INTAD students and grads hone skills for international workplace

As part of her doctoral research, Ariel Rivers studied insect and spider communities in low-input cropping systems in Mexico. She said the International Agriculture and Development dual-degree program provided her with networking opportunities and challenged her to grow as a professional. Credit: Courtesy of Ariel RiversAll Rights Reserved.

Agriculture is a human endeavor that is practiced in every corner of the world. That's why consideration of human behavior in an international context is necessary to gain a complete picture of agricultural problems.

According to Deanna Behring, director of international programs in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, the International Agriculture and Development (INTAD) dual-title degree program does just that.

"The program provides students with international perspectives and expertise to strengthen their primary graduate degree in agricultural sciences," she said. "It positions them to become better competitors for career opportunities working with international organizations, universities and research institutes, and international corporations."

Anna Testen, a 2012 graduate with a master's degree in plant pathology and in international agriculture and development, is already becoming a successful scientist with a global research agenda, thanks, in part, to the INTAD program. Now in the final phase of her doctoral program at Ohio State University, Testen investigates methods of improving soil and plant health for tomato farmers in the Morogoro Region of Tanzania.

"Tomato is a key vegetable cash crop in Tanzania and provides a source of income and nutrients to smallholder farmers and their communities," said Testen. "Diseases, a lack of improved varieties, and poor soil health and soil management practices limit yields of this crop in Tanzania to far less than the world average. We work directly with farmers to address these constraints, which can help improve the sustainability and profitability of tomato production."

Testen, who recently was awarded a Presidential Fellowship by the Ohio State University Graduate School, said the INTAD program at Penn State has played an important role in preparing her for a career in international agricultural development by providing her with a framework and skillset for working in international agricultural development.

"INTAD allowed me to 'get my feet wet' in social science techniques that are essential in agricultural development," she said. "The social science experiences provided by INTAD complement the laboratory and field research techniques I've acquired in my graduate programs in plant pathology."

Testen added that the INTAD courses she took, especially International Agricultural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa and Program Design and Delivery, gave her specific knowledge and skills that she has applied in her doctoral program. In addition, INTAD provided her with funding to attend the Borlaug Dialogue during the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa.

"During this meeting, I learned about research and development programs that directly influence my research today," she said. "My experiences with the INTAD program have been key to my success in my master's work in Bolivia and Ecuador and in my doctoral work in Tanzania."


Paige Castellanos, who recently received a doctorate in rural sociology and in International Agriculture and Development, credits her professional success to her participation in the INTAD program. Credit: Courtesy of Paige CastellanosAll Rights Reserved.


Paige Castellanos, who recently received a doctorate in rural sociology and INTAD, also credits her professional success to her participation in the INTAD program. "The program allowed me to study different agricultural and development strategies within the global context," she said. "This is helping me to be a better contributor to my research team."

Castellanos, who received the 2015 Penn State Alumni Association Dissertation Award and the 2014 W. LaMarr Kopp International Achievement Award, will be working as a postdoctoral scholar at Penn State on a USAID-funded project titled "Women in Agriculture Network: Honduras." The project examines how women and other marginalized groups in Honduras can improve their living conditions by participating in the horticultural value chain — the process of adding value to horticultural products, such as fruits or vegetables.

"Accessing the horticulture value chain can help women to improve their income, living conditions and household nutrition," said Castellanos. "I also will contribute to the development of a gender certificate program housed at Penn State that provides training in the specific area of gender in agriculture and development. While I was an INTAD student, I developed course curriculum and gained valuable teaching experience. This will help me create a strong certificate program in the area of gender and agriculture."

Entomology doctoral students Loren Rivera-Vega and Ariel Rivers also feel that the INTAD program has complemented their research.

"Through the INTAD program, I have seen not only what happens with our research in the lab and field, but also what impacts it might have on farmers themselves," said Rivera-Vega, a fourth-year student. "Also, I have made connections inside and outside of Penn State that have broadened my capabilities as a scientist."

Rivera-Vega studies plant-insect interactions, focusing specifically on how crop plants can recognize pest insects and activate defenses against them, as well as how some insects have developed strategies to avoid this recognition.

Ariel Rivers, who recently defended her dissertation in entomology, also investigates insects, focusing on the effects of agricultural management — such as the timing and types of practices farmers use in their fields — on insect and spider communities. For her graduate research, Rivers worked in two systems: an organic agriculture system in Pennsylvania and a low-input system in central Mexico.

"Regardless of where farmers are located, knowing which insects and spiders are on their farms is important for understanding how to conduct agriculture without relying heavily on chemical insecticides," she said.

Rivers, a Borlaug Fellow, said the INTAD program has provided her with rewarding camaraderie and networking opportunities but, most importantly, has challenged her to grow as a professional.

"To be a part of the INTAD program, one has to be very dedicated, focused, patient and creative," said Rivers, who was named a Science Policy Fellow by the Entomological Society of America in 2014. "Having the opportunity to practice, and improve upon, these qualities has been invaluable during my Ph.D. program."

Rivers soon will start a job at CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, located in Mexico.

Sarah Eissler is just beginning her doctoral program in rural sociology and INTAD after completing a master's degree in the same two programs in December. Her dissertation research focuses on how climate change is affecting rural communities, especially those members of communities who rely on smallholder farming activities, such as coffee and cocoa farmers. Specifically, she aims to understand how men and women in Indonesia differ in their ability to adapt to climate change.

"Through the INTAD coursework and community, I work with graduate students from different fields," said Eissler, who recently received an award from the U.S. Borlaug Fellows in Global Food Security program, which supports American graduate students' research in the context of food security and agricultural research. "We each have specific backgrounds but overlap in our interest to tackle challenges in international agriculture and development.

"I find these experiences have been helpful in building teamwork skills, especially with interdisciplinary teams. In addition, through the program I have been able to gain significant amounts of international experience and learn from leaders in the field."

Gary Felton, professor and head of the Department of Entomology, agrees that the INTAD program gives students an opportunity to hone their skills and prepare for a career in a global workplace. "One of the greatest challenges in graduate education today is the apparent glut of Ph.D. students compared to the number of academic jobs that are becoming available," he said.

"I see the INTAD program as an excellent way to add value to the doctoral degree in entomology. We are seeing INTAD as not only a very effective tool in recruiting graduate students but also as an excellent program for providing students the practical education to pursue 'nontraditional' careers, both domestically and internationally."

Entomology doctoral candidate Loren Rivera-Vega says the INTAD program has helped her to see not only what happens in the lab and field, but also the potential positive impacts research could have on farmers. Credit: Courtesy of Loren Rivera-VegaAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated July 29, 2017