May 27, 2019
Dr. Jessie Vipham is a K-State alumna and food microbiologist currently serving as the faculty hire in global food systems and nutrition for the USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Intensification (SIIL). This was a fantastic, wide-ranging conversation that started with Jessie’s graduate studies using direct-fed microbials in cattle systems and then moved on to the work she does now managing food safety projects in several developing countries around Africa and Southeast Asia. Some of the highlights include how she tackles large challenging issues related to food safety, the importance of trust to the success of a project, and the benefits of bidirectional learning.
For more information about Dr. Vipham and SIIL check out their website at: https://www.k-state.edu/siil/about/people/index.html
Research in the Developing World with Dr. Jessie Vipham - Food Safety
Something to Chew On is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of global food systems. It's produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Jay Weeks PhD candidate in the Department of Agronomy. My co host is Scott Tanona, an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy who specializes in the philosophy of science. Hi, everybody. Welcome back. We've got a great interview for you today with Dr. Jesse Vipham . Jessie is a microbiologist by training focusing on food safety, and currently serves as the faculty higher in global food systems and nutrition. For the USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab for collaborative research on sustainable intensification here at K State record a lot of ground in this conversation starting with Jesse's graduate work using direct fed microbials and kettle systems, and then moved on to the work she does now managing food safety projects in several developing countries around Africa and Southeast Asia. Jesse is a brilliant, thoughtful lady. I really appreciated her perspectives and things like how to tackle large challenging issues related to food systems, the importance of trust in the success of any major project, and the benefits of bi directional learning for countries like the United States that are invested in international development. This intro doesn't even begin to do the full conversation justice. I have no doubts that this will be one you'll enjoy. We're happy today to be interviewing Dr. Jesse Vipham. Welcome, Jesse.
Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.
So I will have introduced you briefly in the intro before starting this. But we'd like to have you describe yourself a little bit and your background and how you got to where you are today.
Okay, that's easy enough. Well, I am trained as a food microbiologist, so a lot of my background is in food microbiology, food safety training. I have my PhD from Texas Tech University, as well as my master's degree, my bachelor's degrees actually from Kansas State. So being here on the faculty is a little bit of a homecoming, it's nice to be back in Manhattan, I was raised on a registered Angus cattle ranch in northeastern Nevada. So I've been involved in agriculture and agricultural pursuits most of my life, food safety, food microbiology felt like an opportunity for me to remain in that environment, while also getting a chance to kind of move into more laboratory based sciences. And so that's been a really nice career choice for me, because it's kept me with my roots, but also allowed me to do some different things. I'm currently in involved in the USAID Feed the Future innovation labs here on campus. So my position has moved me a little bit out of domestic food safety, and into international food safety. And so I do research mainly in Southeast Asia and Africa on food safety questions, as well as food systems questions, agricultural production questions. So that's currently where I'm spending most of my time.
Great. Yeah, we want to get into all of that. Obviously, was there something about microbiology when you were younger, that really fueled your interest? And what was it about the lab?
So actually, I didn't fall in love with microbiology until I got to my master's degree. My background for my bachelor's degree is Ag Econ. And so I, I remember so vividly, I was walking across campus, it was getting super close to graduation. And I was thinking to myself, Oh, my goodness, what am I going to do with my life? And I decided I was going to go to get my master's degree in meat science. I don't know where that came from. But I went over and spoke to Dr. Melvin hunt. And he said, Yeah, you should check out Kansas, Texas Tech. And that's what led me there. And actually, Dr. Mindy Brashears, is who I got engaged with there. And she's a food microbiologist, I started spending time with her. And I realized that, you know, microbiology is super cool, because there's a lot of questions that are left unanswered in that science. And it's a very investigative type of research because you can't see what's happening. And so you have to sort of go through a lot of critical thinking, to try and identify, Okay, what's the best way to test what we need to test? And then how can we use what we know about the discipline to lead us to our conclusions because we can't see what's happening. So we get to do this really cool lab based stuff. And then there's just this interesting, investigative evolving piece that comes with microbiology that love. It's kind of like a puzzle. It is a puzzle.
It's such a people sometimes think about science so much is about sort of, you know, the observable things, right, sort of the directly testable things. And I don't think they quite realize how much in fact, I mean, it's not guesswork, but you're making all these inferences about exactly what he said things that you can't see, right? It's absolutely, it's a neat endeavor, but complicated, right?
Well, and when you take something like microbiology, and you apply it to something like a food system, the complexity just becomes more interesting. Because you are moving from, okay, we have these complex things that we're trying to understand about these microorganisms. But the food system in itself is a complex evolving, you know, situation. And so how do you get bored in that environment? I mean, I think it would be really hard to so. So that's, I guess why I'm into it. And, and like it.
So are there things that you were working on in the Masters? And then sort of early in getting your PhD that you're still working on now? Or have you kind of shifted away from some of the earlier work?
