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Phat Phanna: An agricultural biology PhD student in South Korea

Phat Phanna, who is studying in South Korea for a PhD in biology and agriculture, used to wonder “Why is my plant dying?” when she was growing tobacco. Now it’s not a concern to her anymore.

Phanna, whose PhD will focus on plant disease, is a student at South Korea’s Chonbuk National University. She’s particularly interested in plant viruses and has gained lots of knowledge and understanding about how they affect plants.

A former student of the biology department of the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), Phanna was accepted to university in South Korea in 2011. Two years later, she graduated with a master’s degree in science and agricultural biology. But that was just the beginning of something new; her hard work has seen her become a professor and she has been asked to continue her study in South Korea.

“In the lab, some are PhD students, some are undergraduates and some are master’s degree student,” the 25-year-old said. “When I don’t understand something I can ask a senior PhD student and if they can’t answer then I visit my professor.”

The professors are really reliable and kind, she added, recalling once when she did not understand a particular point, her professor spent an hour explaining it just to her.

When Phanna was doing her master’s degree, she was working on Potato Leafroll Virus (PLV) and Potato Virus X (PVX), and on the topic “Effects of gene silencing suppressors on Potato Virus X and Potato Leafroll Virus infection in two Nicotiana species.” The Nicotiana species is one easily infected by viruses and widely used in experiments. She started her PhD class just this month and is now experimenting with a different type of virus.

She said her laboratory is equipped with modern tools and high-tech equipment that students find easy to use to conduct experiments. Her classroom is just next door.

Phanna studied biology before she became more interested in agriculture. That is why she decided to study in the department of agricultural biology. “I chose this subject because I love agriculture and I want to help the development of agriculture in Cambodia,” she said. She added that she is not only the only Cambodian in her department, but also the only foreigner.

Her interest in plant disease may be related to her childhood. She was born in Kampong Cham province and was brought up in a village where farming was the main source of income. She has an elder sister and two younger sisters. Her family used to grow tobacco but the income from this was not enough, so they decided to switch crops.

Phanna remembered that her neighbours would tell her and her sisters to drop out of school and go to find work in a factory. “None of us ever did what they recommended,” she said. “Instead, we tried to overcome that. My oldest sister has become a teacher. My younger sister works as an accountant at a company, also studying for her master’s in the department of Financial & Banking at the Royal University of Law and Economics. My youngest sister is a senior student in the department of Khmer Literature at RUPP.”

She believes that she will be able share her knowledge with farmers if she has a chance to work in an NGO that focuses on agricultural development. She believes her subject and study interest can help build people’s knowledge in crop protection and disease management.

“If they can manage these problems that means they can keep their plants healthy and they grow more.”

She added that farmers’ finances would be improved and that they would have a higher chance of exporting their products if they were disease-free and met export requirements.

Besides planning on working in NGOs, Phanna also hopes to become a lecturer or professor when she returns to Cambodia. Teaching is a way for her to share the knowledge that she gained while in South Korea.



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