘- I think initially, I would say you might feel like people are not proactively social. How should I put it…? They are not warm,’ Grum Gebreyesus starts, before he pauses to think.

‘- Like in my country, people are warm. It's like you shake hands and stuff. But here, the first time you come see it, you think it's a bit cold, and people are reserved. But then you kind of understand that there's a different kind of way people interact with each other. I think that's the biggest difference I noticed; How people socialize.’

You mean we are reserved?

‘- That's the impression one gets when you're a new person. Because after a while, you really forget the differences. When you're asking me of what difference I faced, I'm thinking of the past. I'm thinking of me when I came to Denmark, how I felt. So, I think that was the biggest thing I felt at the moment.’

Grum Gebreyesus got used to the Danish way of socializing, and today he is on the way to a permanent position at Aarhus University.