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Crop science scholars learn about corn and wheat research in Mexico


By Julie Martin, Editorial Intern
Thursday, September 2, 2010 12:22 PM CDT

“Maiz y trigo.”

The Spanish words for “corn and wheat,” this vocabulary was used to its full extent as 12 students from UW-Madison recently traveled to Mexico to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (also known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT for Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo). While visiting the center, the students not only practiced their Spanish, but learned about current research being done, as well as new varieties of corn and wheat being developed.

The purpose of the trip was to expose students to what a career in agriculture could lead them to, and help peak their interest for what agriculture offers. For many of the students, especially those in agronomy, it might be plant breeding at a research station similar to CIMMYT. For agronomy graduate student Adrienne Shelton, it helped define more opportunities.

“I knew about CIMMYT and other international research stations, but I really enjoyed getting a much closer, more hands-on perspective of what they’re doing, particularly listening to the scientists about their projects,” says Shelton. She’s not quite sure yet what she wants to do after earning her PhD, however the trip helped define more clearly some possible options. “Seeing what they’re doing down there gave me a much better idea of what international work would look like.”

Another agronomy graduate student on the trip, Reid Rice, found the trip just as eye-opening with a future goal of becoming involved with industry work.

“Getting that exposure to organizations trying to combat hunger worldwide and seeing what strategies are taken was just a great opportunity,” says Rice. “Its one thing to hear what they’re doing in terms of breeding and developing; its another to visit those environments, to see what’s going on in Mexico and understand exactly what type of land and soil the farmers have to work with. It’s absolutely crucial to keep in mind.”

Other major areas of study represented by the students ranged from agronomy and biology to international studies and economics. With a shortage of emerging agronomists in the industry, as well as various majors across the board within agriculture, concern is growing for availability of future agriculturists. Several of the students on this trip were sponsored by Syngenta, who has taken the initiative to bring these students to the forefront of crop production research to show them how they can become an active part in the process. Many of the students have experience with sweet corn breeding at UW-Madison, and could relate directly to practices they were implementing in their research plots.

For other students, it reiterated the importance of the impact of their research. For Rachel Eder, an agronomy student with a focus on natural resources, she found the trip built upon her experiences as an intern with the Dane County Land and Water Conservation Department.

“I have more confidence in what I’m promoting here in Dane County,” says Eder, as she continues to build her base of knowledge. A portion of the trip was designated for discussion on the conservation agriculture practices being conducted at the station, something Eder personally was interested in.

An ideal place to ask their questions about the research on corn and new varieties, CIMMYT was chosen for several other reasons, more specifically because of its mission. They recognize the greater purpose with their research, as stated in their mission, “to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat systems to ensure global food security and reduce poverty.” Learning about their research projects for African countries and developing new seed varieties to combat various environment pressures, it’s not difficult to feel a part of something bigger.

“It’s a very inspiring place,” says Bill Tracy, Agronomy Professor at UW-Madison and one of the organizers of the trip. “We were hoping students could see that they could have a really positive impact on the world by getting involved in agriculture.”

The group traveled to three different research stations in Mexico, gaining hands-on experience right in the corn field. Researchers and scientists presented their projects and what their studies have shown thus far. Physically walking through the fields and looking at the specific corn populations helped convey the true challenges the researchers face as they develop more suitable varieties for various purposes. Corn populations being grown in the lowland tropics were being developed for countries in Africa, where there is a similar climate. In the highlands of Mexico, corn populations intended to be grown in Brazil and Argentina are being developed. Students with experience in the corn field and a strong science background, they came with questions and an eagerness to learn about the station.

“Twelve people who didn’t really have a clue as to what CIMMYT does or is are now strong advocates,” says Tracy. “The U.S. students came away with a better sense of the challenges that face developing countries. CIMMYT welcomes the opportunity to reach out to people and to interact with students to talk about their research. It’s a positive experience for everyone.”

Additionally, the students brought together their own unique skills and backgrounds, which added significantly to the experience. When traveling between research stations, they experienced the diverse countryside of Mexico and the various climates, from the cooler highlands to the lowland tropics. Nearly the entire group had never been to Mexico before, and they found the cuisine and marketplace just as educational as the corn fields.

“Anytime anyone’s exposed to other cultures, it’s always valuable in terms of broadening their view of the world,” says Tracy. “Having people from different backgrounds and perspectives broadens everyone else that’s part of the group as well as enriches the whole program with different points of view.”

A perfect balance between education and culture, the student group walked away with a greater perspective of the impact CIMMYT has on the rest of the world and how they could eventually become one of the future’s leading scientists to continue feeding and nourishing the rest of the world.