On a Mission to Improve Cassava: Meet the 2023 WHD Fellow Ketra Oketcho

Ever since she was a child in Uganda, Ketra Oketcho has been interested in the science behind the natural world. She would let a mosquito bite her to see how long it would take to feel the itch. When she noticed a papaya plant beginning to flower, she took a photo each day before school to monitor its development. Later, as a volunteer at the National Agriculture Research Organization in Uganda (NARO), she looked into a microscope for the first time and knew she was meant to do research.

When Ketra was hired at NARO, she gained experience doing plant transformation and field research in the VIRCA Plus project. She also met Danforth Center Principal Investigators Nigel Taylor, PhD, Dorothy J. King distinguished investigator, and Becky Bart, PhD, who encouraged her to continue to develop in her career.

Today, she is a second-year graduate student at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, conducting research to understand how the cassava mosaic virus replicates in cassava. She is also the 2023 William H. Danforth Plant Science Fellow.

Being a part of creating a solution that is going to impact so many peoples’ lives is a big deal.

Ketra Oketcho, 2023 WHD Fellow

The Need for Improved Cassava

Cassava is a hardy crop that can withstand heat, drought, and poor soils. It is a staple food that provides daily calories for more than 500 million people in Africa, nearly 40% of the continent. 

Growing up in the village of Rubongi, Ketra experienced first-hand the impact that improved cassava could have on food security and human health. Cassava is a daily staple used to make bread by her tribe, the Jopadhola. “People do not consider a meal complete unless that bread is present,” explains Ketra. “If a disease wiped out cassava, the people in my village would starve. We need to have cassava. Not only is it necessary for survival, it is also a part of our identity.”

Ketra Oketcho is the 2023 William H. Danforth Fellow. Her research aims at understanding how cassava mosaic virus replicates, working in the labs of Dr. Nigel Taylor (seen here with cassava in the Danforth Center greenhouses) and Dr. Becky Bart (not pictured).

Ketra is hopeful about the impact her work can have in her home country. “Being a part of creating a solution that is going to impact so many peoples’ lives is a big deal. I feel grateful to be a part of the effort to find a solution for food security,” she said.

Make a Difference

The WHD Fellowship was endowed by Dr. P. Roy and Diana Vagelos to support outstanding PhD students in plant science. If you are interested in creating opportunities for bright, early career scientists, visit danforthcenter.org/get-involved to learn how you support our mission.


A version of this story originally appeared in the Leaflet, the free newsletter of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Sign up to receive more stories like this straight to your inbox.