Yes, and no, so my thesis and dissertation research was really based in more domestic food safety questions. Like I said, I'm from a cattle background. So I'm really interested in the beef industry kind of, you know, that just feels very comfortable, comfortable for me. And that's where I spent a lot of my time. But during that time, Dr. Breshears, spends a lot of her time in Central America, doing research for food safety there. So Honduras, Mexico, she's done some different stuff in Panama. So she's really engaged in food security style research. And I got to be involved in that, although it wasn't directly any of the projects I was doing. And I think that that's where I kind of caught the bug for that recognition of, you know, in domestic food safety, there's a lot to be done, but you're sort of moving the needle just a bit by that you're making a really good system just that much better. Versus there's all this space for improvement, particularly when you're talking about developing nations. So that I think just felt really exciting to me to go into a space where people weren't really doing research. And there was a lot of room to move, versus kind of trying to, you know, pick away at important questions, but maybe not as big of questions.
So the possibility for a bigger impact was greater than before?
Yeah, absolutely. And they're both domestic and international food safety research is super important and super valid. Sure. I just became a little more interested in the international side.
So before we get to the international stuff, your PhD dissertation title was reduced burden characterization and RNA gene expression of salmonella and bovine sub biliary, iliac civilian lymph nodes associated with administration of direct fed microbials.
Oh, that anyone's ever read that.
But my question is, with a direct thread microbial, I mean, were you was it like a probiotic sort of thing? And what are your views on the kind of in the building industry around probiotics?
So yes, so a direct fed microbial would be a probiotic for animal use. So probiotics are for human use thought that would be where that name would apply. And then direct fed microbials applied to animal feeds. So same thing, but it's we have it kind of categorized differently. So what the question that really came up during the time that I was in my dissertation, was this question around the Harbour Bridge of salmonella and E. coli, in bovine lymph nodes, and there's a lot of lymph nodes within, you know, a carcass. And it's really challenging to remove all those. And so for the most part, they ended up being part of ground beef, it's totally fine. It's totally safe. But that there is this opportunity for pathogens to sort of evade the the typical interventions that we have within beef slaughter, to, you know, show up in ground product. And so that was a big question that a lot of researchers that are involved in beef safety, were investigating at that time. And so Dr. Brochures and Dr. Guy Lonergan, who's also at Texas Tech, they had done a lot of research on on these direct fed microbials as far as pathogen shedding in feedlot cattle, and thought that, hey, you know, maybe there's something going on, that's, you know, more systemic than just, you know, through through the shedding in fecal matter. And so that's where that dissertation came up. I think that there's a lot of promise to direct fed microbials. But I think that what what this conversation that I would like take advantage of a little bit is that there's a A lot of value in food safety to what we call multi hurdle intervention approaches. And so I think where direct fed microbials come into play is that it's a way to sort of from a pre harvest on farm perspective, begin to start paying attention to food safety issues, whether we realize it or not. And there's also
even before it gets the slaughterhouse, I'm sort of thinking about it ahead of time,
right, before we get into a situation where we're bringing large loads of pathogens, potentially, into a slaughter facility, is there anything we can do on the farm or at the feedlot level, that has an impact on that, and it also just so happens, that direct fed microbials help, you know, with cattle growth, so you can actually see benefit in feeding that from their growth perspective. And so it was, it's kind of a win. And, and like I said, I think it's a really nice proactive way to begin working on food safety, before we're trying to clean it up, you know, right before the consumer buys it, or something along that line. And that's, you know, that's a very typical practice that we see in us, as well as European and, you know, other food safety systems around the world, this sort of multi hurdle value chain approach to food safe.
So you say multi hurdle, you mean,
So it's kind of that concept of, you know, if you have someone running down the track, and you have a bunch of hurdles, hopefully, eventually, you'll trip them up. So, so the purpose is, is that if you have an intervention a lot, you know, at certain points along a value chain, and hopefully, it's a strategic position that you're putting that intervention in, so where there's potential for contamination, you're, you're hopefully reducing either the presence or the concentration of pathogens as they move through that chain. And we have lots of points of contamination where, you know, product can be safe until that point of contamination, we can clean it up. And then there might be also more points of contamination as we move through that chain. So having interventions throughout that space, can really help us to ensure that food safety is a part of what we're doing, as we practice throughout.
You don't have to rely on any particular point, sort of to totally take care of it right, sort of, but you're hoping.
Yeah, well, it's also a little bit of that, you know, it's easier for a lot of people to carry a big load than just one person. And so how do you kind of get an entire value chain, from a food production standpoint to say, Okay, we're gonna, we're playing our part in reducing the chances of bacterial pathogens getting to the food supply, and we're hoping that others along the way will, too.
The other big thing that people will the public hears about is antibiotic use. Right. So how do you how does the feeding cattle, the microbes, right, so basically, the probiotics sort of how does that mesh with that? Is this an alternative? Or is it sort of to work with it? Or how does that how does that work?
