Borlaug-Ruan Interns: Potato research redefines student’s career goals

Rachel CurrantBy Amber Friedrichsen

Editor’s note: This is one of three stories featuring College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students who served as 2022 Borlaug-Ruan International Interns during the summer. The internship program, offered through the World Food Prize Foundation, places students in organizations around the world to work with eminent researchers and policymakers to analyze agricultural, nutritional, health, economic and environmental problems from a global perspective.

Over 300 students have been Borlaug-Ruan International Interns since the program was established in 1998. This year, the World Food Prize offered 23 internships to undergraduates from across the country. The majority of their work experiences were remote due to the lasting effects of COVID-19.

Read the stories of the other interns, Idania Carillo-Martin and Molly Simmons.

When Rachel Currant was accepted to the 2022 Borlaug-Ruan International Internship program, she was eager to explore the science of plant breeding. She interned with the International Potato Center (CIP) based in Lima, Peru, and worked for the organization’s branch in Nairobi, Kenya.

Currant, junior in genetics, was responsible for editing research papers and curating an abstract book for the 12th Triennial African Potato Association (APA) Conference that took place June 27 to July 1 in Malawi. Most of the research she reviewed was about enhancing the efficiency and affordability of potato and sweet potato production for small-holder farmers and diversifying the use of these crops in Africa.

“There were studies on crop genetics, nutrition and pest control,” Currant said. “For example, CIP and other national researchers on the continent are trying to focus on minimizing chemical use by making potatoes more resistant to insects and diseases for environmental reasons, but also to reduce input costs.”

Currant worked under Jan Low, an agricultural economist, leading scientist for CIP in Kenya and one of the 2016 World Food Prize Laureates. Low and two of her plant breeding colleagues won this award for developing new varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to combat nutritional deficiencies among women and children in African countries. The work also included scaling the use of these varieties by integrating their promotion with nutrition education efforts.

“Dr. Low helped me with the logistics of reading the reports and understanding all the information,” Currant said. “We would chat about the abstracts and she would explain why a certain topic was important. It was amazing to work with someone so knowledgeable and experienced in their field.”

The AFA conference was held in a hybrid setting, so Currant attended it virtually. Malawi’s time zone is seven hours ahead of Iowa’s, so she had to log on to the conference in the middle of the night. Despite this change to her sleep schedule, Currant was inspired by the research that was presented — especially the advances in potato planting. 

“One big innovation researchers shared is how they are making breakthroughs using hybrid potato seeds,” Currant said. “If you can just give a farmer a packet of seeds instead of a bag of potatoes tubers that they would need a truck to haul, it would save a lot of energy and money.”

After the conference, Currant created survey questions and held interviews with participants to collect qualitative data about their experience. She compiled her findings into a report to summarize the advantages and disadvantages of attending the event online and in-person, and this information will be used to plan future conferences.

Following her internship, Currant returned to campus with greater confidence in her writing and editing abilities. Evaluating abstracts and conducting research are two additional skills that will benefit her coursework at Iowa State, as well as her future career in an interdisciplinary field.

“Being involved with organizations like 4-H, FFA and the World Food Prize made me realize how food systems are closely tied to human health, and I want to find a way to intertwine agriculture and medicine in my career,” Currant said. “I want to implement farm-to-table practices in small communities or start nutrition programs at local organizations.”

No matter where her education takes her, Currant hopes to work internationally someday and return to the Midwest with a broader worldview. She said being a part of the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship program made her aware of the agricultural- and health-related challenges people face in other countries, and she wants to stay connected with the World Food Prize and contribute to finding solutions.