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Students vie to enroll in new dual-degree programs linking traditional India with state-of-the-art Cornell

Christopher Bentley
Cornell and Indian students stroll across the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University campus on Jan. 5 as part of the International Agriculture and Rural Development 602 field trip to India. From left: Julie Grimaldi, Parker Filer, Michelle Valentini and Jai Sridhar.

Cornell Chronicle writer Krishna Ramanujan traveled to India last month as part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences field course International Agriculture and Rural Development 602, which seeks to acquaint students with major issues and problems in international agriculture and rural development. This is the first of five articles from that trip.

COIMBATORE, INDIA -- Ganesh Nawkar, a biotechnology graduate student at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) in Coimbatore, India, hopes to become one the first Indian students to enroll in one of two new master's programs -- plant breeding and food science -- with Cornell this summer. Cornell's role is historic, because these will be the first agricultural life sciences degrees to be offered by any U.S. university specifically to students in India.

Nawkar wants to apply Cornell's state-of-the-art plant breeding research to his studies of molecular pathways of grasses. He hopes that studying different grass types may allow researchers to transfer the heat- and stress-resistance of sugar cane, for example, to wheat and rice.

Christopher Bentley
Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.

"Studying at Cornell will expose us to a global research environment and modern research equipment and will give us hands-on experience with new research strategies" to use in India, said Nawkar.

Starting this summer, Cornell and TNAU will offer dual-degree programs in food science and plant breeding with up to 15 Indian students accepted for each program. Each of the two-year degrees will include a Master of Professional Studies (MPS) degree from Cornell and a Master of Technology (M.Tech.) degree from TNAU, with seven months of study in Ithaca.

"These degrees will provide students with a global perspective," said R. Chandra Babu, TNAU dean of postgraduate studies. "Students from India are not trained to think globally; they can't visualize. But a degree from Cornell will open up their vision."

For example, the food science courses at Cornell will teach students how to take milk and efficiently process it into such value-added and higher-priced products as fat-free milk and yogurt. Also, students will learn U.S. quality-control guidelines, which could raise the safety standards of Indian foods that compete in global markets.

"Indian agricultural production has done better than the processing sector, but processing is about to unleash and go through the roof, so there is a tremendous demand for trained individuals who can meet the demands of the food and agro-processing sector," said Syed Rizvi, an international professor of food science at Cornell. "It will also be good for American students to learn how things are done in a rapidly developing country."

After students attend summer and fall semesters in Ithaca, Cornell food scientists will teach two-week modules in Coimbatore. Plant breeding faculty members also could travel to advise students on internships and theses.

Three TNAU faculty members spent fall 2008 in Ithaca preparing for the program. Chandra Babu believes that Indian academics will benefit by learning Western teaching styles, which tend to treat students more like colleagues.

"Faculty here just lecture, and students write down what they say," said Chandra Babu. By seeing how their Western counterparts relate to students, Indian academics "will understand the teacher can be a role model who can open up a student's mind," he said. TNAU has already asked teachers to change their style, by limiting lectures to 45 minutes and making time for discussion to build students' communication skills.

Cornell's graduate school has approved the food science program, but approvals for the plant breeding program are still pending. In the meantime, Cornell will admit up to 12 of TNAU's M.Tech. students in plant breeding for a regular Cornell MPS.

The program has been funded by a five-year, $3 million grant from the Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust through the Cornell-Sathguru Foundation for Development, and a matching contribution of up to $1 million from the foundation, which promotes education, agriculture, technology transfer and rural development. The Tata grant for this program is separate from a recent $50 million donation to Cornell by the Tata Foundation.


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