Like? So I think that that's a really great question, we spend a lot of time really focusing on antimicrobial resistance. From a food safety perspective, I won't comment too heavily on that area, because I don't spend a lot of time that's not my expertise. And so I would probably inevitably, out, you know, speak out of turn. And so I think that, but there are some really fantastic researchers at Kansas State who are looking into those things. I'm Dr. Apley, in the vet school would be, you know, one of probably the top people. But I do think that, from a food system perspective, we are always attempting to find alternatives. And that's not necessarily saying because we want to stop using something eventually. But there's, there's definitely contexts in which certain interventions or certain applications have, you know, more, they're better suited for that situation, or that context. And so I think providing the food industry with as many different tools as possible, is always a valuable pursuit. And I think that, that there's lots of science being done in order to try and identify, you know, what are some of the different strategies that we can use, and give options to people as well as I think, you know, try to be forward thinking and attempt to say, Okay, how do we see changes in the food supply, impacting what we're doing now, and vice versa? And so I think that that's what I would say from a probiotic or direct and microbial perspective. I think it's just another tool that can be used to help to support the health and the safety of our food.
Farmers are incentivized because the faster growth rates and the better health of the cattle and things like that overall, right?
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I don't know that it comes down to just that, but there definitely is a dual purpose there. And so, you know, the direct fed microbials, there's data that is published, that shows that, you know, it's, you know, a good product to feed. And honestly, quite, it's pretty standard practice. I mean, also, most farmers are doing this now, well, not necessarily farmers, but from a feedlot perspective, it would be you'd be hard pressed to find feeders that are not incorporating some form of a direct fed microbial, or eye on a four or something like that in into the feeds that they're feeding is part of,
they're just like powders that get blended in, or what does it look like? Or is it all kinds of stuff?
So direct fed microbial is actually a culture. And so you would have some type of usually lactic acid bacteria is what gets incorporated. So it would be actual live culture.
How long has this been, you know, technology or tool that's being used sort of semi-commonly?
I mean, it's a pretty common technology. And so, you know, I would speak incorrectly. But I mean, for at least, you know, since I was doing it's been well, before that, so I mean, it's been around for quite some time, and there's been a lot of research that's gone into really identifying, you know, what are the specific strains that should be used from a direct fed microbials standpoint, if you jump into probiotics, and probiotic use has been around for a very, very long time.
Foods, all of that, you know, have a some form of, you know, probiotic involved. Right.
Right. And it's like, what, last couple of decades or something, right, sort of a fad in terms of human food now, right, right.
Well, it within our culture, you know, that you can find a good point. So I just got back from Ethiopia. And, you know, one of the super common foods that they eat, I mean, it's I'm common, I mean, it's the staple food is injera, which is a fermented teff product, usually, sometimes wheat, and they make kind of a bread out of it, and they consume that with absolutely every meal. And that's been, you know, what their culture has done for probably longer than our culture has been around. So.
Yeah, well, I just I'm sorry, I had to ask you about things. I'm fascinated by the microbiome stuff and all that. So I wanted to get your take on.
Well, things. So no, I just, you know, I think that that is a super interesting area as well. And so, but, you know, I always tried to say, you know, and reiterates, you know, it's a tool. And, and there's lots of other really great things that can be used out there from an intervention perspective.
So, you know, one of the main reasons we wanted to talk to you is your work with the international work, as you alluded to before, so you work for the USA, Id Feed the Future innovation lab are one of them here on campus?
Yes, I'm with the sustainable intensification innovation lab.
So I guess, just to start out, what are the USAID Feed the Future labs?
Okay, so the Feed the Future program is an arm of USA ID. And so really, that arm is probably the smaller arm when you really look at their entire portfolio. And it's specifically designed to do it's a research for development arm. And so it's designed to engage with US universities, in order to create research projects to investigate certain questions that kind of perpetuate issues in food systems around the world. And so we currently have four of those labs, I think there's like 26 of them total 24 of them something like that. And they're, they're scattered around the United States, certain universities have multiple other universities have, you know, one and and they are targeting either specific value chains, or targeting certain concepts that apply to certain value chains. So a concept based lab would be like the sustainable intensification innovation labs, so it's more of the concepts around sustainable intensification as they apply to agriculture production food production, versus the sorghum and millet innovation lab that we have here is is focusing on how do we see improvements in sorghum and millet within the target countries.
And I want to ask when you said value chain so you mean a particular product or stock?
Sorry, I didn't really know that's good. As we've talked a lot about value chains I'm sorry. Yes. So a value chain would really be you know, how does a certain product like sorghum or wheats, meat milk move from farm all the way into a consumers home.
So specifically, what does the sustainable intensification Innovation Lab do? And I guess more broadly, how do you define sustainable, right? That's a word that gets thrown around a lot.
