The Agriculture & Food Systems Institute advances science to address real world problems. All of our research and capacity building pro-grams are achieved through the work conducted by the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute Staff and our In-Country Partners.
Andrew Roberts, Ph.D. Chief Executive Officer
Andrew leads the development and management of AFSI’s extensive international portfolio of biotechnology-related analytical and capacity building programs, open access resources, and relationships with key partner organizations and stakeholder groups.
- Agricultural biotechnology
- Environmental risk assessment and food safety assessment for biotechnology, focusing on problem formulation
- Capacity building and development for biosafety risk assessment and regulation
- Andrew joined the organization in December 2009 as the Deputy Director of the Center for Environmental Risk Assessment (CERA), where he developed tools and materials for use in training and capacity building related to the problem formulation approach to environmental risk assessment and served as the coordinator for CERA’s capacity building projects under the USAID-funded South Asia Biosafety Program (SABP) and the World Bank-funded Partnership for Biosafety Risk Assessment and Regulation, in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Vietnam. He also provided technical support for capacity building work in Brazil, India, Japan, Chile, and South Africa.
- In January 2015, he became the director of CERA, as well as the Center for Safety Assessment of Food and Feed (CSAFF), which worked on food and feed safety assessment for foods derived from genetically engineered plants.
- The two centers were later consolidated under the Research Foundation, for which Andrew became Deputy Executive Director in January 2017. When the organization became the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute in 2020, his title shifted to Vice President – Biotechnology, and he assumed the role of CEO later that year.
- Prior to joining AFSI, Andrew worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in several different capacities, all related to the regulation of agricultural biotechnology. He began his career at USDA as an AAAS Risk Policy Fellow in the Office of Science of Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS), the group responsible for regulating genetically engineered plants at USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service.
- After spending a year in the New Technologies office of the Foreign Agricultural Service serving as the lead for USDA’s efforts related to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, he returned to BRS to serve in the International Affairs branch where he remained until joining AFSI.
Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental Biology from Rutgers University, where he worked on signal transduction and differential gene expression in the model nematode C. elegans.
Rachel Melnick, Ph.D. Senior Manager, Scientific Programs
Rachel contributes to the development and implementation of AFSI’s current and future applied research and capacity building programs. She is responsible for developing strategies and budgets for these projects, identifying associated personnel requirements, and is accountable for ensuring the program/project meets its stated objectives. She also serves as liaison between AFSI management and staff, implementing partners, and other applicable parties.
- Biological control and agricultural microbiomes
- Climate change and sustainable agricultural systems
- Rachel joined the AFSI team in August 2019 as Senior Scientific Program Manager.
- She is the main point person for AFSI’s USDA-funded capacity building activities related to the safety assessment products of microbial biotechnology.
- Rachel manages AFSI’s programs related to data transportability and the Global Environmental Zones (GEnZ) Explorer.
- Rachel is working to expand AFSI’s work in the field of plant biologicals.
- In addition to her role at AFSI, Rachel also serves as editor in chief for the journal Biological Control.
- Prior to joining AFSI, Rachel worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for nearly a decade, both as a researcher and a program manager. She was the National Program Leader for Agroclimatogy and Production Systems at the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and co-led competitive interdisciplinary research and extension grant programs on climate change and agriculture, sustainable agricultural systems, agricultural microbiome, integrated pest management, and Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWs) with the National Science Foundation (NSF). She also managed a topic area in the USDA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.
- Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from The Pennsylvania State University
Bhavneet Bajaj, Ph.D., PMP Manager, Scientific Programs
Bhavneet contributes to the continued development and implementation of AFSI’s applied research and capacity building programs related to agricultural and other biotechnologies. Additionally, she manages AFSI’s highly acclaimed open access databases – the Crop Composition Database and the World Nutrient Databases for Dietary Studies. In these roles, she works closely with AFSI’s scientific staff and external partners to ensure that programs are science-focused, have broad participation from multiple sectors and disciplines, and are directed toward concrete and achievable outcomes.
