Spring 2024 grad: Maxwell Chibuogwu studies crop pathogens, earns PhD to support agriculture in African nations

Maxwell Chibuogwu, an international student from Nigeria, will be graduating this spring with a PhD in plant pathology. In this Q&A, he talks about his route to UW–Madison, his motivation to study pathogens of crop plants, his leadership roles at UW, and the journey he’ll take to reach his future career goal: to consult for African ministries of agriculture.

Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Agbor-Nta, a village tucked away in Delta State of Southern Nigeria. My father, in search of work opportunities and hopes of providing his family with better opportunities, decided to relocate to Benin City in Edo State when I was just four years old. Since then, Benin City has been my primary residence, and I have spent more than 20 years of my life living and schooling in this vibrant city. Although we would occasionally visit Agbor-Nta during school breaks and festive holidays such as Christmas and New Year, I have come to call Benin my true home.

Why did you choose your PhD program? What did you learn / discover?
The plant pathology program here at UW-Madison is one of the top five programs in the country. That and some other reasons described below are why I chose to pursue a PhD in plant pathology here. But in regards to the area of plant pathology as a field, personal experiences I had with the negative economic impact that plant diseases can have on food crops made me choose it. For instance, my family once had to look for alternative sources of tomatoes due to a pest problem that made them too expensive for average families to buy. This experience made me realize how important it is to prevent diseases from affecting crops and to maintain food security.

Secondly, during my undergraduate studies, I had a conversation with my advisor that sparked a thought in my mind. I realized that if a pathogen were to infect some of the world’s staple foods, it could potentially lead to a lot of people dying. This made me want to be part of the group of people who work to protect crops from diseases.

Moreover, I later learned that one of the reasons why Nigeria is unable to make money from exports is because of phytosanitary restrictions. The presence of pathogens and diseases on our crops has limited our export potential, and we have lost many of the produced foods to spoilage caused by pathogens.

During my senior secondary school 2 (junior year of high school), I was fortunate enough to be one of eight students selected from Nigeria for a youth leadership student exchange program. UW-Extension hosted this program in partnership with 4-H and the U.S. Department of State, and it gave me my first exposure to the campus of UW-Madison. Ever since that experience, I have been determined to return to this beautiful city in the state known as “America’s Dairyland.”

For my PhD research, I worked on a project with significant implications for the dairy industry. My project focused on finding integrated management strategies for controlling diseases and toxins in corn for silage. Silage corn is a major component of a dairy cow’s daily diet and is crucial to milk production. Unfortunately, these corn plants can be infected by fungi that cause disease and produce mycotoxins, which are harmful to cows. My research expanded the current understanding of brown midrib (BMR) silage corn hybrids, which are known for their potential to increase milk production in cows. However, we discovered that BMR hybrids are not effective in handling diseases and toxins. In fact, we found that they accumulate more toxins and are more susceptible to disease. We also identified the pattern of toxin accumulation in different parts of the silage corn plant, such as the ear portions and stalk portions. Additionally, we found that mycotoxin levels increase during the first 30 days of ensiling (fermentation), and we uncovered a potential mechanism responsible for this increase.

What other activities were you involved in (such as student orgs, etc.)?
Throughout my academic journey, I was actively involved in various extracurricular activities and groups. As a REACH ambassador, I had the incredible opportunity to share my country’s culture with American audiences, ranging from middle school students to adults. This program enabled me to serve as a cultural ambassador and build bridges between different cultures.

In addition, I served on the International Student Advisory Board (ISAB) for two consecutive years. As a member of the board, I helped advocate for the needs of my international student peers and ensure that their voices were heard. It was a fulfilling experience to contribute to improving the international student experience at my university.

Furthermore, I was honored to serve as the president of the UW-Madison’s chapter of MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences). The organization provided a supportive community for fellow minority students in Agriculture, Natural Resources, or Related Sciences, and I was proud to be a part of it.

Additionally, I served as the treasurer of the Plant Sciences Graduated Student Council (PSGSC) for a year. Later, I became the seminar coordinator and then the chair of the Plant Pathology Graduates Council (PPGC) in my department. These experiences taught me valuable leadership and organizational skills.

Lastly, as a member of the e-board of WEMP (What’s Eating my Plant), I contributed to educating the greater Madison community about plant pests and diseases. Through this group, I was able to build my science communication and science translation skills while engaging with the public and addressing real-world problems.

Overall, I am grateful for these experiences, which allowed me to develop personally and professionally while making meaningful contributions to my university and community.

What are your future academic and/or career plans – short-term and long-term?
My ultimate career goal is to become a professor who consults for African ministries of agriculture to help them achieve their objectives in the long term. However, I realize that I need to gain academic, agricultural industry, and government experiences to be that person. Thus, my short-term goal is to build the necessary pedigree and network base that will give me access to resources and tools to aid in achieving global food security. After graduating, I plan to enhance my scientific skills through a post-doctoral training program. Later, I may be found working with the USDA, a university, or an NGO focused on developing African Agriculture, or in Washington, learning how agricultural policies are proposed and implemented.

What were the most valuable/meaningful college experiences you had?
One of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in Madison is the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds and the availability of resources. The presence of international students in Madison adds a lively and diverse energy to the university. Through this, I have made great friends and had opportunities to explore and improve my scientific knowledge and expertise. Anytime I travel out of Madison for events or conferences I see how rich the UW-Madison academic system is.

When you think about your time here as PhD student, what are you proud of?
I am filled with a sense of pride when I think about all that I have accomplished. From my leadership experiences and commitments to the research I have conducted, I am proud of the hard work and dedication that has brought me to where I am today. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has given me a remarkable degree that I am incredibly proud of. This prestigious institution has opened many doors for a young boy from a small village in Nigeria. Being the first Ph.D. holder in my lineage is a great achievement, and my whole extended family couldn’t be prouder of me. I am also blessed to have been awarded several scholarships, fellowships, and awards which I hold in high esteem.

Surviving COVID thousands of miles away from family and friends in a new country was a tough experience for me, but I am proud of how I handled it. I am also proud of the connections that I have made with people here. The support system that I have built has been instrumental in my journey, and I am grateful for it. The new things that I’ve learned, unlearned, and relearned have been an eye-opener for me. The experience has taught me many valuable lessons, and I have learned to adapt to new situations and challenges. I am proud to be a UW-Madison Alumnus, and I know that the education and experiences that I gained here will always be a part of me. I will always cherish the memories and experiences that I gained while studying here. Go Badgers!

Do you have any advice you’d like to share with CALS students?
I encourage you to not hesitate in putting yourself out there, as long as you feel comfortable doing so. Your dreams and goals are valid, and you have the ability to achieve them. Do not let anyone or any situation dampen your spirits or extinguish your passionate ambition. Keep being yourself and be there for others whenever possible. You will find support and encouragement throughout your journey. Just keep showing up and before you know it, you’ll accomplish your goals and reach the top. See you at the top, buddy!