Yes. And it's not that's not the first time anyone's ever asked me that question. So it's really what the sustainable intensification Innovation Lab is focusing on. And the definition of sustainable intensification is, how do you keep up the level of production from an agricultural perspective, or at least, you know, keep it up or increase your productivity without increasing the amount of land and resources that you're using to do that. And so it's really looking at, you know, as we move forward, we're not getting more land, and we're probably not getting more resources. And so how do we conserve the resources that we have, while also maintaining really productive food production, because the population is going to increase as that those constraints on the resources continue to happen. And so that's really what sustainable intensification, innovation labs looking to do. And so we've got different types of sustainable intensification, projects happening all across the world. We have six target countries, to in West Africa, which are Senegal, and Burkina Faso, to an East Africa, that's Ethiopia, and Tanzania, and then to in Southeast Asia, which is Cambodian Bangladesh. And so we have different value chains that we're targeting within those countries, we have different practices being used, but they all apply back to that concept of, you know, sustainably, creating agricultural production without causing more stress on the resources that we already have limitations to.
So what are some examples of projects that you're working on one of these countries.
So I personally am not engaged per se on a given projects. So that's the other thing about innovation labs is that Kansas State is the management entity of the sustainable intensification innovation lab, or the sort of minimal Innovation Lab. But as part of that, there's sub awards in which we have given to different institutions in order to conduct research. So we're involved in the research, but not I'm not necessarily a lead on, say, a given project or a coPI i on a given project. And so some examples of what we are doing, though, is we have projects in Senegal that are really looking at Integrated Crop livestock systems, and how can you use sort of resource recycling in those systems? And what are the major opportunities or constraints within that type of a system? In Cambodia, we are focusing on horticultural production from a smallholder perspective. So women are really engaged in vegetable production in the country of Cambodia. And that project is specifically working with women to see how, you know, if you engage women in a project, does that then, you know, increase their knowledge and capabilities and the resources that they have to to be stakeholders within a given value chain. And so that project is really looking at can we use conservation ag practices on vegetable farms, and then engage women in order to see if that has any impact on the sustainability as well as the production level of vegetables there? And, and we have lots of others. And but I think that I, like I said, not being super intimately involved in some of those projects, it's hard for me to kind of comment exactly on all of them.
Sure. So, since you're involved with a lot of the projects, what are some of the biggest challenges that you that you see? And what are some of the ways that people are going about trying to solve them?
So, you know, I think from my perspective, personally, there's a few major challenges that I think we face from different levels. And so I want to start off by sort of highlighting the challenge of conducting research in a developing nation context, because it's not as straightforward as we think about research here at Kansas state's right. So if to put it very much in my realm, if I wanted to do a project to look at the prevalence of salmonella in a certain product in the United States, it'd be pretty straightforward for me to to do that. Right. We have the lab capacity for it. We have the student workforce for it, we have the Compliance Office is here to support us in all of that. And, and so you have, from an administrative perspective all the way down to undergraduate help you have the modalities for that. We spend a lot of time working on capacity development from a research perspective. And that becomes a lot more dynamic than it sounds. Because you begin to start having conversations like, okay, there is no governing board for biosecurity levels in the whole country. But I need to make sure that I'm bringing good practices in and that I'm not teaching students that it's okay to throw pathogens in the trash, right. And so you still want to be able to create that capacity. But you sort of have to do it without your common, right without the infrastructure. And so that's definitely a challenge. And I think the more we move into some of these research areas, such as food safety, or even that medicine, where some of those those laboratories become a little bit, not as straightforward as say, doing some agronomic work, where you kind of have the land space, and you can do some of those trials, it does become more interesting to begin to say, Okay, how do we not only bring research projects into wherever it is that we're working? But how do we also, you know, create that capacity so that when the projects over our partners have that sustainability in what's happening? I think so from a second perspective, trust. And I think that everybody kind of boxes me a little bit when I kind of go into this, but I'm learning more and more that research and collaboration is very much based on mutual trust. And whether or not you and your collaborator recognize that, that you're both there to support and to help in that situation. And I do think in development work, we need to be really conscientious about creating the same types of trust and collaboration that we would with any US based partner that we would engage with. And there tends to be some challenges in some of that, because you have to spend a little bit more time than you naturally would. So it takes time for someone to go okay, yes, I believe that you're here to help support me and that, that we're going to work collaboratively collaboratively on this. And so that might mean a few more trips to Cambodia than you had anticipated. So that you can build that trust. And your partners do feel like you're there to partner with them. And be engaged for the long term and not just sort of show up say here, here's a project, here's some funding and we need the final report by August's, you know, I think that spending time on the ground is really, really valuable. And in that can be a challenging thing. From a, you're trying to manage a position within your home institution in the US and also trying to really create that level of trust with your partners in other countries. From a food systems perspective, we are lagging behind in research, specifically for animal source foods. So it's it's challenging to do, say like a livestock feeding trial in in some of these countries that we work in, because where do you find 30, similar cows to put on a feeding trial that you can, you know, do all the randomization that you need in the blocking that you need to make sure that you have control of all the other variables? Right, salutely. And again, like I said, and not to suggest the agronomic data is super straightforward to collect, but you you don't necessarily have the same challenges in saying, okay, you know, we were going to take some of these fields and get some people engaged. And we'll do some trials from a agronomy perspective, livestock is a much more challenging resource to find. And people tend to in developing nations look at livestock as somewhat of like a kind of a walking bank. Right? So they're valuable. Yeah. And so they're a little less likely to be like, sure, take my cow, because no, I need that cow. Because if something happens, I know I can take that cow and sell her for $800 in comparison to the, you know, maybe couple, you know, 20 $30, I'll get for a few bushels of wheat. And so I'm not going to just kind of throw her around to anyone who's asking for and so that would be one area and then I think as we move more into issues of like, food safety, that medicine, that those are under researched areas in developing nations.
