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Working to Increase the Food Supply in the Developing World

Rebecca Nelson

It's hot now in Afghanistan, where 35% of the population is chronically underfed. But soon it will be cold, and many of the country's roads will become inaccessible because of snow and landslides, making it difficult to get food to market.

"Agriculture is not a prestige area in science. But it's important to follow your passion, and I'm proud of trying to ransack everything I know about plant diseases and packaging it into curricula for farmers." --Rebecca Nelson

Knowing these things gets Stacy McCoy out of bed every morning and out into the countryside, visiting Afghani women and farmers to offer new agricultural techniques and hardier seeds. She also works to bolster their marketing skills so that they can be exposed to new ways to sell goods in the marketplace. The marketing efforts have helped organize the women and farmers into teams so that they have more food to offer collectively and can work more closely together to share their knowledge.

McCoy is one of many American scientists who have dedicated their careers to international development in the name of making the world a better place. We profile three of these individuals here, people who have chosen career paths enabling them to help malnourished populations gain better access to food through science.

Familiar fruit in a strange place

The plants McCoy, 32, helps Afghani women and farmers harvest are familiar: wheat, strawberry, eggplant, tomato, and okra. She could grow them where she grew up in Fontana, California, or in her garden in Alexandria, Virginia, a home that is nearly 7000 miles away and where her husband lives. The Catholic Relief Services' (CRS's) Afghanistan program she works for is largely comprised of unmarried individuals living in Afghanistan, and its security protocol does not allow children. McCoy is able to visit her husband four times a year.

"It can be hard living away from family and that is a choice sometimes going into international work, but I'm pretty content to stay here and not too freaked out by the security situation," she says.

(Courtesy, Stacy McCoy)
Stacy McCoy (right) and Afghani colleague

She relies on her environmental science background to help Afghanis cultivate stronger, more resilient seeds and says her ability to speak French has helped immensely in her work in Africa and the Middle East. She believes her ability to speak a second language was a huge help in getting her first assignment, in French-speaking Morocco, through the Peace Corps.

McCoy was 22 when she went into the corps after graduating with an international relations degree focusing on Africa and the French language from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. "I think what attracted me to the Peace Corps was this idea of wanting to work with people who were less fortunate than myself," she says. "The experience had a huge impact on my worldview."

She was sent to Morocco, where she became fascinated with the French-speaking, Arab/Muslim country while working on water shortage issues in a rural community there.

Her thirst for knowledge that could help developing nations prompted her to get an environmental sciences degree from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. She then won a Catholic Relief Services International Development Fellowship in Rwanda, where she worked on a project proposal for 7 months to improve maternal and child health. Although her studies had not focused on that area, McCoy calls the experience "invaluable" for learning project management and reinforcing her commitment to improving health conditions around the world. After Rwanda, she was assigned to Afghanistan.

McCoy is now officially the agro-enterprise program manager for CRS Afghanistan. "Today, I'm helping people grow crops that will have a decent enough market value to sell at a profit," she says. She is particularly proud of her group's work to elevate animal husbandry as a viable economic avenue for the farmers. Her group was able to work with the farmers to find effective ways to yield more dairy, which in turn brings more revenue at the market.

"It can be tough getting an initial foot in the door in an international development program," McCoy acknowledges, "but it can help to take a post in a ‘difficult' country."

It's not rocket science; it's more difficult

Rebecca Nelson (pictured at top) loves agriculture and animals. She had six goats in her backyard growing up--not a common sight in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. "I always wanted to be an aggie," she says. Her parents, both National Institutes of Health scientists, didn't bat an eye when she decided to turn the family swimming pool into a tropical fish pond as a way of learning about fish farming. After attending Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania., she headed to the University of Washington, where she received a doctorate in zoology in 1988.


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She worked there in a fish endocrinology lab to bolster her basic research skills and moved over to a fruit fly genetics lab at the university. It was there that Nelson had an "ah-ha" moment: "I thought, I just can't sit around clutching those fruit flies when the world is starving to death. There's a billion critically impoverished people out there."

