Biotech innovator and canola pioneer Wilf Keller on team work, leadership, and sharing science

Wilf Keller, Canadian Agriculture Hall of Fame inductee

Some people are a part of an industry when if first starts. Others are a significant part of the establishment of an industry. Still others are able to bring new participants into an industry and mentor them into even higher achievements. Very few people do all of these things and also are able to explain the benefits of their work to a skeptical population. Wilf Keller is one of these very few, very special people, and now he is joining the ranks of those in the Canadian Agriculture Hall of Fame.

I had a chance to talk to Keller, executive director of Ag-West Bio, about some of the projects he has been involved in over the years, and to also discuss the importance continuing to prioritize agriculture science and innovation and mentoring young minds. (story continues below)

Keller started his career at Agriculture Canada in Ottawa in the early 1970s. This was during the early days of what would become known as ‘biotechnology.’ After 17 years in Ottawa he moved back to Saskatoon to work at the National Research Council (NRC). The NRC was about to undertake some ground-breaking science.

Keller explains this science had its origins in another discipline. “That work started actually in medical research labs in the seventies with what was called gene technology, or gene splicing, and we were able to see it being transferred to agriculture.” He continues, “A lot of effort was then put into canola, it was a growing crop and ultimately resulted in the development of new strains with herbicide tolerance and improved hybrid vigour and traits that really are of value to producers.”

The term private-public partnership is bandied about now as a new and improved way of doing work. The NRC and their partners pioneered the concept, and with this method of operation created what became known as the Liberty Link canola system. This system changed the canola industry and put Canada on the map as a leader in the biotech world.

At the same time as this world class enterprise was happening, Keller had the foresight to realize that they were not just there to do good work, they needed to mentor a generation of scientists and innovators. Keller explains, “Well, I think it’s absolutely critical, if not essential, to bring forward generations of trained people who are enthusiastic and committed to improving our ag-food systems.”

Luckily, his desire to achieve this corresponded with being in positions to make it happen. “I was fortunate in being able to do this in a couple of ways. I had a position as an adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan, and in other universities as well, over my career, and this allowed us to train graduate students.”

Because he worked with the private sector, Keller was also able to interact with an entirely different group of young people.  As he says, “Of course when we worked with industry collaborators we recruited young people who became technical assistants and many of them, through further training, got permanent jobs with government, with university, or they went back to graduate school and became scientists.”

Keller recognized in the 1990s that scientists had to do more than science, they had to explain science. He says, “We have to do this in agriculture. It’s important for us to explain how agriculture research generates benefits, not only for the producer, but all the way down the line for the consumer in terms of healthier products better nutrition and a better lifestyle.”

Keller is not slowing down at all. In fact, in some ways it almost seems as if he is speeding up. Being inducted into the Canadian Agriculture Hall of Fame is a much deserved honour for his past achievements, but he continues to do the kind of work that got him there in the first place.

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