- Safety assessment of foods and feeds derived from genetically engineered plants
- Database management
- Program management
- Bhavneet joined the AFSI team in July 2018 as Scientific Program Manager.
- She has been involved in projects related to safety assessment of foods and feeds derived from genetically engineered plants and serves as a resource person in providing technical support for capacity building programs in biotechnology. She was the program lead for USDA-funded technical training for Chinese and Indonesian regulators.
- Bhavneet manages operations for both the Crop Composition Database and the World Nutrient Databases for Dietary Studies.
- Prior to joining AFSI, Bhavneet was a Visiting Scientist at the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, where she worked on carotenoid pathway regulation in tomatoes.
- Before then, she was Associate Investigator with the Plant Protection group at (then) DuPont, where she devised a metabolic engineering strategy for insect control in soybean.
- While in India, she was an Assistant Professor at Jaipur National University, where she taught genetic engineering, enzymology, and biochemistry courses to M.Sc. level students.
- Bhavneet’s research work over the past 12 years involved plant secondary metabolites of nutritional, agricultural, and medicinal importance.
- Ph.D. in Biotechnology from Guru Jambheshwar University of Science and Technology, India, where she conducted genetic diversity studies on bacterial blight pathogen of clusterbean using PCR-based molecular markers.
- Followed by post-doctoral training at the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research, University of Maryland, involving studies on metabolite profiling of triterpene glycosides and phenolic acids in Actaea racemosa cell suspensions and methodologies for accelerating seed germination.
- Project Management Professional credential from the Project Management Institute.
Stephanie Carter Manager, Operations and Logistics
Stephanie manages the day-to-day operations at AFSI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, serving as the main point of contact for financial and contractual matters and ensuring that budgets and critical deadlines are met. She also plans, coordinates, and executes in-person meetings and related activities associated with AFSI’s international programmatic work.
- Administration, operations, and logistics
- Stephanie has over 30 years of experience with the organization, having joined the team as Administrative Coordinator for the Risk Science Institute (RSI) in October 1986.
- After RSI became part of the Research Foundation, Stephanie was promoted to Senior Program and Conference Manager in 2000, and she has been involved in the development, planning, and management of international conferences, workshops, and training programs ever since. She also managed the TAKE 10! Program and did teacher training and school outreach to help promote physical activity and health in elementary schools.
- After the Research Foundation became the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute in 2020, Stephanie’s role was expanded to Manager of Operations and Logistics.
- Stephanie studied Business Administration and Management at Howard University and holds a Grants Manager certification from Management Concepts.
Layla Tarar Manager, Communications & Digital Learning
Layla creates, implements, and oversees AFSI’s communication and digital learning strategies and is continuously working to improve the distribution and impact of the institute’s scientific program outputs. Working closely with her colleagues, she develops and executes a cohesive outreach strategy using video, print, and online methods, including but not limited to the organization’s website, newsletter, and social media platform. She is also responsible for developing, managing, and advancing AFSI’s e-learning program, as well as working with scientific and operations staff to plan and conduct online trainings, workshops, and webinars.
- Science communication
- Digital content management and learning management systems
- Graphic design
- Layla joined the team in August 2017 as a Communications Associate.
- She was promoted to Communications Manager in September 2018 and was heavily involved in the organization’s renaming and rebranding. Her role was expanded to Manager of Communications & Digital Learning after the organization became the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute in 2020.
- Prior to joining AFSI, Layla worked in Rome as Editor and Web Content Administrator at the School of European Political Economy, LUISS University.
- Before moving to Italy, Layla spent a year in Pakistan working as Community Liaison Office Coordinator at the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, which was preceded by two years in the United Arab Emirates, working as Management Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi.
- Layla is fluent in English, Italian, and Thai. She also understands French and speaks well enough to get by.
- B.A. in Biology and International Relations from Boston University.
