Researcher Q&A: Irvin Widders

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Irvin Widders, director of the Legume Innovation Lab (view larger image)

It’s difficult to believe that Irvin Widders, given his standing within the international legume community, hasn’t always been professionally dedicated to this particular group of crops. The long-time director of the Legume Innovation Lab (LIL), Widders came to Michigan State University (MSU) in 1982 as an environmental plant physiologist in the Department of Horticulture. His research focused on the physiology of vegetable crops, primarily warm-season produce and pickling cucumber.

It wasn’t until 1998 that he became the deputy director of the Bean/Cowpea Collaborative Research Support Program, now LIL. And in 2000, he was named director. The program has grown into one of the most influential of its kind in the world, thanks in large part to Widders’ passion for improving livelihoods in developing countries.

“Access to food is probably the most fundamental need for every country,” Widders said. “What we try to do is give farmers in these areas an affordable, sustainable way to both feed their own families and provide their markets with access to quality food.”

LIL was one of many organizations that urged the United Nations to name 2016 the International Year of Pulses (IYP). One of 10 IYP signature events throughout the year took place from Feb. 28 to March 5 in Livingstone, Zambia: the Joint Pan-African Grain Legume and World Cowpea Conference. More than 520 participants from 46 countries attended the gathering, which focused on the sustainability of legume systems for food, income and nutritional security.

Widders was honored at the conference with two awards — recognition from the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture for his leadership to the global cowpea research community, and an award from the Technical Management Advisory Committee for leading the LIL and assisting with the organization  of the conference.

“I couldn’t imagine a better outcome for the event,” he said. “I was very surprised and moved by the recognition I received. It was wonderful to see so many people from different countries attend a very important conference because an event of this magnitude doesn’t happen without a lot of coordination among many organizations. We’re thrilled that we could be a part of it.”


Name: Irvin Widders

Title: Director of the Legume Innovation Lab

Joined MSU: 1982


  • Bachelor’s degree, horticulture, Penn State University
  • Master’s degree, vegetable crop physiology, University of California, Davis
  • Ph.D., environmental physiology, University of California, Davis

Hometown: Strasburg, Pennsylvania

Favorite food: I love rice and beans, of course. I also love “pig stomach.” It’s a Pennsylvania Dutch dish, which consists of a pig’s stomach stuffed with stuffing, sausage, potatoes and saffron.

Favorite song/group: “Edelweiss” – The Sound of Music

Book I’d recommend: Anything on history

Coolest gadget: I’m not enamored with modern technology, but I love mechanical puzzles. I share these with students because it forces them to think outside the box for problem solving.

On my bucket list: Visit the Great Wall of China

Person throughout history I’d most like to meet: Nelson Mandela

Best trip/vacation: Morocco and Vietnam

On a Saturday afternoon, you’ll most likely find me: Gardening

Research discovery I’d like to see: Expanding research on the use of crop diversity as a strategy to deal with climate change.


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