So I've got a lot of questions about this. But one of them is related to this bit about trust. And so one of the things that you highlighted there is that you don't always necessarily have the same goals. Right. So there's other things right, sort of, you know, you want to study and learn something, right. But other people have to be worrying about other things, right, sort of as they're being involved in the study. Right? So how can you say more about sort of how you negotiate that, and sort of, you know, that there's, I mean, this happens in a lot of research, right, sort of human subjects research is sort of sometimes like this, right? Sort of, you want to learn something, but you have to ensure that, you know, you're taking care of the patient, right, and that the patient's health is coming first, right? And, you know, sometimes those come apart a little bit, right, you know, jeez, it would be really neat if we could learn this thing, but we'd have to put people at risk. So we're not going to do that, right? Could you like highlight some other ways that like some ways that happens and the kind of research you're talking about?
Yeah. So I think a really good example that we had happen is we work pretty significantly in Ethiopia. And that's a country where I have several projects happening. And it's that country is very near and dear to my heart. But it has definitely had some challenges in the last few years from a safety perspective, just because there's some differences in opinion from a political standpoint. And so it's really been challenged in trying to create cohesiveness from a full population level. And so you kind of get into these situations where you begin to start asking, Okay, well, it's not super safe currently, to just be traveling around the country. We do have research sites in all these different places, because that's how rigorous data is collected, right, we do some sampling here and there. And that's how we're able to, you know, have our random sample that's hopefully indicative of the whole population. But I'm working, you know, with a certain region, and it's not necessarily safe for them to go into another region at this point in time. And so you begin to start saying, Okay, so what's the right thing to do? Is it to try to hold off on our timelines? Or do we need to try to stick to our timelines? And sometimes as a scientist, that's hard, right? Because you want to say, No, I've been trained to, I want to do it based upon the timelines that we've identified this as the proposal we turned in, these are the documents that were being held accountable for. And we have to stick to these things. But at the same time, you kind of get into this place where it's like, but I'm not going to risk, you know, the health of my colleagues, or put them in a position that makes them super uncomfortable to make sure that we stick to our timelines, because I'll tell you one thing that doesn't translate Ethiopia very well, from a cultural perspective is just timelines. They are I mean, they've got this new common phrase, they say chigger, Elam, which means no problem. And they kind of live in this space of, it's okay, if this doesn't happen exactly now, or exactly how we said it would, because we'll get there it's going to happen. And in the US, we tend to not think that way at all. It's No, you said this was going to happen today at two o'clock. And it's 205. And it hasn't happened. And so you know, there's a big learning lesson for me in that, which is that I am, even if I am the lead of a project, I am there as a support team member to the incontri institutions, because, because that is how it needs to be. Because if we want to see development in the ways that we want to see it, it needs to be my own country, colleagues who are really gaining the opportunities. And so I can't just drive that point and drive over them in order to make sure that I'm keeping to say, a US based timeline that I think is really important. And so that's kind of one example that we've particularly had to manage. And I've just had to kind of learn to take some deep breaths on things, and learn how to just be honest in reports and say to our funding group, this is happening. We're managing it to the best that we can, and these are the strategies we're using to manage this. But we're in a situation where our colleagues really should not be visiting that research site at this time. And we can't tell you when that's going to get better. And it's going to depend upon all of these factors that we can't control and I'm sorry.
Do you think funding agencies recognize the challenge of doing research internationally like this? So they're understandable?
I do I, you know, so we work with both USA ID and USDA, FAS. And they are, in my opinion, really easy to work with from that perspective, they're, they're very willing to say, okay, you know, we work in this space, too, we understand the challenges of doing research in environments where you can't control all the parameters. And you know, we just need, we just need you to write us up a paragraph that tells us what, what is happening, and we can support you as we move forward.
It's great, because I come from experience in the past, or they have tried to really control things. And it's just resulted in the collapse of projects completely, or
I think that there's a lot of lessons that have been learned from a development research for development context, and no mean and just a natural development context. And if you look into development, research and work that's being done, there is evolution that is really beginning to happen. Where, you know, maybe in the past, we haven't really considered too much. From a truly agricultural productivity research standpoint, we haven't stepped back and said, Well, how does human nutrition have impact that? How does you know the role of gender influence some of the outcomes? How does the role of climate and resources and economics and I think that that's the if you look at the types of projects that are being funded across the board, from a development standpoint, those are all becoming factors that they want you to address that Hey, weren't we're not really interested in you just testing X y&z varieties of wheat? We also want to know whether or not that's appropriate for the people who are looking to use it, whether or not it's appropriate for the community or the country in general? And does it have any impact on health or on social dynamics, cultural dynamics? So I do think the development has kind of done a trial, air look back, adjust trial air look back adjust approach to how they've moved forward.
