Doctoral candidate's research explores human, agricultural interactions in Nepal

Geography student Marie Louis Ryan received international research award from Graduate School

Marie Louise Ryan, second from left, celebrates Dashain in Lamjung, Nepal, with one of her research assistants, Laxmi Khaniya, and her family, in fall 2019. Credit: Photo providedAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Marie Louis Ryan, doctoral candidate in Penn State's Department of Geography, received the Graduate Student International Research Award from the Graduate School for her research exploring human and agricultural interactions in Nepal.

Specifically, Ryan examines how the labor force outmigration of working age men in Nepal’s midhills impacts labor, land use, and the agricultural biodiversity of rice and finger millet — two key crops in the region.

Ryan said Nepal has one of the largest shares of remittances as percent of GDP (gross domestic product) of any nation, and who remains on the farm to cultivate land has implications for agricultural conservation and land management. In Ryan's study site, farmers grow more than 20 varieties of rice and many varieties of finger millet. Ryan wants to know how farmer outmigration impacts this agrobiodiversity.

“Despite the socio-cultural importance of these two crops to the farmers in this region, global changes — both social and ecological — threaten this diversity,” Ryan said. “My research examines how the outmigration of wealthier, land-owning male farmers impacts how marginalized women and semi-landless Dalit (formerly known as 'untouchable') farmers fill the labor gap, manage farm fields, and make cropping and land use decisions.”

Despite the legal abolishment of the caste system in Nepal, Ryan said societal differences continue to impact rural farmers.

“In examining how the cultivation of rice and finger millet intersect, my study will contribute to greater understanding of complex human-environment interactions that impact agricultural biodiversity,” Ryan said.

Ryan also said finger millet’s stigma of being a food source for the lower class threatens its use as a food staple despite being a nutritious food that grows well in the region with little irrigation demands.

Ryan said her research allows her to explore areas she’s passionate about.

“I have deep passions for place-based foods, sustainable farming systems and social justice,” Ryan said. “My research combines these passions into a meaningful project with the potential to positively impact the conservation of crop varieties unique to certain locations while also recognizing the valuable role that marginalized farmers play in sustaining food systems around the globe.”

Ryan said she chose Penn State for graduate research because of her adviser and professor Karl Zimmerer’s expertise in environment and society geography. She also allied herself with other Penn State experts in international development, gender and farming systems to advance her research.

“My mentors have challenged me both in the theoretical approach to my research and in the methodological choices that have impacted this work,” Ryan said. “Their input has made me a stronger researcher and contributes to the academic rigor of this research project.”

The Graduate Student International Research Award promotes and supports graduate student international research and scholarship that has potential for global impact. The award is to be used for travel, living expenses, and/or research-related costs.

Marie Louise Ryan, left, works with her research assistant Oshin Shrestha in the midhills district of Lamjung, Nepal. Credit: Photo providedAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated July 29, 2020