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Team of TCi Interns Tackles Nutrition

By David Nutt

TCi Program team
From left to right: TCi Program Manager Jessica Ames with interns John Lowry, Amruta Byatnal, Olivia Obodoagha,  Rebecca Chew, Michaela Brown, Tara Gadde, Wenhai Yang, Dora Heng, and Samyuktha Kannan.

This summer a group of Cornell students worked to get at the root of malnutrition in India through data collection and analysis, and they gained crucial real-world experience in the process.

The students are part of the summer internship program run by the Tata Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative (TCi), which seeks to address the problems of poverty, malnutrition, and rural development by working with TCi partner institutions in India.

“India is unique in that it’s had amazing economic growth but it’s been largely unequal. Despite their impressive achievements, they still have more malnourished people than anywhere in the world,” TCi Program Manager Jessica Ames said. “India ranks first in number of stunted (or chronically malnourished) children and is the global epicenter for anemia. These are public health crises! So the question is why, despite all it has going for it, is there still so much malnutrition in India?”

TCi was created in 2013 with a $25 million endowment from the Tata Trusts, chaired by Ratan Tata ’59, B.Arch. ’62, as a means to answer this question.  Because the conditions that lead to hunger, poverty and malnutrition are so complex, TCi takes a multidisciplinary approach, pulling together researchers from a variety of disciplines, including economics, nutrition, engineering, human ecology, science communications, horticulture, and soil and animal science.

The TCi internship program, now in its second year, sends a handful of undergrad and graduate students to India for six- or seven-week projects that generate vital data for TCi’s mission while also providing the students with a rare opportunity to get hands-on experience collecting data in the field.

Last year the internship program featured six students who were primarily undergrads, but this year the program expanded to nine undergrads and graduate students working with five partner organizations in five different cities.  Some students were grouped together on projects while others worked apart.  At the conclusion of their internships, all of the students convened in Hyderabad to share their work and debrief with TCi director Prabhu Pingali. When the students returned to Cornell in the fall, they enrolled in a course taught by Pingali that allows them to delve even deeper into the research they started in India.

“The development immersion that TCi has created will have long term payoffs by creating young professionals with firsthand field research experience and with a passion for addressing the chronic problems of poverty and malnutrition in the developing world,” Pingali said. 

For current intern Samyuktha Kannan, a master’s student in applied economics and management, the internship was not only an educational experience but also a homecoming, as Kannan was born in India. This summer she worked with the Shakti Varta initiative in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, on a project that trains women’s groups to educate mothers about water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as nutrition and health care. Kannan evaluated that effort and analyzed how to better plan for future expansion.

To prepare them for their research abroad, TCi holds a pre-departure workshop that gives students both practical advice on their upcoming travels and also helps them frame their research within the larger concept of TCi and its mission. For her part, Kannan also conducted a great deal of prep work with Shakti Varta.

“The difficulty is that very often, sitting where you are and planning all the research questions, you don’t really realize what stage the project is, how things are actually happening on the ground,” Kannan said. “I really looked forward to being in the field again.  It helps enrich your experience, it helps you ask better research questions. It gives you a lot of ideas about what is relevant now.  Over the year I had been kind of starved of that experience.  I really wanted to go out and see how my thinking has changed after coming here and taking all these courses.”

Like most interns, Alexander King ‘15—who received his bachelor’s degree in international agriculture and rural development in May—learned about the TCi internship through Pingali’s Food Policy for Developing Nations class during the fall semester.

“It sounded like the perfect thing to do for my junior summer,” King said. “It had a different twist.  I hadn’t really done research before so this gave me a great opportunity to do that in a really interesting and dynamic place. It also gave me the background and tools to work afterwards on a project that was more long-term.  So it was a great fit.”

For six weeks last summer King was based in Mumbai at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences, where he worked with Bhaskar Mittra, associate director of TCi. During that time King researched ways the private sector is addressing iron deficiency anemia throughout India. King’s research during his internship later formed the basis of his honors thesis, which compared and contrasted India’s attempts to meet the nutritional needs of its population with more successful efforts in China and Japan.

King was already well-accustomed to international travel, having previously held summer internships in Ghana and Haiti and spending a semester abroad in Argentina. He considers such experiences crucial for studying international agriculture and rural development.

“You can learn as much as you want about it here in Ithaca, but you won’t really be able to contextualize it until you’re there and can see it firsthand,” he said.

Even though he has graduated and his thesis is complete, King’s work in India is not over yet. At the end of July he returned to Mumbai to begin a two-year fellowship with Mahindra through its global recruit program. Also receiving a fellowship was former TCi intern Andrew Pike.

Katy Merckel conducting a survey
Katy Merckel conducting a survey.

Katy Merckel’s internship in India last summer led her to a new role as well: she now works as a research support specialist with TCi, preparing briefs and lecture materials and continuing to engage in data collection and analysis for the initiative’s projects.

Last summer, while earning her master’s in international development, Merckel and four other interns designed a dietary diversity survey which they spent several weeks administering in several villages. The survey, for the Minimum Nutrition Dataset for Agriculture, was engineered to be a fast and efficient method to measure household nutrition, i.e. the number of food groups consumed by households.

“We interviewed more than a hundred women between the five of us, and then we took that data back to the office in Hyderabad to learn how to analyze it and to then prepare a full report on it,” Merckel said. “It was an entire research project from start to finish, compacted into a couple of months. It was a fantastic experience.”

One virtue of the TCi model is that it utilizes collaborations with like-minded organizations that already have longstanding relationships with local communities in India. For example, TCi’s partner for the dietary diversity project is the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, or ICRISAT, which has been working with villages near Hyderabad since the mid-1970s, Merckel said.

“We were each paired with an enumerator.  These are women around our age who are studying agriculture.  They are the unsung heroes of the research.  They had already been working in the villages for five or six years, so they knew everybody.  They also assisted us as translators,” Merckel said.

Other partner organizations include Digital Green in Delhi, which uses video communications to improve nutrition practices; Agua Clara/PRADAN in Jharkhand, which runs a village-level clean water project; and numerous agriculture and nutrition projects co-run by TCi and the Tata Institute for Social Sciences.

Not only did the internship deepen Merckel’s knowledge of the nutrition-agriculture nexus, it also changed the way she thinks about the research process itself.

“We all had this moment where we were analyzing our data and we realized these data points we’re working with are people,” she said. “We realized, this number represents a story in the life of this woman in this village in rural India who we just spoke to, had tea with, and played with her kids. That’s what data is, regardless of where in the world it comes from. That really changed the way that I approach data analysis and research projects. Because it’s somebody’s life. Data points are people.”