In the Ivory Coast during the 1980s, women were generally expected to settle down and raise families.
Instead, Hortense Dodo went to the United States to study food science and how to improve vital crops.
Dodo, currently an adjunct professor at Fayetteville State University and founder of IngateyGen LLC, shared her story during the Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce's Women of Excellence award ceremony on Wednesday.
Through IngateyGen — pronounced “in-got-a”-Gen — Dodo is focused on bringing to market hypoallergenic peanuts. By removing certain proteins from peanuts, Dodo explained, she hopes to make them safer for people with peanut allergies.
The goal isn't to get those people eating peanuts. She explained her aim is to get farmers to switch to hypoallergenic peanuts so that when allergy sufferers are accidentally exposed to peanuts or foods with traces of them, their allergic reactions will be less severe and not life-threatening.
After explaining her research Wednesday, Dodo shared the unusual path that's brought her from her West African nation to Elizabeth City.
Growing up, Dodo said her father, a civil engineer, often took her with him to the village where her grandmother, a medicine woman, would teach her about plants.
She also recalled noticing that, while food was generally abundant, tomatoes were only available seasonally.
“I did not understand, how come tomatoes cannot be grown the whole year?” Dodo recalled.
She said she decided to work on fixing that problem.
Dodo acquired a master's degree in animal science, but said Ivory Coast offered no degrees in food science at the time. She won a scholarship to come to the U.S., and resolved to do so despite the initial “uproar” from her family over pursuing a nontraditional path far from home.
“Eventually I got the blessing of the whole family to come to the U.S. to learn about tomato preservation,” she said, adding it’s important “to dream as big as you want to dream … and to dare to be different.”
Dodo came to the U.S., learned English, and attended the University of Georgia in Athens to get her master's degree in food science before getting a doctorate in biotechnology and molecular biology from Penn State University. Her education ultimately led her to study crops other than tomatoes, she noted, citing work on Vidalia onions and cocoa.
Biotechnology was a fairly new field when she got her doctorate, and she said she turned down a lucrative job offer from agri-giant Monsanto to teach at Alabama A&M University, where she spent almost 20 years. She also said she's worked to encourage women in African countries to enter STEM fields, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Women remain underrepresented overall in STEM fields, according to statistics from the National Science Board.
Alabama A&M is also where Dodo began her research on peanuts, she said, which ultimately led her to northeastern North Carolina where there are no shortage of peanuts, and peanut farmers, to work with.
Dodo's decades of teaching and food research also reflect her philosophy on science, which she said she's shared with many students.
“The job of the scientist is not to make money,” she said. “The job of the scientist is to identify the problems of society and use our knowledge and the scientific tools available to find the solution to those problems.”