From a research standpoint, it's not all just about, in fact, a lot of the issues have nothing to do with the particular variety of wheat or whatever, right, sort of their, their social and economic and right, you know, all these other things. Yeah. So, one of the major things that you mentioned a bunch of things, but sort of in the difficulty of doing some research, but what do you most want to learn in some of these areas that you're working in?
Oh, that's such a good question. Well, so you know, my interest always comes back to more of a public health perspective. And I do think, and there is a lot of movement currently happening from that side. Right. So what does this all mean for human nutrition? What does it mean for enteric? Disease? What does it mean for child development? So that's very much happening, something I want to learn and would love to see become, you know, a major part of what we are looking to do in development is how do we create better food safety systems that are contextually appropriate? Right? So not just saying, well, here's how we do food safety in the European Union. Here's how we do food safety in the US plug this in, it'll work that's currently happening.
And it doesn't work. Yeah.
Surprise, surprise, right, you look into I mean, I can go right now to the Ministry of Ag, or the Ministry of Health for any given country in Africa and find a pretty well thought out food safety program. And that's not to say that they don't have the full intention of actually making that happen. They just, at this point in time, don't have the capacity, from several levels from a agricultural production perspective, from a ministry and governance perspective. And from a private industry perspective, you just don't have the same system. And so for me, I would really love to learn, how do you do that? What are some of the things that do translate quite well? And then how do we kind of take the things that translate, move them into other countries other regions and and start to see that grow? And I think that that is going to be a lot of what I will hopefully spend most of my life doing.
We'll see. So how do you measure progress and things like this, right? I mean, I mean, you're talking about very big thing, big social problems and that sort of thing. What are some ways in which you guys assess that you are moving forward?
Number one lesson of my career And, and it was a hard learned lesson, you cannot focus on some of these big things that you think you want to focus on. Right. So I think when I was being trained, and coming up through my PhD, right, I measured progress very differently. And so you kind of want to see all of a sudden, a new food safety program happening in a given country and you you want to see people engaging in that, and you don't want there to be corruption, and you don't want there to be, you know, all of these things that play into why certain food safety programs are not successful. And that's just not going to necessarily happen, probably even necessarily my timeline. And we think of Norman Borlaug a little bit, right, because I don't think that he, I think he knew that he had an influence, but I don't think that he recognized in his lifetime, the impact that his research really would ultimately have. And, and so I think focusing on some of those big things is just maddening. And so, from my perspective, progress that I tend to try to measure is things like, again, I know that I'm kind of moving back into social perspectives, but you know, does the university that I'm working with in a given country have higher laboratory capacity, then when I started, are my colleagues in, you know, whatever country I'm working with, gaining more access to publications, gaining more access to attending international meetings, where they'll benefit from the conversations that are happening, you know, it has to be those things, because those are, those are the most tangible things that are in front of you at that time. And, you know, we may be doing some really great stuff that 10 years from now will come into fruition, the challenges is that there's this whole value chain that needs to occur, right, so we might produce the data, you know, now, I mean, one of the big things that we're seeking to do is there's very little data on just, you know, what is within from a bacterial pathogen standpoint, within a vegetable value chain within a meat value chain for a given country? And then, you know, how do we create good surveillance programs, you know, that's we're very much in the grassroots of a lot of that. And so that information may be taken up 10 years from now, the right governance is applied, and then things start to move. But that's 10 years from now. And so I think, for me, progress has to be measured in these small things, particularly students, you know, I mean, students and getting maybe get a little bit, you know, emotional because the students that we're engaging in, in some of these countries are just so wonderful, they are so excited to be given the opportunity to engage in the research and to meet someone that's outside of their culture, and to try to understand something that's, you know, that is new and fresh, and they're just motivated beyond belief to show up, right, they'll show up on a Saturday, they'll show up on a Sunday, they don't care, they want to be there for it. And so for me, it's like, great, we're training, you know, so we have a project in Cambodia, where we're working on laboratory capacity with the Royal University of Agriculture. And we have about 25 undergraduate students that have showed up to absolutely every sample collection that we do every lab day that we've done, and I know that we're going to leave that project, and there's going to be this whole group of undergraduate students who, you know, without the project may have had access to all of that, but may not. And I know that as I leave that, that, that they did, and that I learned a lot from them in that process. And my graduate students learned a lot from them. And, we hopefully bestowed a lot of information and, and talents or sorry, skills is the right word that they can use.
Credit and gratitude can be a pretty powerful thing, right? I mean, that's something we kind of take for granted, maybe in the US where access to education resources is, you know, much more ubiquitous and easy, right?
