Our Team

Douglas R. Cook

University of California, Davis, USA
Professor, Department of Plant Pathology 
Director, Feed the Future Innovation Lab Climate Resilient Chickpea 
Director, NSF Project

Email: drcook@ucdavis.edu

Dr. Douglas Cook is a Professor at the University of California-Davis in the Department of Plant Pathology. He is currently Director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea, funded by US Agency for International Development, and Principal Investigator of a National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program project to investigate the impact of domestication on nitrogen fixation in chickpea. He received his doctoral degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in bacterial genetics in the Department of Plant Pathology and conducted postdoctoral research at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Embryology at The Johns Hopkins University. He served on the faculty of Texas A&M University from 1992-2000, prior to joining UC Davis, and as an adjunct Professor of International Graduate School in Bioinformatics and Genome Research at the Universitat Bielefeld in Germany from 2002-2008. He was among a small group of colleagues who together pioneered the use of Medicago truncatula as a model genetic and genomic system for investigation of legume biology. For the past decade he has been a leading advocate for the application of basic legume science towards pressing agricultural needs in the developing world.  His current research spans model and crop legume systems, with a dual focus on (1) forward genetics, biochemistry and cell biology to characterize genes governing symbiotic development in M. truncatula, and (2) ecological genomics and association genetics to understand gene function in complex natural and agricultural legume systems.

R. Varma Penmetsa

Project Scientist, Department of Plant Pathology, University of California, Davis, USA

Email: rvpenmetsa@ucdavis.edu

Dr. Varma Penmetsa a legume biologist/molecular geneticist at the University of California-Davis. His academic background spans both applied and basic plant sciences, from a BS program in Agricultural Science (GB Pant University, India), and graduate degrees in Crop Science (MS, Virginia Tech) and Genetics (PhD, Texas A&M University).

He has a longstanding engagement in basic research in legumes, particularly in molecular genetics of symbiotic development in the model legume Medicago truncatula. More recently he has been involved in comparative genetics and genomics of crop legumes with the goal of improving molecular/genomic resources in legume crops, particularly those of relevance to the developing regions of the world. This later work was conducted in collaboration with an international network of partners. Recent and current research activities are aimed at defining the genetic architecture and molecular cloning of genes underlying domestication and agronomic traits in several food crop legumes.

Brendan Riely

Assistant Scientist, Department of Plant Pathology, University of California, Davis, USA

Email: bkriely@ucdavis.edu


Dr. Brendan Riely is an Assistant Scientist working in the Cook Lab at the University of California-Davis. He received a BS in Broad Field Natural Science with a minor in biology (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and a PhD in Agronomy (Purdue University) before joining the Cook Lab as a post-doctoral researcher.

His primary research interests center around Molecular Plant-Microbe interactions. As a graduate student he investigated molecular mechanisms of pathogen recognition and disease resistance in tomato. Since joining the Cook lab, he has been engaged in elucidating the signaling pathways that regulate symbiotic nitrogen fixation in the model legume Medicago truncatula.  He has recently joined the chickpea project where he will assist in germplasm development in addition to investigating the impact of domestication on symbiotic recognition.

Betsy Alford

Ph.D. Student, University of California, Davis, USA

Email: baalford@ucdavis.edu

Ms. Betsy Alford joins the Cook lab after working in industry researching microbial metabolism. During her time at Codexis, she served as a molecular biologist and analytical chemist on a project to produce mid chain fatty alcohols by fermenting cellulosic sugars. At Solazyme, she provided molecular biology support leading to the first microbially derived renewable diesel fuel registered with the EPA. Subsequently, she contributed to successful regulatory filings with both the United States and Brazilian governments.  Betsy passionately believes that energy and food security are paramount to achieving social stability, and has focused her industrial and academic career to support these aims. She returns to UC Davis for her PhD after receiving her bachelor’s degree in Plant Biotechnology from UC Davis in 2004 followed by a master’s degree in Plant Pathology from University of Maine. She will be studying the interrelationship between native and cultivated chickpeas with their respective microbial communities.

