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Cornell Assistantship for Horticulture in Africa scholars Kalenga Banda and Julian Atukuri.

Program promotes African links, diversity in plant sciences

The Cornell Assistantship for Horticulture in Africa (CAHA), a program that brings master’s students from sub-Saharan Africa to Cornell to complete doctorate degrees in horticulture, has now added a second assistantship for African Americans, with the goal of increasing diversity in the plant sciences – a field that lacks minority representation. 

CAHA began in 2006 thanks to the vision of and a gift from horticulture professor emeritus Chris Wien M.S. ’67, Ph.D. ’71. This semester the program – which admits one scholar for each assistantship until that student completes his or her doctorate – has brought its fourth African doctoral student to Cornell.

Now, a second gift from Wien has provided funding for an African American master’s student from the U.S. or Canada to complete a doctorate at Cornell and conduct dissertation research primarily in sub-Saharan Africa under the supervision of an Africa-based advisor through an institution there. 

“We are thinking about broadening participation and increasing diversity in the plant sciences,” said Sarah Evanega, professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute, housed at Cornell, and an adjunct associate professor at the School of Integrative Plant Science. “Chris Wien’s gift has now been shaped to also offer an opportunity for African American students coming out of a master’s degree to engage in research on the African continent.”  

The deadline for African American students to apply for a 2022 assistantship is Dec. 1. If accepted, funding for each assistantship includes a stipend and covers some research and travel expenses.

“We’d like to offer interested African Americans to become more involved in work in Africa, by doing part of their Ph.D. in an institution in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Wien, whose vision for CAHA were influenced by time he spent in the 1970s working in Africa at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture. “Even though they don’t come directly from there, it will hopefully stir an interest in tropical agriculture, hopefully in Africa.”

CAHA was originally designed for a master’s student from sub-Saharan Africa to complete doctoral course work at Cornell and conduct dissertation research primarily in sub-Saharan Africa under the supervision of a Cornell faculty advisor whose research is Africa-based. The position requires the student to return to his or her home country or region after their doctoral work is complete. Also, travel funding has been allotted for the student’s advisor to visit field sites in Africa.

In these ways, CAHA aims to grow and establish long-lasting collaborations between horticulturists at Cornell’s Ithaca campus and those in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The spirit of CAHA is to build up capacity to ensure there is a deep bench, if you will, of committed horticulture scholars and experts who are invested in growing horticulture on the African continent,” Evanega said.

Support for Cornell faculty supervisors to observe student scholars’ research in the field also helps sustain two-way engagement.

The latest CAHA student, Julian Atukuri, of Uganda, joined Cornell this fall and is working under the guidance of advisor Rebecca Nelson, professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section Plant Breeding and Genetics Section, will study aflatoxin fungus contamination in groundnuts and maize, a major problem in low-resource regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Aflatoxins can cause liver cancer, disrupt immune function and induce protein deficiency syndromes when metabolized in people.

“My research will focus on developing appropriate measures to control aflatoxins by improving soil and plant health, thus improving human health,” Atukuri said. 

Kalenga Banda, a CAHA student from Zambia, is completing her dissertation, which looks at postharvest management of sweet potatoes, an important staple in sub-Sahara Africa. Her field work in Africa was disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic but she worked with advisor Chris Watkins, professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science Horticulture Section, to address postharvest challenges that North American sweet potato farmers face.

“My research focuses on sweet potato cultivar chilling sensitivity and the role of curing in chilling tolerance, with a goal to identify cultivars that are tolerant to chilling and those that would benefit from interventions like curing,” Banda said. She also studied the role of ethylene in sprouting and sugar changes in sweet potato.

When her dissertation is complete, Banda will return to the University of Zambia where she holds a faculty position. Eventually she hopes to join a regional agriculture research institute, such as the International Potato Center in Kenya.

“It’s not easy for African students to get into a U.S. university like Cornell, so the assistantship made it easier,” Banda said. “Being a recipient of the scholarship, because of the prestige that comes with it, puts you on another level.”

A seminar, “Cornell Africa Horticulture Assistantship: Advancing Horticulture in Africa,” will take place on Monday, Nov 22 at 12:25 in the Plant Science building, in room 404, and via the Horticulture Section’s seminar Zoom link.

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Lindsey Knewstub