Barbara H. Wells, Director General at the International Potato Center – Leader, Mentor, Friend

Through a steadfast commitment to genetic innovation, high-impact research and mentoring female scientists, Dr. Wells helped devise solutions to agriculture’s most pressing challenges and, in the process, bolstered nutrition and food security for millions of vulnerable people around the world.

The International Potato Center (CIP) expresses its collective grief to note the passing of Barbara Wells, our Director General and the Global Director of Genetic Innovation for CGIAR.

Dr. Wells joined CIP in 2014 where she helped to improve and develop the organization’s science through the expansion of partnerships – including the World Food Programme – and a steadfast commitment to the importance of genetic gains and crop breeding innovations, high-impact research benefiting millions of smallholder farmers and vulnerable communities around the world as well as creating pathways of excellence for women in science.

“Barbara joined CIP at a crucial time when the scientific community was racing to find answers to bolster food security and nutrition in the face of climate change, and CIP is strong today because of her leadership excellence,” said Dr. Helen Hambly Odame, the Board Chair of CIP. “She oversaw diverse genetic solutions and products of the highest possible quality. She was an excellent chief executive drawing on her 30 years of impressive experience to engage partners, motivate and care about center staff. Sadly, Barbara has left us now, but she ensured that that CIP and CGIAR are well positioned to contribute strongly to a healthy, more sustainable and equitable world.”

In light of her demonstrated leadership at CIP, Dr. Wells was appointed the inaugural Global Global Director for Genetic Innovation at CGIAR in 2021 where she was charged with building a forward-looking program of global scientists to enhance CGIAR’s genetic resources for improving crop varieties – varieties to deliver improved nutrition, greater resilience, and higher returns for farmers.

“Dr. Wells was a remarkable leader truly dedicated to the impact that research can have, and an inspiration to so many of us,” said Claudia Sadoff, CGIAR Managing Director, Research Delivery and Impact, and Convener of the Executive Management Team. “Under Barbara’s leadership, CGIAR’s research and innovation helped make clear and lasting improvements to the health and livelihoods of millions of people across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But we will also remember Barbara for her warmth and deep concern for people, her commitment to workplace diversity, and dedication to creating opportunities for young women scientists. She will be greatly missed.”

Prior to joining CGIAR in 2014, Dr. Wells was Vice President of Global Strategy at Agrivida, a firm that develops enzyme solutions for animal nutrition and feedstocks to produce biofuels and bio-products. She also served as President and Chief Executive Officer of ArborGen, a global forestry tree seedling and tree breeding business, and Vice President responsible for growth initiatives and investments in Latin America at Emergent Genetics. With these experiences, Dr. Wells’ knowledge of genetic innovation and partnership building with the private sector had few equals.

Dr. Marco Ferroni, Chair of the CGIAR System Board, said, “Barbara’s passing is a great loss to both CGIAR and to her fields of scientific expertise. We will honor her legacy by continuing our work to transform land, food, and water systems to improve the stewardship of natural resources and the lives of people around the world, as Barbara did throughout her life. Barbara was a champion and mentor to so many young scientists and women in the field – her loss will be deeply felt by colleagues across CGIAR.”

In many ways, Dr. Wells’ time at CIP may have seemed pre-ordained: She spent many happy childhood years growing up in Peru and Bolivia and worked for much of her career based in Brazil. She received her PhD in agronomy from Oregon State University, her MSc in plant pathology and her BSc with honors in horticulture from the University of Arizona.

To those of us who had the privilege of sharing time with Dr. Wells in the laboratory, the conference room or the field site, all remember how her commitment to science and research was built upon a foundation of wanting to improve lives in the world’s most vulnerable communities. Whether supporting nutrition programs for expectant mothers or providing vision for developing more adaptable root and tubers crops for people living in harsh climates, Dr. Wells kept her focus on healthy families with fulfilling lives.

She was no less concerned with her team and colleagues. Last year, as the organization struggled to cope (personally and professionally) with the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Wells offered frequent reminders to take care of ourselves and our families as the highest priority. “Your safety and health are my highest priority,” she often said.

From the hallways of CIP headquarters in Lima, Peru to the field site of the most remote CIP and CGIAR science team, Barbara was liked and respected by all. Her presence will be greatly missed.

Dr. Wells is survived by her husband, two daughters, and her granddaughter.