Visiting Iraqi professor hopes to continue exchange

Oadi Matny has spent the past semester at the University researching plant disease diversity.

Parker Lemke

During his six months at the University of Minnesota, plant pathologist Oadi Matny has had access to equipment, chemicals and facilities that, he said, far outstrip the laboratory resources available to him in his native country, Iraq.

By using them, Matny has harnessed molecular tools and DNA sequencing techniques to study the genetic diversity of the soil-borne fungal pathogen Fusarium sp, a cause of crown rot disease that can attack the roots and seed spikes of wheat.

His six-month visit has also meant a reprieve from the violence plaguing his home country, where Matny said deteriorating security conditions impede the work of scientists.

“Baghdad now is not secure,” he said. “When I contact my father, every time he tells me, ‘The security is not good. If you can, stay there [in Minnesota].’”

Matny, an assistant plant protection professor at the University of Baghdad since 2006, said he is working to turn his Twin Cities visit into an extended stay to avoid such violence, and he hopes his family will eventually join him from Iraq. Currently, he’s set to go back this month.

He returned in June to the U.S. — where he was born in 1977 and spent the first two years of his life — with the help of an Islamic Development Bank scholarship.

“We were happy to welcome Oadi to our lab,” said Brian Steffenson, a University plant pathology professor and Matny’s adviser.

Problems outside of the lab

For professors in Iraq, Matny said, stress can result from threats to their lives and freedom.

Last year, the Iraqi army arrested one of his co-workers who remains imprisoned without charge, he said. And earlier this year, another one of his colleagues — the dean of the University of Anbar’s agricultural college — was killed by a car bomb, Matny said.

“Having to deal with something like this — I can’t even imagine it,” Steffenson said.

Lack of security also prevents scientists in Iraq from applying their research, Matny said.

“This is a big problem in Iraq,” he said. “If you have some results, good results — you can’t applicate it in a farm.”

Still, Matny said he hopes his research on plant pathogen diversity can help farmers in Iraq, where wheat imported for human consumption can sometimes introduce foreign diseases that local plants aren’t able to fend off.

“When we import this wheat to Iraq, some farmers use [it] to seed [and] grow it in the farm — they don’t know it’s just for consumers,” Matny said of the seed that contains those pathogens.

Matthew Martin, a lab manager and part-time plant pathology doctoral student at the University, said plant pathogens pose a particular challenge to farmers in developing countries.

“It’s a big problem in certain parts of the world, where people can’t afford fungicides and their resistance genes are no longer effective,” Martin said.

Cultural collaboration

As a dual citizen of the U.S. and Iraq, Matny is trying to obtain a sabbatical leave from the University of Baghdad so that he can return to Minnesota after leaving this month, Steffenson said.

“He’s trying to see if there’s an opportunity for him here,” Steffenson said. “He’s afraid for his family, you know. Who wouldn’t be?”

Those who have worked in the same lab with Matny say they’ve appreciated his presence.

“Oadi is a … self-capable person,” Martin said, adding that he’s noticed Matny’s willingness to help others with their projects. “He comes in early in the morning, stays all day [and] leaves later than I do, usually.”

University plant pathology research assistant Matthew Haas said he has enjoyed learning about his colleague’s homeland, as Matny often brings Iraqi food to lab meetings.

Steffenson said his department frequently hosts researchers visiting from foreign countries. “It’s a great way to exchange knowledge and link up and network with folks that are investigating similar things,” he said. “We learn a lot from the scientists coming here — I hope they learn something from us.”

That networking takes place outside of the lab, too.

“We found out on Wednesday that [Matny is] a pretty good bowler,” Steffenson said. “I think he rolled the highest score among 10 of us.”