In June, I had the distinct privilege of representing the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) at the 2017 U.S. Borlaug Summer Institute on Global Food Security. Led by Purdue University’s Center for Global Food Security, the 2017 Summer Institute provided 40 of the top graduate students from across the nation with an intensive introduction to global food security, with special emphasis on the utility of multidisciplinary teams and complex problem solving of real-world challenges. Named after Dr. Norman Ernest Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and “father of the Green Revolution,” the annual 2-week long institute provides students with a working knowledge of real-world development challenges and a holistic understanding around some of the challenges in ensuring sustainable access for nutritious, quality, and safe food for all humans.
Participants learn from a team of renowned scientists, practitioners, and policy-makers from various disciplines who shared their expertise across key subject areas, such as climate change, mechanization of food processing in resource-limited settings, and access to credit for farmers, to name a few.
While all of the sessions were inspiring, one lesson presented during a guest lecture has stood out to me in the days since my time at the Borlaug Institute ended. Dr. Eli Asem, Professor of Physiology at Purdue University, spoke about the complexities of pastoral agriculture systems, including the specific challenges faced by its tenants in lesser developed countries. Throughout the presentation, we were shown a series of photographs. Each image portrayed only a portion of an elephant, e.g., a picture of an elephant’s head. “What is this picture?” He’d ask. “An elephant’s head,” we replied. Or, “an elephant’s tail,” depending on what was shown. Towards the end of the lesson, he showed the elephant in its entirety. The message was clear. By standing too close to the elephant, one can’t possibly see all of it. Just like any issue faced during the fight against world hunger, there are multiple sides to every story. Only when stepping back are we able to view the problem from various angles, so that any kind of holistic solution is possible.
To this end, Ph.D. students have a tendency to hyper-focus on a very small niche within their respective disciplines. In my case, that is using sensor technology for nutrition diagnostics. In food science, we often collaborate with our nutrition and engineering colleagues. And yet, I wonder: “How many of us look at the elephant only from one angle?,” “How can we take a step back from the laboratory or the academic literature in our daily work to view the grand problem from other viewpoints?,” and “What is the elephant-size problem, and how can our work play a role in its comprehensive solution?”
While I reflect on this experience with 39 of my passionate colleagues from around the world, I come to the stark realization that I alone can only achieve so much in combatting food insecurity. But through cross-disciplinary collaboration, I believe we can together start seeing the “elephant” as a whole and make meaningful contributions in the fight against world hunger. It is my honor to continue fostering collaborative efforts alongside my fellow “hunger fighters” to one day make the dream of ending world hunger a reality.
- Anna Waller, Predoctoral Fellow of Food Science and Human Nutrition
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