Lijalem Balcha

Ph.D. Student, Institute of Biotechnology, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Email: lijupeace@gmail.com

Mr. Lijalem Balcha is a PhD student in the Institute of Biotechnology, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. He has been working as a researcher in the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) based at Debre Zeit Research Center in the crop research division. He received his BS in Plant Sciences from Alemaya University, Ethiopia and his Masters from the Universiteit Ghent, Belgium on Molecular Biotechnology. During his masters study, he particularly conducted genetic diversity and bio-chemical analysis of the Ethiopian grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.) landraces and conducted in vitro experiments for Lathyrus regeneration protocol development and transformation using Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer using floral dip method. He has served EIAR as legumes researcher in general and chickpea and lentil breeder in particular since 2001 in the Legumes Research Program.

His current PhD thesis entitled “Genetic Improvement of Ethiopian Chickpea Cultivars through Reverse Introgression of High-yielding and Climate-resilient Genes from Wild Accessions” is among the key milestones of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab Project. He is focusing on development of robust chickpea populations combining wild background on normalized elite cultivars, and establish phenotyping-genotyping research platforms leading towards the development of climate-resilient chickpea cultivars. His role in Cook’s lab at UC Davis is to work on hybridization of wild chickpea accessions with elite Ethiopian chickpea cultivars for population development and genotyping of F-generations.

Dagnachew Bekele

PhD. Student, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Email: dgnbkl@yahoo.com, eyualmzdg@gmail.com

Mr. Dagnachew Bekele is a PhD student in the Institute of Biotechnology (IOB), Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia with full sponsorship of USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea Project of the University of California, Davis, USA. He received his BSc degree in plant science from Hawassa University, and his MSc degree in Applied Genetics from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. He has also a European double MSc degree from University Copenhagen, Denmark and University of Catania, Italy. Before his study leave, he had been working as a researcher in Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural research (EIAR) on Chickpea and Lentil Breeding and Genetics based on Debre Zeit Research Center. Within USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea project, his current PhD thesis research mainly focuses on Genomics-assisted resistance breeding to improve Chickpea (Cicer arietinum  L.) Fusarium wilt (Fusariumoxysporum f.sp.ciceris) and Ascochyta blight (Ascochyta rabiei) tolerance/resistance, in which he has strong  passion to build his academic career.

Noelia Carrasquilla-Garcia

Associate Specialist, University of California, Davis, USA

Email: noecarras@ucdavis.edu

Ms. Noelia Carrasquilla-Garcia conducts research on legume genomics and molecular biology to help identify genome regions and/or genes associated with several plant phenotypes. A current thrust activity is reduced representation sequencing via Restriction site Associated DNA (RAD) and high-throughput sequencing in several ongoing projects in chickpea and lentil. Additional research activities include preparation of whole genome (NGS) libraries for (re)sequencing, and functional analysis via quantitative gene expression (q-PCR) assays.

In addition to this research activity, Noelia maintains and provides training for equipment in the lab (3730xl DNA analyzer, Bioanalyzer and SPE confocal system) and guides lab members in genomics protocols and methods. Noelia is also responsible for coordinating all laboratory safety requirements and training of laboratory personnel.

She received her B.S. in Biology at the University of Alicante in Spain and her Advanced Studies Diploma (current day equivalent to M.S.) in Biotechnology & Molecular Biology at the University Polytechnic of Valencia in Spain.

Peter Chang

Post Doctoral Fellow, University of California, Davis, and University of Southern California, USA

Email: peterc@usc.edu

Mr. Peter Chang is a Computational Biologist at the University of California-Davis in the Plant Pathology department. He is part of a US NSF Plant PGRP project to investigate the impact of domestication on nitrogen fixation in chickpea. As a team member of the concurrent Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea, funded by the US Agency for International Development, Peter manages and analyzes genomic data from collections found around the world. Peter leverages his genomic expertise to analysis in other organisms studied in the Cook lab,  such as Medicago truncatula, Lens culinaris and Mesorhizobia. His current research focuses on characterizing genomic changes that are beneficial for a population's adaptation to stress environments, such nickel tolerance in bacteria and salt, drought, and metal tolerance in plants. Dr. Chang received his doctoral degree from the University of Southern California, characterizing the long term effects of gene duplicates in Arabidopsis polyploids.