When she finished her Ph.D., that thought motivated her to take her career in a new direction and to a new continent: Asia. Asia had intrigued her since she was an undergraduate. When she was at Swarthmore, she was a finalist for a fellowship that would have sent her there but didn't get it. "I was so disappointed, but my dad said he was glad," she recalls. "At first I was shocked, but he added, 'You don't need a fairy godmother. If you want to go to Asia, then go to Asia.' " That advice stayed with her through the rest of her schooling and beyond.

After receiving her Ph.D., Nelson headed off to the Philippines to study plant disease and genetic mapping at the International Rice Research Institute, where she was partly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. She branched out from lab research after 6 years and spent a couple of years working in field schools with farmers to learn and teach scientific approaches to plant disease and how to curb its spread.

"Agriculture is not a prestige area in science," she says. "But it's important to follow your passion, and I'm proud of trying to ransack everything I know about plant diseases and packaging it into curricula for farmers."

Nelson received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship from 1998 to 2003. Today, at 48, she serves as scientific director for the McKnight Foundation's Collaborative Crop Research Program, a grants program funding agricultural research in developing countries. She became a professor at Cornell University in 2003 and teaches a class on international agriculture and rural development, while focusing her research on understanding how plants defend themselves against pathogen attack.

"Trying to understand how the world works ... is incredibly complicated, but it matters," says Nelson. "After some years when this area didn't get much attention, it's now an exciting time to be in the field. It's an area that calls for integrative thinking. It's not rocket science; it's much more complicated than that."

Reaping what you sow

Jagger Harvey is an American scientist currently working in Kenya on crop research at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub, an initiative hosted and managed by the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi.

He was born in 1975 in Port-au-Prince where his mother's family is from. She was made a U.S. citizen when she was a teenager living in the states. Her son was registered as a U.S. citizen born abroad. His father's family is from Seattle, and he shuttled to and from Haiti to Seattle, Washington, yearly as a child. His parents eventually settled in Bethesda, Maryland, where he stayed through high school.

"The disparity between life in the First and Third World disturbed me from an early age; I could not comprehend how the luck of where one is born can have the most drastic impact imaginable on one's living conditions," Harvey says. "Starting in primary school, I began asking my parents what I could do to help improve life for people like my Haitian friends."

He received a full scholarship to study at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, through Carl Rowan's Project Excellence, a program founded by Rowan, a syndicated columnist who died in 2000, to aid African-American high-school seniors from the Washington, D.C., area who plan to attend college. It was at university that Harvey developed a love of plant science and saw an "opportunity to help the developing world through science: a career in plant genetics."

He spent the summer after sophomore year of his undergraduate studies working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's fruit laboratory on a citrus disease project. After graduating, he went to the University of California, Davis, and settled on investigating the genetic regulation of programmed cell death in plants.

Nathaniel Pitts, director of the Office of Integrative Activities at the National Science Foundation (NSF), encouraged him "to gain the best training I could in a basic research setting and then apply that to developing world agriculture." The advice inspired Harvey to learn molecular techniques in graduate school--and to visit Africa to see if he could put some of his studies to practice. The visit "opened my eyes to the devastating impact plant viruses are having on African agriculture," he says.

Harvey received an NSF postdoctoral research fellowship to conduct 3 years of research on plant-virus infections at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich for the first part of his postdoc, and then at the University of Cambridge, both in the United Kingdom.

As a research scientist at the BecA Hub, today Harvey leads research on plant-viral diseases affecting African crops. He also coordinates the placement and training of international and local researchers and students, from many who apply to use the hub for training or research.

One of his proudest achievements was training two scientists from ISAR, the National Agricultural Research Institute in Rwanda. "On the last day of their training, I felt overwhelmed by the realization of a lifelong dream," he recalls. "Knowing that the trainees will return with several new tools for crop improvement in Rwanda is one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career."

Harvey and his wife, Melissa, moved to Nairobi in January. She grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho, and this is her first experience living in the developing world. "After 9 months living in Kenya, including the birth of our first child, we are both comfortable and happy living here."

(Dorine Adhoch, ILRI)
Jagger Harvey (center) with colleagues and students in the lab at BecA Hub.

Sharon McLoone writes from the Washington, D.C., area.

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