When in Rome…students research, explore different culture

The 2023 GLOBE 497 Class in Rome
The 2023 GLOBE 497 class spent time in the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization headquarters while conducting their research in Rome. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Holliday.

By Madelyn Ostendorf

Does conducting research for an international organization on the weekdays and exploring one of the most ancient cities in the world on the weekends sound interesting to you? GLOBE 497: Dean's Global Agriculture and Food Leadership Program to Rome takes students to Italy for the summer, where they collaborate with scientists at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to research globally relevant topics.

The program began in 2009 and focuses on introducing students to global agriculture concepts, such as food insecurity and international food systems. During the spring semester leading up to their time in Rome, students learn about the complexity of those issues and enhance their leadership skills in the GLOBE 495 course.

Shelley Taylor, director of global programs, said the students' work in the classroom helps prepare them for their international experiences. At the end of the spring semester, the students form teams and pick the topic they will focus on while abroad, based on a list of pre-determined topics provided by the FAO.

Taylor said that even if a student doesn’t have a specialty in a given year’s topic, there is still room for them to contribute. In 2023, the projects had a primary focus on livestock genetics.

“They are supposed to be operating as a high functioning team,” Taylor said. “There might be some students that have the animal science background and know more about genetics, and others are better at policy and ethical implications of genome editing. There's a place on each team for everybody.”

This past summer, two teams made their way to Rome. The students utilize the Iowa State University College of Design’s facilities there and get the full experience of living and working at the FAO They set their own hours and work one-on-one with staff members to give progress reports and prepare for their final presentations.

Flags from every UN country are displayed in the atrium of the FAO. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Holliday.

“Walking into the FAO is an incredible experience,” said Jennifer Holliday, senior in agricultural studies. “You walk in and they have flags from every nation of the United Nations hanging in the main entry. The building truly shows how passionate the organization is about the work they're doing to better the world. It was like you could feel the magic in the air.”

Holliday worked with her team to research genome editing in livestock, focusing on the feasibility of implementing it in middle- and low-income countries. She was nervous about the topic since her background was more communications-centric, but as she and her team dug deeper into the research, they discovered how much they all brought to the table.

Toward the end of the international experience, each group gave a 15-minute overview of their research and results and fielded questions from members of the FAO. Holliday said the FAO set up a livestream that the students’ friends and family were invited to watch, as well as over 100 additional viewers. 

“We had people attending the livestream from well over 15 countries,” Holliday said. “I think that was shocking to all of us because we realized we made an impact, not only in our lives but in so many other people's lives. They were all there to hear the research that us 20-year-olds were conducting.”

Both teams' research, “Genome Editing in Livestock” and “Challenges in Livestock Phenotyping,” will be used in the 2027 edition of the FAO’s State of Livestock In The World.

When the teams aren’t working on their research, they get to explore Rome. Taylor said there are a few planned excursions, including a trip to Tuscany to see the region’s food systems strategy. Beyond that, students are free to adventure through Rome and visit the local sights.

“We made friends with a coffee shop owner,” Holliday said. “We went there every day. We would walk in and he would already know what we wanted. There was a bakery next door, and one day the owner said, ‘Oh, we don't have the Nutella croissants today,’ because that's what I had ordered the day before. She remembered it.”

Holliday said the trip was hard work but life-changing and something she thinks about every day.

“Your eyes are opened to culture in a way that is so unique to any other study abroad experience,” Holliday said. “You get to directly work with professionals in the food insecurity industry. If you have a passion for food insecurity, this is the place to be.”

The deadline to apply for next summer’s program is Nov. 1. Taylor said that while preference is given to juniors and seniors, any classification of student from any major can apply.