Zehara Mohammed Demtew

Ph.D. Student, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Email: Zehara2008@yahoo.com; zeharamoha@gmail.com

Ms. Zehara Mohammed is a PhD student in the School of Graduate Studies, Faculty of Life Sciences, Department of Cellular and Molecular Biology at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Forestry from Wondo Genet College of Forestry, Debub University, and her Master’s degree in Dryland Agronomy from Mekelle University. She has worked at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research as a researcher on Weed Science since April 2011. Her PhD research is funded by USAID's Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea. Her studies focus on the genomic and functional diversity of Ethiopia’s endemic Mesorhizobium species that nodulate chickpea (Cicer arietinum L.). Towards that end, Mesorhizobium strains and DNA were collected systematically from the major chickpea growing areas of Ethiopia. Analysis of these strains is expected to provide the basis for improving nitrogen fixation and enhancing productivity in Ethiopia’s chickpea production systems. Moreover, the outcomes of these efforts are expected to complement the project’s breeding efforts on climate resilience in chickpea, including climate resilient nitrogen-fixation. Optimizing chickpea's ability to partner with efficient nitrogen fixing bacteria in the genus Mesorhizobium is expected to be a key strategy to enhance chickpea's role in Ethiopian agriculture.


Alex Greenspan

Ph.D. Student, University of California, Davis, USA

Email: greenspan@ucdavis.edu

Mr. Alex Greenspan is a PhD student in the department of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis. His doctoral research focuses on the genomic  and phenotypic diversity of chickpea’s nitrogen-fixing bacterial symbionts of the genus Mesorhizobium. This research incorporates bioinformatics and microbial genomics with experimental methods in plant science and microbiology with the goal of understanding the factors that affect nodulation in chickpea, how the symbiosis varies geographically, and how it can be managed agriculturally.

Alex cut his scientific teeth at the University of Colorado where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and conducted research in culture-independent microbial ecology in the lab of Norm Pace. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea offered Alex the perfect opportunity to match his background in microbiology with his inordinate fondness for hummus.

Susan Moenga

Ph.D. Student, University of California, Davis, USA

Email: smoenga@ucdavis.edu

Ms. Susan Moenga is a Ph.D. student in the Plant Biology Program at the University of California-Davis. Her research is supported jointly by a fellowship from the Legume Innovation Lab at Michigan State University and by the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Within the Chickpea Innovation Lab her research aims to understand the physiological and molecular mechanisms of drought tolerance in wild chickpea.

Her research involves subjecting plants to low soil moisture and then assessing their performance relative to modern elite cultivars. Early results from her work suggest that wild species are more conservative for water use than are cultivated varieties, an observation that has potentially important implications for chickpea crop improvement. Among her objectives are to identify the genomic basis of drought resilience traits and to use this information to guide gene introgression into high-yielding cultivars.

Susan joined UC Davis in 2014 as an MSc student intern from Wageningen University. During her internship at UC Davis, she studied phenotypic diversity and patterns of local adaptation in wild Cicer populations.

While in Wageningen, Susan studied with Professor Ton Bisselling in the Department of Molecular Biology, where she investigated the genetic basis of nitrogen fixation traits in Parasponia. She received her undergraduate degree from Kenyatta University in Kenya. Prior to obtaining her MSc in the Netherlands, Susan worked on the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project, developing drought tolerant corn varieties.

Kassaye Negash Dinegde 

Ph.D. Student, Institute of Biotechnology, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Email: kassayend@gmail.com; kasanegash@yahoo.com

Laura M. Perilla-Henao

Ph.D. Student, University of California, Davis, USA

email: lmperilla@ucdavis.edu

Ms. Laura M. Perilla-Henao is a Ph.D. student at the UCD Plant Pathology department. She obtained her B.S. Cum laude in Biology from Universidad Militar Nueva Granada and her M.Sc. in Biochemistry from Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Her research experience has been built in plant breeding and plant pathology. Her broader interests are the technological transfer of biotechnology for improving agriculture in the tropics as well as the education as a motor for transforming society. In Cook Lab, her current research project is the study of domestication-driven traits as nitrogen responsiveness in chickpea.

