U.S. BHEARD Scholar Conference links science with policy

posted on May 31, 2017 8:56am

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BHEARD students pose near the statue of Norman Borlaug in the U.S. Capitol. (view larger image)

More than three dozen scholars from seven countries gathered in Washington, D.C., May 7-13 to attend the U.S. BHEARD Scholar Conference. The theme of the conference was linking science with policy.

The Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) program is named after Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution.” BHEARD represents an international effort to produce agricultural scientists and significantly increase agricultural research capacity in partner countries. Above, BHEARD students pose in front of Borlaug’s statue in the U.S. Capitol. 

The U.S. conference began the evening of May 7, when BHEARD USAID activity manager Karen Duca, BHEARD regional coordinator Saviour Badohu and student Nana Pepra-Ameyaw discussed “Setting the Tone for Your Career and Beyond.” The session was especially lively during Duca’s presentation, when she and the students discussed ways to overcome institutional and political obstacles in their home countries. BHEARD graduates are expected to be leaders and communicators, as well as scientists.

On May 8, the students visited the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA speakers gave them an overview of some of the department’s activities in foreign capacity building and development, scientific research, economics, statistics, new technologies and production methods, policy coordination and disaster assistance. Students asked questions and discussed the topics with the speakers. The conversation about genetically modified organisms was wide-ranging and passionate.

Later in the week, BHEARD students visited D.C. Central Kitchen, a community kitchen that fights hunger by training jobless adults for culinary careers and prepares millions of meals for homeless shelters, schools and nonprofits. The BHEARD students learned how the kitchen turns lives around, prevents the waste of millions of pounds of food and expands access to healthy local options in urban food deserts.

Some of the BHEARD scholars gave their own presentations during the conference, sharing their research with their fellow students. The topics were diverse, but based on problems the presenters hope to solve in their home countries. Fellow students asked questions and gave helpful feedback.

The topic May 10 was networking and communication. Sara Farley and her team from the Global Knowledge Initiative took the students through group networking exercises, and Kimberly Flowers of the Center for Strategic and International Studies shared communication strategies.

On the final day of presentations, the BHEARD students visited the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. At APLU, they discussed the “3-Ds” of U.S. national security policy: defense, diplomacy and development (including USAID’s role in development). Roundtable discussions were held on capacity development, LGBT inclusion, small and medium enterprises and public diplomacy.

These BHEARD students shared their thoughts about the conference and how it might help them achieve their goals:

Edda Lungu, a third-year BHEARD student from Malawi, is studying nutritional sciences at the University of Florida. She said the conference taught her an important lesson.

“At first, I thought the other scholars’ research wasn’t related to what I’m doing,” she said. “But I discovered we’re all working toward a common goal, which is food security.”

Lungu’s main focus, when she goes home, will be treating malnutrition in children. She’s seeking long-term solutions to malnutrition, including changing how a child’s stomach works so it’s better able to process food, she said.

Mary Adjepong, a third-year student from Ghana, is studying human nutrition at Michigan State University. At the conference, she hoped to meet people who studied other aspects of food science and learn as much as possible from them.

“BHEARD has turned my life around,” Adjepong said. “It’s given me the opportunity to develop myself, travel and meet new people. The things I’ve learned in America will help me make Ghana a better place.”

Islam Hamim, a second-year student from Bangladesh, is studying molecular plant virology at the University of Hawaii. He said the conference offered a great opportunity to learn how scientists can involve themselves in policymaking. He also met students from other countries and learned about the policy issues they have to deal with.

When he returns home to Bangladesh, he’ll help tackle his country’s food security problem by improving plant virus management and detection.

“It’s a severe problem in my country,” Hamim said. “There’s a huge opportunity to help farmers detect and manage viruses.”

Duncan Ithinji, a student from Kenya, is studying virology at Washington State University. Viruses are a major problem for Kenya’s goats, cattle, sheep and other livestock, and new technologies, including vaccines, are needed to fight them.

During the conference, Ithinji was glad to get input from scholars in other fields, such as economics. He said the more information he gets, the more he learns about the different ways his research can impact farmers. Even plant researchers can teach him techniques that are applicable to livestock.

Mumina Shibia, a third-year student from Kenya, is studying agricultural and applied economics at Texas Tech University. She wants to learn more about how to collaborate with institutions to solve problems, and to take that knowledge back home with her to Kenya. Her main subjects of interest are empowerment of women and youth, agricultural development, food security, nutrition and economics. She said the United States, with its strong institutions, is the best place to learn about those issues.

Shamsunnaher, a third-year student from Bangladesh, is studying molecular techniques for breeding rice at the University of Florida. Her goal is to take what she’s learned back to Bangladesh, where there isn’t much expertise in molecular techniques.

She said Bangladesh is a small country geographically, but home to nearly 170 million people, most of whom eat rice three times a day. There’s a tremendous need for higher-yielding varieties.

“We need a lot of rice,” Shamsunnaher said. “Our conventional breeding methods can’t produce more. We need new techniques. That’s why molecular research is going to be very important for our country.”

Kaboro Samasse, a second-year BHEARD student from Mali, is studying geospatial science and engineering at South Dakota State University. When he’s finished with his BHEARD studies, Samasse plans to return to Mali and apply his knowledge of precision technology – including GPS, satellite imaging and remote sensing – to improving the country’s agricultural production.

“I’m very grateful for BHEARD, for allowing us to come and study technology here,” Samasse said.

Joseph Bigirimana, a student from Rwanda, is studying food science at Michigan State University. His research is focused on coffee, a Rwandan cash crop. Bigirimana wants to help farmers boost the quality of their coffee, because quality dictates price.

Cheryl Williams, a third-year student from Liberia, is studying agricultural education and communications at Texas Tech University. During the conference, she learned about USDA projects with which she could potentially collaborate. She also noticed collaborative opportunities with fellow scholars.

Williams’ goal when she gets home is to educate Liberia’s people and policymakers about food issues, and to push to change some of the country’s agricultural laws.

“I want to empower farmers and lawmakers so that Liberia can feed itself,” she said. “My main goal is to reduce food insecurity.”

She’s seen organizations worth emulating in the United States, including 4-H and Future Farmers of America. She’d like to develop similar programs in Liberia, to educate youth on the positive aspects of agriculture.

“In Liberia, everybody wants a white-collar job,” Williams said. “I’m looking forward to seeing more people in the agricultural sector.”

Irene Kargbo, another Liberian scholar, had a similar opinion.

“People feel agriculture is a dirty job, but there are other areas of agriculture they can get into to help the country,” she said.

Kargbo is studying entomology at Ohio State University. When she returns home, she’ll be the first female entomologist in Liberia.

“In our country, there’s not a lot of people with expertise in areas like entomology,” she said. “With this kind of opportunity, I can help Liberian farmers increase yields and fight pests.”

Matt Milkovich