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Gehan Abdelghany: exploring uses for native crops from the Nile to Northern Australia

For Egyptian academic Gehan Abdelghany, who’s spent much of her career to date finding beneficial uses for indigenous species, undertaking a PhD with the CRC’s ‘Commercialising native rice’ project is a natural progression.

Improving her own community by helping to show how a common native species could be used to detoxify polluted Nile Delta land was Abdelghany’s springboard to an assistant lectureship at Tanta University, Egypt – and is her biggest research success to date.

“I chose an academic career because I wanted to be engaged in improving my community, and having an impact on people’s lives through finding answers to current issues related to my area of expertise,” she says. “I’m attracted to exploring plant behaviour under different stresses, and how its response could benefit the local community and environment.”

Abdelghany completed her Bachelor in Botany and a Masters in Plant Ecology – both from at Tanta University in Tanta, a thriving city on the Nile Delta 90-odd kilometres north of Cairo.

Along the way, she took out two Tanta University Awards: for Fellowship in 2013 and Academic Distinction the year after.

PhD student Gehan Abdelghany, doing lab work as part of her Masters in Plant Ecology at Tanta University, Egypt. Credit: Tanta University

Using native plants to remove toxins from Egyptian soil

As a postgrad student, Abdelghany helped find a new and important use for a species native to Egypt and the Middle East.

“My Masters work investigated the role of native Egyptian shrub Pluchea dioscoridis in mitigating the effect of heavy metals in polluted Egyptian areas,” she recalls. “It was found that this shrub could accumulate high levels of heavy metals, particularly Cr [chromium], in its above-ground parts without showing any toxicity symptoms. Therefore, harvesting these parts periodically could implement a strategy to reduce the level of certain heavy metals in contaminated soils in Egypt.”

The research had valuable real-world application in cost-effective environmental phytoremediation – and academic credibility: “We were able to publish our results in peer-reviewed journals,” Abdelghany notes.

It paved the way to a teaching position at her alumnus: appointed an Assistant Lecturer in the Botany Department, part of the Faculty of Science at Tanta University, Abdelghany taught undergraduate students while pursuing her research interests in plant population ecology, phytoremediation, plant responses to stresses and agronomy.

Gehan Abdelghany collects samples of native plant species as part of her studies in Plant Ecology at Tanta University. Credit: Tanta University

From the Nile Delta to Northern Australia

Drawn by Australia’s international reputation for high-quality research and teaching, Abdelghany applied to do her doctoral study at Charles Darwin University (CDU) “to be well prepared and qualified for my future scientific endeavour – including being an independent researcher, supervising students, giving lectures and developing my research skills”, she says.

Abdelghany joined CDU as part of the CRC’s initial PhD cohort in early 2020, engaged on the CRC’s ‘Agronomic investigations of Australian native rice species to support Indigenous enterprise development’ project – otherwise known as the ‘Commercialising native rice’ project.

Based in the Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods (RIEL) at CDU, she is being supervised by project lead and CDU senior lecturer Dr Sean Bellairs. Other members of her supervisory panel include Dr. Penny Wurm (Charles Darwin University), and Dr Thi My Linh Hoang (Queensland University of Technology).

Dr Bellairs, with colleague Dr Wurm, has been researching native rice species extensively in recent years. Under the CRC, they’ve formed a research collaboration that aims to explore optimal ways to grow, harvest and market rice species native to the region for the benefit of Indigenous enterprises and communities across Australia’s north.

The project, involving CDU and QUT researchers, NT DITT (formerly NT DPIR) and three Indigenous-led enterprises – two in northern Australia and the third in Manitoba, Canada – will run for four years, giving Abdelghany ample time to complete her doctorate.

The ‘Commercialising native rice’ project aligns well with Abdelghany’s interest in projects benefiting local communities. “The project will help in developing Indigenous enterprises, providing Indigenous communities with economic options to improve their local livelihood,” she says. “Also, it will provide knowledge on different management protocols [needed] to successfully cultivate Australian native rices in northern environments.

“This project is the to investigte agronomy and cultivation of Australian native rices, and the outcomes will be of great significance to Indigenous communities wanting to cultivate and supply a high-value native grain product.”

Dr Penny Wurm and Dr Sean Bellairs look out over the Northern Territory wetlands: the region is ideal for growing high-value native wild rice crops. Credit: Future Food Systems CRC

Australia on hold – doctoral study underway

Abdelghany, appointed to the project in March 2020, was about to pack up her life in Tanta, Egypt, and make the long journey to Darwin, Australia when the SARS-2 coronavirus pandemic hit – and with it, restrictions on international travel, including flights to Australia.

Along with tens of thousands of other international students enrolled at Australian universities in 2020, she was forced to put her travel plans on hold. Not so her study plans.

“I have a great support from my supervisory panel,” Abdelghany assures. “We organize a weekly Zoom meeting [so I can] keep progressing on different chapters of my thesis and proposal preparation. I have successfully submitted my proposal and completed my confirmation of candidature milestones.

So far, things are looking positive: “My assessors were highly impressed by the written proposal and the quality of my presentation,” Abdelghany says. She also has two review papers underway, which will become two chapters of her thesis – the first already drafted.

Data access is simple, she says: “using my CDU email enables access to different CDU online resources including a research library, Interlibrary loan requests for non-available PDFs”. She’s also attended five workshops and HDR seminars, and has availed herself of “other facilities, such as attending English classes in collaboration classrooms and downloading software such as Endnote”.

That said, Abdelghany is keen to get to Darwin and immerse herself in the practical component of her doctorate.

“I am looking forward to familiarising myself with the habitat where Australian native rice grows,” she says. “I want to start my field and lab work on cultivation of Australian native rices. I wish also to get more connected with my supervisory panel and other CDU students.

Gehan’s certificate of appointment as a CDU PhD on the CRC’s Commercialising native rice project. Credit: Charles Darwin University (CDU)

Exploring the agronomy of native Australian rice

Gehan Abdelghany’s doctoral thesis is exploring the agronomy of Australian native rice, with a view to developing the best options for commercial-scale production.

As part of her thesis, Abdelghany is investigating management practices for commercial-scale cultivation of three different species of Australian native rice.

One she arrives in Darwin, she’ll run experimental crop trials to ascertain optimal planting times, establishment techniques and planting density as well as the best regimes for water and nutrient management. She’ll explore how differing management practices impact the growth rate, biomass, yield, and harvest index of native rice.

Abdelghany will also look at the variation among different species and accessions of native rice, considering the grain qualities and nutritional values of O. meridionalis, O. rufipogon and O. australiensis with a view to determining which has the greatest potential as a functional (health-promoting) food.

Finally, she’ll consider the impact of organic and non-organic farming methods of cultivation on final grain yield and value.

Growth trials are already being run in a mesh enclosed area at NT DITT’s Coastal Plains Research Station, shade houses at the CDU Casuarina campus, and other wetland sites south of Darwin.

Grain quality analyses will be carried out in collaboration with tropical-crop experts at partner institution Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Results will include a basic economic comparison of the costs and relative value of various protocols for cultivating Australian native rice species commercially; and options for a variety of suppliers.

By establishing the best ways to sustainably cultivate and harvest native rice, “the project seeks to provide opportunities for small Indigenous enterprises in the Northern Territory”, Abdelghany says.

“Ultimately, these findings will support Aboriginal enterprises in achieving commercial production of native rice by identifying and overcoming agronomic hurdles.”

With nine months of ‘desk research’ now under her belt, Abdelghany is keen to get stuck into the hands-on component. She’s just waiting for open borders.

This article was first published on 24 November 2020. It was updated on 16 March 2021.