Zahra Samiezade-Yazd

Undergraduate Student, Global Disease Biology, University of California, Davis

Email: zsamiezadeyazd@ucdavis.edu

Ms. Zahra Samiezade-Yazd is an undergraduate student in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis where she is pursuing a B.S in Global Disease Biology. She is a member of Doug Cook’s lab in the Department of Plant Pathology where she is researching the genetics of chickpea resistance to Fusarium wilt, a disease caused by the fungal plant pathogen Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. ciceris.

Syed Gul Abbas Shah Sani

Ph.D. Student, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan

Email: gulnaqvi@yahoo.com; gasani@ucdavis.edu

Mr. Syed Gul Abbas Shah Sani is a Ph.D Scholar in the Plant Sciences Department, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad Pakistan. He received his Bachelor degree in Agricultural Sciences from  Agriculture University Faisalabad,and his Masters from Gomal University D.I Khan Pakistan.During his master degree he particularly conducted pathogenic diversity in Ascochyta Raiei isolates collected from Pakistan. He recently join Cook’s Lab to conduct his Ph.D research. His role in Cook’s lab at UC Davis is to work on hybridization of wild chickpea accessions (donor) with elite Pakistani chickpea cultivars (recipient) and genotyping of F-generations of chickpea populations.

Shradhda Suman

Graduate student Forensics, University of California, Davis, USA

Email: ssuman@ucdavis.edu

Ms. Shraddha Suman is a graduate student in the M.S. Forensic Science program at the University of California-Davis. She obtained her BS in Biochemistry with Molecular Biology and a Minor in Music from UC Davis as well. During her undergraduate education, she was exposed to the world of plant research via her internships with Dr. Bradford (lettuce seed dormancy), and Dr. Bostock (plant pathology). Her current research deals with the genotyping of chickpea seeds. 


Lisa Vance

Specialist, University of California, Davis, USA

Email: lcvance@ucdavis.edu

Lisa Vance is currently a Junior Specialist in Doug Cook’s lab in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis. She received her bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences with an emphasis in Evolution and Ecology from the University of California, Davis in 2011. She worked in the Department of Plant Pathology (Cook Lab) and Department of Environmental Science and Policy (Grosholz Lab) as an undergraduate student. In the summer of 2009, she participated in the university’s Bodega Marine Laboratory program where she conducted a short research project looking at thermal stress in purple sea urchins. In her time with the Cook Lab she has helped with projects focusing on Medicago truncatula and Cicer spp. with some fieldwork in Portugal and India to aid with the harvest and data collection for these projects. Lisa provides a supporting role for the post-docs and researchers in the lab, as well as maintaining greenhouse activities and communication with greenhouse managers for care of project plants.

Sultan Mohammed Yimer

Ph.D. Student, Haromaya University, Haromaya, Ethiopia

Email: sultanmd37@gmail.com

Mr. Sultan Mohammed Yimer is a doctoral student affiliated with the Chickpea Innovation Lab, jointly sponsored by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the U.S. Agency for International Development and the 2Blades Foundation. His research focuses on developing genetic resources to combat the Fusarium wilt pathogen of chickpea.

Before joining the project, Mr. Yimer had surveyed a significant portion of chickpea’s cultivated area in Ethiopia, collecting pathogen isolates for analysis. His role in the Chickpea Innovation Lab is to characterize the diversity of this pathogen collection and to use that knowledge to screen germplasm for broad disease resistance traits and ultimately to breed for durable resistance.

Mr. Yimer received his Bachelor degree in Biology and his MSC in Botanical Science from Bahir Dar University, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, and from 2011 he served as a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Biology at Woldia University, Ethiopia. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Plant Pathology in the Department of Plant Science at Haromaya University in Ethiopia. As part of his doctoral training he is conducting a research internship at the University of California Davis, gaining familiarity with fungal genomics, bioinformatics and disease resistance phenotyping.