FIVE YOUNG AMERICANS WHO COULD BE THE NEXT NORMAN BORLAUG
Mar. 26, 2014
Des Moines Register reports:
There will be another Norman Borlaug. In fact, if the late Cresco native and Nobel Peace Prize-winning plant scientist sees a fraction of his dreams come true, there will be many future Borlaugs.
Borlaug will be honored with the dedication of his statue today in National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. When he created the World Food Prize to honor agriculture science advancements that combat hunger worldwide, part of his motivation was to help nurture the next generation that will take on the daunting challenge of figuring out how to feed the world's growing population.
To that end, the World Food Prize Foundation sponsors a series of youth-focused programs such as the Borlaug-Ruan International Internships, which send high school students to work in research centers around the world.
BORLAUG VIDEO: 10 reasons the statue is going up at the Capitol
About 20 young Iowans were invited to today's dedication ceremonies because they represent the kinds of next-generation leaders who will shape science, policy, discourse and humanitarianism in the years to come.
Here's a quick look at five of them, all participants in a variety of programs founded by Borlaug, who died in 2009. They've already led lives of great accomplishment in such a short span.
Prepare to be humbled.
Staffers at the World Food Prize sometimes refer to Riesselman as having the greatest potential to be the next Borlaug.
The Drake University senior studying biochemistry grew up in Crawford County. He was entranced by both the small- and large-scale agriculture on his family farm.
"We always planted a garden," Riesselman said. "So I got this feel of the food on the table and the larger production in the farm as a whole. It really drove the power of science home to me, how all of these things were possible by us using science to produce higher-yielding seeds."
While at A-H-S-T High School in Avoca, Riesselman led a native prairie reconstruction project on 17,000 square feet of the school's grounds. He traveled across Iowa to harvest seeds from prairie plants and wrote grants for the project.
Riesselman attended the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute, a gathering of more than 100 high school students nationwide who meet with World Food Prize laureates to discuss agricultural science and global hunger issues.
He was selected as a 2010 Borlaug-Ruan Intern. He served at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in El Batan, Mexico, the same research center where Borlaug made his scientific breakthroughs in breeding wheat.
"I was in a completely different country, but when I was in the fields, it felt very natural and familiar to me," Riesselman said. "If I had any doubt that this is what I wanted to do, this was the experience that convinced me."
Riesselman is focusing on bioinformatics, which uses computer science to advance agricultural science. In a simplified form, the field helps ag scientists sort through millions of genetic pairings and seed possibilities to identify the handful of traits that might be advantageous for future breeding.
He has been an intern for DuPont Pioneer and at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. Upon graduation from Drake this spring, he's bound for Harvard University to further his bioinformatics studies.
"The goal is to make the best possible contribution to science," he said.
HOMETOWN: Fort Dodge
SPECIALTY: Medicine, global health policy
Srinivas, a 2003 Borlaug-Ruan intern who worked in Nairobi, Kenya, started contributing to science when she was in high school in the early 2000s. She worked an internship at the USDA National Animal Disease Center in Ames.
The center was consumed with the global outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad cow disease. The lab's top scientists focused on ways to stem the outbreak. Srinivas was tasked with figuring out a new problem: How to rescue infected tissue samples.
At the time, living tissues were transported in paraffin, a type of wax. The problem was that removing the paraffin killed the protein, called a prion, that caused the condition.
Through old-fashioned trial and error, Srinivas discovered a way to extract the tissue from the paraffin that preserved the specimen. The breakthrough was just the beginning of what she hopes will be a lifetime of improving public health.
She earned a medical degree from the University of Iowa in 2013 and is studying global health at Harvard University.
"I was lucky enough to meet with Dr. Borlaug several times and have some very intimate conversations with him," Srinivas said. "He was such a good teacher. You would talk to him about what you were working on, and he would tell you a story about something he did in the field that related to it. He's an inspiration that drives me."
ADDIE HALL THOMPSON
SPECIALTIES: Plant genetics and agronomy
Thompson embraces the notion of becoming the next Borlaug. "That's the goal," she said.
She earned a degree in genetics from Iowa State University and followed in Borlaug's footsteps, studying plant science at the University of Minnesota. The building in which she does most of her work is named after Borlaug.
Thompson was a 2002 Borlaug-Ruan intern who studied at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. The work opened her eyes to the vastness of human experience.
"I had this feeling of being a stranger in a strange land that I don't think I would have ever had if it hadn't been for the internship," Thompson recalled. "It showed me how we're different, but also that we're all similar. We all want better lives for our children."
Thompson stayed in touch with Borlaug during her studies. She plans to follow his example of becoming a research professor and teaching.
"He was a very humble man, but he was very passionate about education," she said. "He was always interested in learning new things. He's an inspiration."
Maria Belding is one of the youngest candidates selected for the USDA Wallace-Carver Fellowship, which is co-sponsored by the World Food Prize Foundation.
Belding spent her junior year at the University of Georgia, looking at food insecurity issues caused by problems with corn in developing countries.
Her first passion was writing. She co-created a database that is used to reduce waste in emergency food distribution.
She's co-written resources on high school food drives used by students in 27 states and six countries. Her writing has been published by Gannett, which owns the Register, and Scholastic. She's even written a fiction novel published through Amazon.com.
"I've always been interested in social justice writing," she said. "Three teachers in three hours suggested I apply for the Iowa Youth Institute at the World Food Prize. So I did, and it opened up my perspective to hunger issues."
Belding is still selecting her final school, but she plans to focus on medicine and become a medical doctor.
"There has to be a holistic approach to global health problems," she said. "I've known for a very long time I wanted to practice medicine. But I also want to be active in health policy."
ANNE MICHAEL LANGGUTH
HOMETOWN: Iowa City
Langguth has perhaps the most eclectic resume of any Borlaug-Ruan intern: genetic researcher, beauty queen, accomplished violinist and, soon, medical doctor.
Langguth was a 2004 intern at Peking University in Beijing, China. She worked at the China Functional Genomics Program Rice Mutant Library, trying to find genes that would produce stronger, more productive yields.
She earned degrees in government and pre-medicine from Harvard University in 2009. She served as Miss Iowa for the Miss America Organization in 2009-10. She's a candidate for a medical degree from the University of Iowa this spring.
She will play her violin at the ceremony for the unveiling of the Borlaug statue at the U.S. Capitol today.
Langguth cites her experiences with Borlaug for broadening her perspective.
"One of the things (Borlaug) stressed was to keep an open mind," she said. "He said you never know what new door you'll walk through that will help you learn or grow or help humanity."