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$3.2 million NSF grant trains grad students to tackle food systems and poverty problems

Although farming and food distribution improvements have increased the quality of life in Asia, Europe and North America, 2.6 billion people still live on less than $2 a day and suffer from chronic extreme poverty.

A new Cornell program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) will train a cadre of graduate students to use interdisciplinary approaches to tackle food systems and agricultural problems that contribute to extreme poverty.

A five-year, $3.2 million NSF grant will support 25 Ph.D. students for two years each in the Food Systems and Poverty Reduction Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) program, administered through the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development. The NSF IGERT grant, in turn, is funded through federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, intended to spur economic development by expanding educational opportunities, among other things.

Open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, the program is scheduled to begin in August 2010 with more than 20 graduate fields participating. The curriculum will include a seminar series; field research in Kenya and Ethiopia to study both highland and dryland agricultural systems in collaboration with partners at Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia and the International Livestock Research Institute; and a three-semester core course sequence that takes interdisciplinary approaches to addressing such problems as water shortages, climate change and vulnerability to food systems, soil degradation, pests and diseases, and food supply chains.

"The idea behind the program is to expose students to different disciplinary approaches to the same problem," said Chris Barrett, the Steven B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management and the program's principal investigator. "If you are tackling issues related to pests and disease, for example, a food scientist's approach will be different from [that of] a plant pathologist or an entomologist."

Students will also learn to use and link together new concepts and computer modeling techniques applied by different disciplines for more integrated and dynamic insights on these issues. For example, if researchers want to study problems of maintaining a small but productive farm, they must integrate information relating to soils, crop selection, fertilizer use, livestock, water management and more.

A fortnightly seminar series will include talks by Cornell and other food experts. During weeks between those talks, professional development seminars will teach students such skills as how to write grant proposals, make effective presentations, manage data, uphold research ethics and work in a multicultural field setting.

"Some of the biggest challenges facing society revolve around poverty, food and the environment, areas that have been hallmarks of graduate Cornell training for years," said Barrett. "This program will deepen that training and stitch together interdisciplinary approaches."

Co-principal investigators include Rebecca Nelson, associate professor of plant breeding and genetics and of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology; Alice Pell, professor of animal science and vice provost for international relations; Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the H.E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy; and Alison Power, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and dean of the Graduate School.

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Blaine Friedlander