Another culture’s daily bread

Virgina Zantow

Diane Brown, junior in chemical engineering, describes her life growing up in Iowa as many ISU students would: “Surrounded by corn and soybeans.” Unlike most students, however, she had the chance to see corn from another country’s point of view.

That is, she had the chance to see corn, or maize, from Mexico’s point of view, while also studying wheat, another staple crop.

Brown was just awarded the Ahmanson Intern Award at the World Food Prize Laureate Award Ceremony on Oct. 18 for her research in Mexico over summer 2006.

She was one of 12 Borlaug-Ruan interns in summer 2006, participating in a World Food Prize Organization youth program after she graduated from high school.

The recent honor was exciting for Brown because it showed that her work was meaningful to others, she said.

“The experience [of the internship] was more than enough,” Brown said. “It was very important to me, but it was kind of exciting to see that it was important to other people, too.”

The Ahmanson Intern Award is given to one Borlaug-Ruan intern each year for contributing to awareness of world food security problems, according to the World Food Prize Organization’s Web site.

Brown’s actual work in Mexico consisted of analyzing DNA samples of wheat stored in a gene bank used to study and develop different breeds of maize and wheat, according to a paper Brown wrote after her project.

Brown worked for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, or CIMMYT, Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo.

Emma Flemmig, junior in agronomy, was awarded the Ahmanson Intern Award in 2006 for her work as a Borlaug-Ruan intern at CIMMYT.

Flemmig said she would advise other students to try to understand science issues because of their important connection with broader social issues.

In the same way, Flemmig said it was important for the scientific community to understand the culture they work in.

“A lot of times, [scientific development] is taken out of cultural context, and that’s unsuccessful,” she said.

A vivid memory Brown said she retained from her time in Mexico is from a field visit when she asked Mexican resident Antonino Sebastian Gutierrez, a Pioneer Hi-Bred International worker, why Mexico struggled so much with its crops, when such a plethora of good technology is available to them.

“‘To a farmer in Mexico, maize is important as God,'” Brown said Gutierrez told her. “‘[Mexicans] depend upon it, they rely upon it, and it’s part of their daily lives.'”

Because of this deep cultural importance, Brown said, Mexicans are resistant to change. The importance of communication between scientists and farmers became clear to Brown.

Along with a deepened understanding of sustainability issues, and the technical skills she acquired doing research, Brown said she gained the ability to adapt to a new, challenging environment.

“I was really fortunate to have [another] internship last summer,” Brown said, citing her ability to adapt to a new situation as helpful to her second internship.

Since Brown learned a good deal about food security issues in Mexico as part of her internship, she came away with an increased ability to understand underlying causes of food security.

To other students who are interested in food security and sustainability, Brown recommended taking seminars and classes related to these issues on campus, which she said she has found helpful.