Sandy Rikoon has a lot on his proverbial plate. His work is hard to pigeonhole, except to say that, in general, it’s grounded in concern over both people and the environment. Since his academic discipline in rural sociology lives “at the intersection of basic and applied research,” it is the pursuit of “seamless connections” between his research, teaching, and outreach activities that drives Rikoon’s work.
Sometimes, in order to see the status quo, it takes a little distance. When MU’s Peace Corps Fellows return to the United States, they bring their global perspectives to the University of Missouri campus in order to open the minds of students, staff, and community members. Nathan Jensen, Jennifer Keller, Amy Bowes, and Andy Craver are among this year’s fellows. Their work in distant countries has changed them, helping them grow. Now they’re sharing their experience and newfound attitudes with MU.
He calls it “fire in the gut.” It’s the excitement, the burning drive to work through a problem and see the solution. It’s staying up at night, turning something over and over in your head and feeling exhilarated when you finally come up with an answer, says Chris Hardin, Professor and Chair of the Nutritional Sciences Department.
Can nest conditions predict what kinds of predators can masticate a bird? What effects do controlled drugs have on the formation of persistent follicles in beef cows? How resourceful is the neglected art of video poetry? These were just some of the questions that approximately 120 undergraduate students were attempting to answer during the summer of 2007.
The Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievements Forum, held at the end of July at the Bond Life Sciences Center, allowed students to present their scholarly research projects to the public. MU students specializing in an array of concentrations were stationed at posters describing their findings.
José Garcia puts on and takes off many hats during the average week, owing to the extension, teaching, and research dimensions of his work as Extension Assistant Professor in Rural Sociology. For instance, as Coordinator of the Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Program at MU (CFSSA), Garcia spends most of his time doing outreach with rural communities throughout the state. A common misunderstanding some people have about the term “sustainable agriculture” is that it rejects technology, harkening back to an earlier time when people worked mainly with their hands. Quite the contrary, Garcia clarifies: sustainable agriculture uses the most recent technology in its approach to farming (and to food itself), in which economic viability and environmental impact, along with social responsibility, are at the center of every decision. In relation to this last dimension, approaches to sustainable agriculture ask such questions as the following: “How socially responsible are farmers? What is the impact of their operations on communities, families, and workers? And how connected to the community are they? ” Garcia explains the complexity of the situation: “All of those kinds of things need to be taken into consideration when making decisions because food and agriculture are totally connected to people, to communities, and to laborers.” Thus Garcia provides information and training to people about various aspects of agriculture – whether that involves farms, factories, schools, or other community organizations. He hopes to see a ripple effect, with the information he gives to various community educators in Missouri being spread throughout the state.
Programming a computer to learn from data has broad applications in agricultural advancements, including reading map data to seek out problem areas in field. Dr. Zare also works with Felix Fritschi of the MU Division of Plant Sciences to streamline fieldwork.
Rikoon, who received a Kemper Award for Teaching Excellence in 2002, and was named Curators Distinguished Teaching Professor in 2008, teaches a number of graduate-level courses in the areas of environmental sociology, the sociology of agriculture and natural resources, and political ecology, as well as an undergraduate course titled Population and the Environment.
McClure always wanted to help the world through science, but plant genetics wasn’t part of his original grand plan. After college and a environmental biochemistry major, he took a position with a diet geneticist seeking to modify the nutritional value of maize. This job exposed McClure to genetic analysis and helped him realize that he could have an impact on the world through agriculture.
This year’s group of Peace Corps fellows spent time in West Africa, southern Africa, and Kyrgystan. Their experiences were as unique as the countries in which they were located. Nathan Jensen and Jennifer Keller worked as agricultural volunteers in Mali; Amy Bowes taught English in Lesotho; and Andy Craver taught English in Issyk-Kul. Craver’s comment that she “learned a lot more from them then they did from me” echoes the attitudes of all the volunteers.
So far, U.S. agriculutural policy has been geared toward making cheap food. According to Hardin, it hasn’t done much in the way of encouraging healthy food. With his research and the new metabolic kitchen, he’s hoping to be able to suggest a new policy that will focus on making healthy foods accessible.
There are many facets of our nutritional landscape that contribute to the obesity epidemic Hardin is fighting. As a culture, we eat out too much, we take diets to the extreme, and our children don’t play outside as often as children in past generations. Hardin knows our culture has a problem, and he is working to combat it with healthy food and educational intervention.
If researchers can better understand how this DNA packaging occurs, they might eventually be able to control the process to their advantage. As Cone observes, “being able to understand that process might give us a chance down the road to manipulate it, to potentially improve features of the plant for crop production.”
The undergraduate research experience is a unique opportunity. Blockus reports that aside from preparing students for graduate school, research is a growth experience in which students will be “perhaps encountering some of the same frustrations, challenges, and problems as well as some of the same successes and accomplishments.” She observes that students “learn from each other, feed off of each other, and hopefully form friendships as well.” Blockus herself is living proof of the power of research on a young mind. As a college student she spent a summer working for the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, OARDC, a “very valuable experience.”
Garcia has been conducting research on Latino farmers and their access to financial services, an extension project that became integrated with a research project.
Beyond the Latino farmers and workers, Garcia does similar workshops and presentations for extension people working with Hmong and other immigrant farmers in Missouri. Part of his work involves bridging existing services, and facilitating partnerships and connections. “It has to be collaborative,” he says, “I’d kill myself if I tried to everything on my own. Success relies heavily on those collaborations.”
Garcia and his colleagues across the state rely on “virtual meetings” over the Internet with extension agriculturalists to touch base about certain issues related to sustainable agriculture.
While he sometimes presents workshops directly to Latino farmers and agricultural workers, often Garcia targets employers of food and agricultural workers. He provides them with information about legal issues, communication, and culture necessary in order to hire and retain Latino agricultural workers.
In addition to teaching farmers and extension educators, Garcia teaches a class at MU in sustainable agriculture, part of the undergraduate major in sustainable agriculture that began last fall.
Garcia describes a few projects within the realm of sustainable agriculture. For example, Garcia trains extension educators on various sustainability issues. The educators may then go back to their communities and work directly with farmers and workers, “so that those farmers are more exposed to sustainable agriculture issues, including, for example, sustainable agriculture practices, natural resources, conservation issues, and funding opportunities for sustainable agriculture projects for their farms.” Garcia works as well with MU’s community of students, staff, and faculty, offering a monthly seminar called, “What’s New in Sustainable Food and Farming.”
Most of Jose Garcia’s work involves doing outreach and teaching about sustainable agriculture to various groups of people, from farmers in rural Missouri communities to students, faculty, and staff at MU. There are three dimensions emphasized by use of the term “sustainable agriculture” explains Garcia. “Because food and agriculture are totally connected to people and to communities and to laborers,” sustainable agriculture refers to an approach to farming and food, in which economic viability, environmental impact, and social responsibility are considered in any decision.