Rakha Hari Sarker, Ph.D. Country Coordinator, South Asia Biosafety Program (SABP)
Based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Rakha serves as Country Coordinator for AFSI’s South Asia Biosafety Program (SABP), where he facilitates the development of guidance documents for confined field trials, food safety assessment, and environmental risk assessment. He also conducts technical training for compliance management of confined field trials, environmental risk assessment of GE crops, and safety assessment of foods derived from GE plants, as well as develops resource materials and provides technical support to the Biosafety Core Committee in Bangladesh. He works to engage key scientists from the region in international fora such as the OECD Working Group on Harmonization of Regulatory Oversight of Biotechnology, where criteria for risk assessment harmonization are discussed and international guidance or standards established, and also facilitates their participation in regional and international biosafety conferences.
- Genetics, plant breeding, and biotechnology
- Rakha joined the AFSI team as Country Coordinator for the South Asia Biosafety Program in December 2021.
- Rakha is still involved in teaching and research at the University of Dhaka, where he formerly served as Chairman of the Department of Botany.
- He currently serves as Director of the Center for Advanced Studies and Research in Biological Sciences and Chairperson of the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) of the University of Dhaka, as well as President of the Bangladesh Association for Plant Tissue Culture and Biotechnology (BAPTC&B).
- He has published more than 100 research articles in several national and international journals.
- Ph.D. from the University of Reading, where he had been awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to pursue his studies, followed by post-doctoral and advanced training in plant breeding, biotechnology, plant genetic engineering, and biosafety from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), and Cornell University.
Sium Ahmed Biosafety Support Officer, South Asia Biosafety Program (SABP)
Based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sium assumed the role of Biosafety Support Officer for the newly established Biosafety Support Office (BSO) in August 2019. The BSO provides direct administrative and clerical support to Bangladesh’s regulatory committees.
- Biotechnology and genetic engineering
- Sium joined AFSI’s team in Dhaka in August 2019 after completing his master’s degree.
- While completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees, Sium worked on several research projects and got hands-on training on genetic transformation, biosafety and public perception of GMOs, plant stress biology, phytotherapy, and bioinformatics.
- M.S. in Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering from Jahangirnagar University.
Vibha Ahuja, Ph.D. Senior Advisor, South Asia Biosafety Program (SABP)
Based in New Delhi, India, Vibha is Senior Advisor to the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute's South Asia Biosafety Program (SABP) and Chief General Manager of Biotech Consortium India Ltd. At SABP, she provides guidance on programs and operations, as well as facilitates meetings with key stakeholders involved in strengthening institutional governance of biotechnology in Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. Having worked closely with SABP for close to two decades, she is instrumental in the design and implementation of the annual South Asia Biosafety Conference, in addition to the program’s other symposia, workshops, and capacity building activities. She also advises on technical and scientific documents related to risk assessment of products of agricultural biotechnology.
- Biosafety regulatory frameworks in South Asia
- Vibha has been SABP’s in-country partner since 2007 and assumed the role of Senior Advisor in November 2018.
- Vibha currently serves Chief General Manager of Biotech Consortium India, Ltd. (BCIL), where she began her career in 1993.
- She is an expert on biosafety and regulatory aspects, particularly with reference to genetically modified organisms, having more than 25 years of experience in the field. She is very well versed in issues related to the Indian biosafety regulatory frameworks and has been part of the formulation and dissemination of guidelines. Throughout her long and distinguished career, she has been actively involved in capacity building initiatives in India and throughout South Asia.
- Ph.D. in Microbiology from Panjab University
Board of Trustees
The Agriculture & Food Systems Institute Board of Trustees provide strategic oversight and guidance to ensure that the organization’s mission is being achieved in a sustainable manner, through the adoption of sound governance and financial management policies, and by ensuring resources are adequate and properly applied. All Trustees serve on a volunteer basis and receive no remuneration for their service.
Institutional affiliations are provided for purposes of identification only. Trustees serve in an individual capacity, not as representatives of their organizations.