Learning global solutions to local problems

Seven scientists were selected to participate in a year-long global awareness program which would end with an international immersion trip to Mexico. They're back and believe the culminating trip is just the beginning of their international journey.

During the year and on the trip, they tackled an assignment to learn about the Mexican culture and the challenges that the country and people face, while engaging in the loosely wrapped theme of diabetes and obesity. These are important concerns in Mexico because 24 percent of the population is overweight or obese and about six percent have diabetes. Each scientist brought their own perspective and area of expertise to the problems and questions they encountered, from nutrition to engineering -- crop sciences to economics.

They are the first graduating "class" of Aces Global Academy. Each member of the Academy is a junior faculty member (one from each of the seven departments in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences) paired with a senior faculty mentor who has already had scholarly experience on an international level.

Finding a theme that all seven faculty members could study was one of the first challenges of the program. Diabetes and obesity was selected because it is a worldwide problem but each member studied it from their own unique perspective. So, for example, a horticulturist might look at what healthier fruits and vegetables can be grown, while an economist looks at the feasibility of growing the crop. Mexico's high rate of obesity and diabetes is compounded by the fact that sweetened beverages are preferred over water due to the poor quality and inadequate supply of safe drinking water -- a problem perhaps to be tackled by an agricultural engineer.

Economist Urvi Neelakantan was one of the junior faculty members in the Global Academy. She said that she went on the trip knowing very little about Mexico. "We learned about the main challenges facing Mexico. Here we have a country where 90 percent of the land holdings are small, creating a large percentage of poor and marginal farmers," she said. "Many people we talked to mentioned that in 2008 as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement the protection of the sugar, corn, beans, dairy products and orange juice crops would cease. Some had questions about how the demand for biofuels and the resulting competition might create a food shortage in the future."

As an economist, one solution Neelakantan looked at was the possibility to shift beans to a more versatile niche crop that is native to the area such as amaranth (a hearty and highly adaptable grain that can be used to make a variety of food products) and nopal (the green, racquet-shaped portion of a prickly pear cactus). "Other ideas are to provide incentives to small farmers to switch crops and offer rural credit for small farms," she said.

"One of the universities we visited had a demonstration house that utilized solar panels and a variety of water treatments that farmed apricots, strawberries, cilantro, rabbits, tilapia and other products to sell," she said. "It was very interesting to see the operation and something that the U of I might try."

Family life educator Angela Wiley was another one of the ACES Global Academy members. At the Mexican universities they visited, she gave a presentation on how family mealtimes are linked to family resiliency. "They were so receptive," said Wiley. "Family resiliency was something they had never heard of."

Wiley is already looking for ways she can use what she learned and hopes to plan a sabbatical to learn Spanish and pursue research projects borne out of the experience. Wiley said one university already had a data base of 2000 Mexican families. "This is something I might have dreamed about, and here they already have it set up."

Elvira de Mejia is an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, one of the Academy mentors, as well as what some referred to jokingly as "one of our unpaid translators on the trip." De Mejia is originally from Mexico, so her knowledge of the country, the language and her connections there were an asset to the organization of the trip and the overall success. "We had a grant for three years to interact with Latin America and a consortium of 10 Mexican universities, so having this first group of ACES Academy scholars visit our neighbor Mexico made sense," she said. There is also a large Latin population in Illinois. "More than 20 percent of the population in Chicago is from Latin America and 80 percent of these are Mexicans. It is the fastest growing minority group," she said.

"That grant resulted in over 30 publications, 20 presentations, nine symposia, two patents and more importantly, a relationship of trust, which is very important in the international arena."

de Mejia reported that there have already been plans for numerous joint research projects with faculty from universities in Mexico and U of I researchers as well as new scientific relationships formed within the department in ACES.

"U of I plant scientist German Bollero is collaborating on a project with U of I nutritionist Karen Chapman-Novakofski," said De Mejia. "This kind of collaboration is something that might not have happened and now they are working to find a global solution to a local problem."

"It was a year-long experiment to take seven scholars and develop a program that would infuse global awareness into all levels of their scholarship. And, with an experiment, you're not sure that it will work or if it's worth replicating," said Mary Ann Lila, ACES Global Connect coordinator and one of the faculty mentors. "We think it was very successful and definitely worth doing again."

Plans are already in the works to conduct another round of interviews in order to select the next seven faculty members who will embark on a year filled with global experiences. The seven scholars selected for the first ACES Global Academy are: German Bollero, Crop Sciences; Karen Chapman-Novakofski, Food Science and Human Nutrition; Rob Knox, Animal Sciences; Urvi Neelakantan, Agricultural and Consumer Economics; Ryan Stewart, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences; Xinlei Wang, Agricultural and Biological Engineering; and Angela Wiley, Human and Community Development.


For more information, visit http://www.aces.uiuc.edu/Global/.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.