Meet Thomas Miller, GKI featured collaborator.
Dr. Thomas Miller is a professor at the University of California, Riverside’s Department of Entomology. Aside from being an eminent leader of the international entomological community, Miller is an important member of the team working on LINK: Rwanda’s “antestia-potato taste” specialty coffee challenge. In partnership with Dr. Susan Jackels at Seattle University who focuses on the chemistry of “potato taste,” a team at Rogers Family Company in California and in Rwanda that sources affected coffee beans and provides support across the network, and Dr. Daniel Rukzambuga at the National University of Rwanda who works to develop national capacity to protect against coffee pests, Dr. Miller focuses on the biology of the microorganisms on the surface of green coffee beans. Dr. Miller also hosts a website dedicated to the coffee challenge. GKI’s Colin Huerter spoke with Dr. Miller in June 2013.
Rwanda is a long ways off – how did you get involved with the project?
I met Nina Fedoroff, co-chair of GKI’s Advisory Board, when I became an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Fellow in 2011. She had seen some of my research and recommended that I join the team. Even though I had not worked on coffee before, the project immediately grabbed my attention – it seems that no matter who you explain it to, everyone is fascinated. The international aspect drew me in, but at the same time there is a local connection because it also involves California buyers and roasters [such as Rogers Family Company].
The most compelling part is the obvious need for a solution. Although coffee is a crucial export in Africa’s Great Lakes region, researchers have not yet been able to propose a practical application to reduce the potato taste defect. With Rwanda losing a substantial proportion of its crop each year to the defect, eliminating it would have a significant impact. Solving potato taste defect is a difficult task, but that’s why I like it – if it were easy, someone would have figured it out already.
LINK is designed to be a collaborative effort. In what ways have you seen that play out?
There are many people doing their part. The challenge is so interesting that several of my students volunteered as research assistants. Tony Truong became my master roaster and Lauren Wong made the initial discovery of microbial cultures associated with the PTD beans. Dr. James Borneman from UC Riverside’s Department of Plant Pathology donated his time to complete a microbiome of affected beans and just made an important breakthrough. James identified two fungi and two bacteria that may be responsible for the taste defect, and narrowing it down further is the next step in solving the problem.
Rogers Family Company, a California coffee roaster, has been sending us beans for testing – this makes it possible for us to work on the challenge without actually being in Africa. Their representative in Rwanda, Mario Serracin, has been instrumental. Mario eats, sleeps, and breathes this coffee problem. We get inspiration from each other. Dr. Daniel Rukazambuga at the National University of Rwanda is behind it all – he’s very active and energetic.
We’re continually chipping away at the problem, but I’d also like to bring more attention to the approach that we’re using. Finding financial support hasn’t been easy because organizations focus on funding development projects and stay away from research. It seems fairly simple to me that anything you can to do increase crop yield will benefit everyone, from the grower all the way up to the government, and can also help other sectors – not just coffee. We’re using modern microbiology on an issue that you really can’t solve any other way, and when we’ve finished this, we’ll leave a lot of people trained and in place to tackle the next problem that comes along.