Postdoc Crosses Disciplines to Put Theory to Practice

by |October 7, 2013
Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellows, Hope Michelson

Hope Michelson with apple growers in Shandong Province, China.

By Hope Michelson

I joined the Agriculture and Food Security Center as an Earth Institute postdoctoral fellow in the fall of 2010, when the center was still known as The Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program. The Ag Center is headed by Pedro Sanchez and Cheryl Palm, experts in the field of tropical soils. Palm and Sanchez lead a team that includes researchers with specializations in soil science, crop modeling, economics, remote sensing, ecology, agro-ecology, computer science and nutrition. Much of the research at the Ag Center focuses on agricultural intensification, environmental change and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

I applied for an Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship for two primary reasons. First, I wanted to enrich my research through collaborations with scientists in distinct yet related fields. For a PhD in agricultural development economics, my dissertation essays focused on the participation of small farmers in Walmart’s Nicaraguan supply chains. Though my work centered on changes in farmers’ economic outcomes, I had been curious about how new market opportunities in the developing world could impact farm management practices such as mineral fertilizer use. I had also wondered about how initial soil fertility influenced the types and quality of crops those farmers cultivate, and the marketing options available to them as a consequence.

The second reason: I wanted to understand firsthand how the theories and methods of development economics could be useful and relevant to other disciplines. I sought the time and the professional context to try out real interdisciplinary research.

Maize, Malawi

Maize in Malawi, where researchers look at the economic impacts of fertilizer use in smallholder farms.

My years as an Earth Institute fellow have afforded me the time, connections, and resources to extend and deepen my research on small farmers and global supply chains; this research now includes analysis of nitrogen fertilizer and water use. I have also had the opportunity to initiate new interdisciplinary projects with my colleagues at the Ag Center. For example:

  • A collaboration with Gillian Galford (a former EI postdoc and now a professor at the University of Vermont) who uses remote sensing to study land cover and land use change, combines MODIS satellite imagery with time-series data on poverty and agricultural production to evaluate the implementation and effects of Malawi’s 2006 inputs subsidy program. The subsidy program, which provides fertilizer and hybrid seed to small farmers in a country that has struggled to feed itself for many years, has been credited with significant increases in yields. Our work will be the first to incorporate remote sensing data into an analysis of the Malawian program. This work is funded by a NASA LCLUC grant.
  • This summer, I was awarded an Earth Institute grant to evaluate the effects of SoilDoc, a new lab-in-a-box developed by researchers at the Ag Center which allows extension agents to test properties of farmers’ soils in the field and to deliver immediate management recommendations based on the results of those tests. My work will study the effects of SoilDoc on fertilizer use and crop yields. This research requires that I work closely with the team of soil scientists developing, refining and rolling-out this new technology, and I spent a fascinating week this summer in Morogoro, Tanzania, learning about tests for soil nitrogen and carbon while I designed my study and farmer sample. Though the project will use methods from impact evaluation, the hypotheses and theory of change will be developed in consultation with soil scientists, and the analysis will incorporate detailed information on farmers’ soils.

Through these and other projects, I have learned an enormous amount about how to work with a researcher from another discipline; how to explain methods and assumptions; how to think about data at different scales, and differences in sampling strategies. I have learned how much work and care it takes to get this kind of research right. And I’ve made friends with colleagues from other disciplines, researchers with whom I hope very much to work in the future.

We had a great cohort of Earth Institute fellows. We brought in a number of speakers – historians, statisticians, economists, and earth scientists. We read books and articles together. And we presented our work to each other: new work that we were just starting, job candidate seminars and conference presentations that we needed to practice. Those of us who were on the academic job market met regularly as a sub-group to go over each others’ cover letters, research statements and CVs. All of this provided further practice in how to make work accessible and relevant to an engaged audience without relying on the technical jargon or underlying assumptions from a primary discipline.

There’s a lot of interest in interdisciplinary work in universities these days, and a large number of critical research questions demand cross-disciplinary study. The Earth Institute postdoc has provided me with a strong foundation to continue to initiate and develop these sorts of collaborations, has helped me learn how my own research can benefit from being challenged by and contextualized in another field, and has taught me how much fun it can be to share the same sort of challenge and insight.

Hope Michelson was an Earth Institute postdoctoral fellow from 2010-2012.

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