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“You go to the field.” U.S. Borlaug Fellows in Global Food Security

When asked how you become a successful wheat breeder, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug replied, “Well, you go to the field. You go to the field again, and then you go to the field. When the wheat plants start to talk to you, you know you have made it.” The Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom were awarded to Dr. Borlaug for saving the lives of over one billion through his efforts. Borlaug’s legacy continues today through the U.S. Borlaug Fellows in Global Food Security Program at the Center for Global Food Security, Purdue University, providing graduate students the opportunity to “go to the field” and become successful scientists in their own right.

Funded by USAID, the Borlaug Fellowship provides graduate students the opportunity to collaborate with agricultural scientists in developing nations. The program fosters connections between scientists internationally, while furthering research and developing community around important agricultural themes, such as production, natural resource conservation, and development. With a focus on interdisciplinary and cross-cultural experiences, students benefit from the ability to practice their science on the ground in an international setting, preparing them to become important members of the global scientific community. Doctoral candidates Ariel N. Rivers of Pennsylvania State University and Sean M. Thompson of Texas A&M University were given the opportunity to “go to the field” during the 2013 field season in partnership with CIMMYT.

Of the dual-title program, Entomology and International Agriculture and Development at Pennsylvania State University, Rivers (pictured above) is mid-way through her six-month tenure at CIMMYT’s El Batán station. By studying the three practices of conservation agriculture —crop rotation, minimal soil disturbance, and retention of crop residues on the soil surface— Rivers hopes to better understand which of these practices augment beneficial insect communities and how. In high enough numbers, beneficial insects can contribute to pest control, nutrient cycling, and soil aeration, all of which are essential to agricultural production in low-input developing country agriculture.

Thompson (pictured right), of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M University, is working with Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to non-destructively assess wheat root biomass. This technology could allow for rapid, non-destructive assessment of populations and selection for traits undetectable by traditional methods. The primary objective of this research is to define the capability of GPR to phenotype below ground crop biomass, in the context of higher yield and quality stability in wheat during drought stress. GPR is one of the many field-based high-throughput phenotyping technologies being tested in CIMMYT’s Wheat Physiology program.

Both Rivers and Thompson plan to collaborate internationally after they complete their doctoral studies. “We have benefitted from the opportunity to practice that skill at CIMMYT,” they both agree. “Thanks to the example set by Borlaug, we are better prepared to take our science ‘to the field’.” Further information about the research or the U.S. Borlaug Fellowship in Global Food Security can be obtained by contacting the Purdue Center for Global Food Security.