There is definitely a level of gratitude that you can witness in a very big way, in a lot of the work that we do, and I do think, you know, I think our poor students sometimes get a bad rap, but and they have, you know, I think that there's a lot of gratitude to be had in the US too. And you know, and part of that is we, you know, I just got back from Ethiopia and I taken a undergraduate students with me that had shown Lots of interest from the first time she showed up on campus. And, you know, she'd written me this, this thank you letter. And so I, you know, I think that that's, that's kind of the to hinge part of the gratitude, right. So I think there's a lot of students here at Kansas State, that would be very grateful for the opportunity to go somewhere like Ethiopia or Bangladesh and, and not just go to around and see, but go and sit in on the meetings and, and conduct the research and be a part of that. And then the students in those institutions within the countries we're working in, are very grateful for the opportunity to work with those young people, because they see you right there. I mean, it's really easy to look across at someone that's the same age as you and who is similar to you, and have this really rich interaction versus, you know, me and a young student, there's, you know, we kind of get into a little bit of this, you're, you know, you're a doctor, and I'm just an undergraduate student, and so there's not maybe necessarily that same level of camaraderie in it. And so I really do believe in sort of taking students with me and giving students there that opportunity to to interact with a student from Kansas State, because it's really powerful thing.
So you said, you mentioned that you do have graduate students? Do you have a sort of a structured approach that you take to including them? And that sort of thing? Or? Or do you just kind of is it just kind of project dependent?
I think that they would probably suggest that I don't have very much structure to anything that I do. I am, I'm one of those professors who's super lucky, because I have two students that are just wonderful. And so might as well just give a shout out to them right here right now. They're, they're both wonderful. I would say that what I, the approach I took was that I needed students to be engaged in these projects that I have, in a way that I felt they could sort of take forward some of the research, right, so that I wasn't focusing much on, you know, on the ground, you know, sample collection methods, those types of things, even though I mean, I try to be as heavily engaged as as I possibly can. I also really wanted to provide an opportunity for the two of them to, to begin to start connecting the dots in a lot bigger way. So I'm a really big believer in critical thinking, my trainers, my trainers, my advisors, they're kind of like, my advisors, we're big on that as well, right? It's not just about, here's the research, here's how I did it, these were the findings, but then how does that fit into the greater concepts that exist. And so I really wanted them to have an opportunity to not only be trained, technically Well, in food, microbiology, but to also have a chance to go and be in a country for periods of time. And so you know, they've gone and they've spent a month before they've spent, you know, a couple weeks here and there, they've made several trips, they've made relationships. And so I think that they're starting to really see how what they're doing in the lab really translates back to some of the bigger questions that we have from a development context. And and so I don't know, I think maybe I went off a little bit from what your question was asking. But so I kind of had a two fold, if you will. So they are they do train in a lab, they know how to do you know all the food, like you gotta have the basics, right? But they've been asked to do it in this very uncontrolled environment. And the two of them have just exceeded my expectations. They've gone in to lab that didn't have anything in it. And they've made it this functional lab that has pipettes and vortexes and all the cool lab stuff. And that's all based upon their hard work and effort. And I couldn't be prouder of the two of them. They're just fantastic. Very cool.
Nice job graduate students. Keep up the good work.
And if you know any great graduate students that are highly motivated, we'd love to take them on. So.
Excellent. Sounds good. Well, we want to be respectful of your time. But is there anything else that you think that people should know about the kind of work that you're doing or that they may not understand? They would like to look to a topic you'd like to approach.
Well, I was talking about bi directional learning. And I think that is an important piece to what we do. And and sometimes I do think it gets a little bit forgotten. But there's a lot that we can learn from the research that we're doing. And sometimes I get into conversations where people tend to, you know, not necessarily wrongfully think but think that, you know, Kansas State is taking these researchers to Cambodia to Ethiopia and providing, right we're bringing information we're bringing them in. And we absolutely are. But there's a lot of really highly trained people, technically savvy people that we're working with all the time. And we learn a lot from those endeavors. And I do think that a lot of the research that we are seeking to do doesn't just answer questions for Cambodia. It answers questions for Cambodia, but it also I think, gives insights into how does that translate into something that's powerful for the United States or something that's powerful for for the European Union's so I think particularly from a food safety perspective, right, the more we understand about, you know, foodborne pathogens throughout the world, the more we understand how those pathogens move and end up transmitted. And so, you know, there's a trade issue, there's a public health issue there. And that doesn't just that, you know, that's not border controlled concept, that concept impacts all of us. And so, and I think there's a lot of examples of that throughout the Feed the Future programs is how do we do research that definitely supports development helps you move people along, but is super important for just global food production, and global health? And, and I think that that's been a mission of mine, all along the way is, you know, how do I do things that helped me learn and grow? And, and hopefully, I'm engaging with colleagues that see, you know, want to do that with me. And I think we've been very lucky to, you know, we've got such great collaborators around the world, really intellectual and interesting people who helped me see the world in a whole different light. And I feel like I've grown, you know, 10 years in the last three, because I've had these opportunities to sit across from these super wise people who understand things differently.
Yeah. So how much of that is the different context the different different problems that they've been dealing with? Or sort of, you know, the different infrastructural contexts, right, so for the food safety bait, like, we've got all this, as you said, infrastructure, so they're, they've been investigating other ways of handling some of the same issues? Is it? Is it? Is it a lot of that?
