MBS Student Spotlight: Julieane Lacsina, MBS STRIDE Scholar in Global Agriculture

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing MBS Global Agriculture student Julieane Lacsina. Julieane was born and raised on farm in the Philippines, where she spent many years helping to improve the farm’s sustainability practices. This fall, however, Julieanne enrolled in Rutgers University as a STRIDE scholar in the hopes of extending her environmental influence beyond her farm. She will be completing her MBS degree in a year and returning to the Philippines with the hope of realigning the country’s motivation for conducting scientific research.

Although the Filipino government pours substantial funding into agricultural research, most of the scientific discoveries never find their way into the hands of the parties that could benefit the most. “What good is research if it’s going to rot in an online database that we can only access through interlibrary loans?” Julieane wondered out loud. “We need to ask ourselves why we are doing the research,” she contended. “Is it because of our selfish reasons or do we really want to contribute to public good?”

This desire to contribute to the public good is precisely what led Julieane to apply for a STRIDE scholarship. The STRIDE program is a $32 million initiative sponsored by the USAID that offers funding for projects focused on economic growth and development. A portion of STRIDE funding is allocated to Filipino scholars who are sent to study business and science in graduate programs across the United States. Upon their return to the Philippines, STRIDE scholars are expected to contribute to “inclusive economic growth” within the country.

Inclusive economic growth is a special type of economic growth that targets vulnerable populations. It not only takes place in poor geographic locations, but it also benefits struggling economic sectors (e.g. agriculture) and uses the impoverished region’s resources (e.g. labor). Dr. Mark Robson is the Principal Investigator of the STRIDE Scholarship program at Rutgers University. According to Dr. Robson, Distinguished Service Professor and Chair of the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, the STRIDE program “provides a sustainable approach to improving the capacity and abilities for the country” by “training [its] future scientists and policymakers… Julieane is a wonderful example of the bright young women and men who are patriating in the STRIDE professional science master’s program (PSM).”

Not all Filipino PSM students have the opportunity to study abroad in the United States; therefore, Dr. Robson is working to replicate the Rutgers MBS experience in the Philippines. “Through STRIDE we plan on bringing over 50 students to the U.S. for MBS degrees,” he explained. “I also am working with the STRIDE team to set up 10 PSM programs in the Philippines.” Dr. Deborah Silver, Director of the MBS program and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, echoed the idea of cultural collaboration between PSM programs:

 

STRIDE is a great part of the MBS program because it promotes a cross-cultural exchange of ideas that is focused on not just the science involved in agriculture, but also on the business and communication skills students need to effect change both in the U.S. and in the Philippines. The MBS program is all about transcending traditional boundaries to create great problem-solvers who can be effective in multiple arenas, including industry and public policy.

 

In order to effect economic change in the Philippines, Julieane hopes to bridge the nation’s gap between agricultural research and extension. Currently, the Filipino government spends billions of dollars on scientific research; however, once the data is crystallized in the form of journal articles, it is then locked away in online databases, just beyond the reach of the impoverished communities that could benefit from the knowledge. Many farmers in the Philippines have yet to adopt mechanization. Instead, rice is harvested by hand and the crops are dried on the streets. Julieane hopes that to match the practical needs of Filipino farmers with technological innovations to foster agricultural sustainability. And now that she has taken some business courses in the MBS program, she has begun to understand what motivates farmers and researchers.

Raising awareness is often the first step towards changing behavior. According to Julieane, awareness must be raised in three categories in order to achieve agricultural sustainability: social, environmental, and economic sectors. In her personal life, Julieane engages in “social” awareness by informing her friends and social media circles of the importance of sustainability. Back home, she achieved environmental awareness by turning her farm in the Philippines into a model of sustainability. To do so, Julieane integrated ducks into her rice paddies. The ducks not only eat the weeds growing in the paddy, thereby eliminating the need for herbicides, but they also defecate in the paddy, which reintroduces nitrogen into the system, thus eliminating the need for fertilizer. Because of the practicality of this approach, her technique spread like wildfire to the neighboring farms.

But Julieane’s attempts to raise sustainability awareness in economic spheres are not nearly as subtle. Through her current internship, she is pooling data about the maximum pesticide residue levels allowed on fruits grown in different countries. There is evidence that excessive pesticide use causes an accumulation of toxic chemicals in the groundwaters. Because of the safety concerns, Julieane feels strongly that farmers ought to either limit pesticide usage or to convert entirely to biopesticides. Her internship contribution has allowed her to learn about the standardization of permissible pesticide levels throughout Southeast Asia.

Bioaccumulation of pesticides is only one of many farming sustainability concerns around the world that Julieane mentioned. During our conversation, she highlighted three other pressing global issues: land, water, and energy usage. Land is a limited resource; therefore, we must strike a balance between planting food crops and biofuels. “We don’t need to cut down the Amazon forest just so we can make biofuels,” explained Julieane. She also feels strongly that farmers should strive to plant crops that are better adapted to their environment. Planting drought-resistant crops in dry regions can decrease global water consumption. Additionally, the energy spent transporting food can be reduced if farms grow crops catered towards the local consumer demographic.

But policymakers are not the only party that can bring about change. Consumers can also influence food supply by demanding locally grown goods. Julieane encourages students to start by knowing where their produce comes from or growing their own food if possible. Although she does not have the space now, Julieane used to grow her own herbs, bok choi, eggplant, and chili in empty Coke bottles. Growing one’s own food is not the only way to influence change. As our conversation came to a close, Julieane touted the importance of taking immediate action, regardless of the magnitude: “It only takes a matchstick to create a wildfire. Even if the forest is wet, you can start smoke. And smoke is something… Small efforts collectively make a big impact.”