Yeah, you know, I think that and honestly, there's a lot of nations around the world that have issues that are threats to the United States, and when we are lucky, not lucky, because we've got great people working on the safety of our food supply, and our animal supply and our green supply. And so, you know, that's not just happening, it's not just a coincidence, but there's definitely so you know, I always use the example of Foot and Mouth Disease, you know, we are we've, we've had really great strategies to keeping that out of us. But it's always there, it's always a risk. And there's a lot of nations around the world that that they deal with it all the time, right foot and mouth disease is, is a disease that exists within their country, and they're having to manage it. And so there's a lot, there's a lot we can learn. And I always use the example of you know, the sorghum and millet innovation lab actually got to be involved in engaged in something very similar to that, you know, based on the great work that they're doing, there was a pest an insect that came into the US maybe, see, I'm gonna get the story wrong. But, you know, that came into the US it had never been here before, it was a very serious threat to sorghum production. And, you know, one of the researchers here at K State was just happened to be engaged with with researchers that knew all about it. And they were able to get ahead of it and and do the, you know, the appropriate steps to try and manage that for you know, sorghum producers in the United States. And that was because of, of a collaboration that was because of mutual trust. And and this hard work that the sorghum and millet Innovation Lab and Kansas State researcher had put in, and so we're learning things all the time. That's very cool. Yeah, help us.
So the message is partly, there are a lot of issues we all have. We all share we have to work together to address right and there are a collective group problems, right? But also, then the knowledge is, you know, it's gonna take all of us, right. So there's absolutely not just us saving the world, obviously, right?
You know, I mean, I do, I just think that there's such a value to, particularly from a food perspective to really understanding how food moves and the challenges to food production around the world, because we're not going to be able to, to not participate in the the challenges that are in front of us. And I do think that those challenges have been fairly well characterized at this point in time. And so and I do, I think Kansas State researchers agree, I think we were excited to be engaged in research that's helping to overcome some of those challenges or fill gaps. And the more people that we can engage with in different spaces and different nations around the world, it just, it helps the world it helps Kansas, you know, it helps us all individually. And so I'm a big believer in, in the research that we are doing, and activities that are happening. Excellent.
So I have to ask, is there been any, like amazing food you've been exposed to around the world that you wouldn't have otherwise been?
I'm a foodie. So you have to understand that about me. So I love Southeast Asian food. And there's so there's this great quote by Anthony Bourdain about how, you know, he was meant to slurp noodles out of a bowl, sitting in a colorful plastic chair in Southeast Asia, and I couldn't agree more. I just I think Southeast Asian food is really fantastic and dynamic. And nine times out of 10, there's a head involved, but you know, I've grown to kind of like get past some of that stuff. And and really recognize, like, particularly Asia, just the spices, and the types of ingredients that are available to them are really just dynamic and beautiful. And I love food. Anyways, in would describe food as beautiful. But their food is particularly beautiful in the context of of all foods.
Yeah, it's important. Remember that perspective, right? I hit on a plate or something is normal to some cultures for their food system?
Well, I think that, so this, this could be a whole podcast. But I do think it's also interesting to begin to start to look at, you know, how do people eat around the world, and, it's definitely different. And there's no better or wrong way. But there's definitely differences in how people eat. It was funny, we had some Cambodians who came to visit, and they're always treating me to just beautiful food. And I tried, I really did. Try and find some foods that I thought would be fun. And they were super gracious and tried absolutely everything. But by the end of the trip, they were interested in maybe getting some Thai food or something that, you know, in some way, looked like home. And I think that that's kind of one the more beautiful things about food is that we kind of want to put it in the sciences production perspective, all the time. And there's just such a beautiful emotional connection, I think with food that everybody has, whether they want to admit it or not, you know, there's, there's something about home, in, in the foods that we eat, and the foods that we like, in foods can take us to such a place and memory. And I think that that's a special thing about food, which is why I believe in producing it and, and saving, you know, keeping it safe and and making sure that people all people have access to it, because I think that's a beautiful part of human existence is that you get to share in food and food consumption.
It occurs to me, I wonder how much sometimes food safety seems to me to work against the beauty of food. Right, you know, right, and art of cooking. And so, how much of the way, the way you're just talking about food there and you know, being so focused on food safety is kind of curious, right? In a sense, because they're two very different ways of approaching food. Right. And then it and internationally. I imagine some of the recommendations, some of the food safety recommendations might not play out nearly as well as they would sort of maybe here where we're more used to hearing certain kinds of recommendations, right, you know, don't eat food, you know, unless it's been cooked to a certain amount or you know, whatever. Right. So how does that play out? You think in New York.
So I mean, I have several food safety friends who love oysters, and they're just always gonna love oyster There's raw oysters. I love them. Yeah. And I personally, I mean, I think it feels like swallowing a looky loo. So I don't have nearly that personal connection with rosters, but they love raw oysters. And I think that people can tend to think that food safety is more about the do's and the don'ts. But for me, you know, I think food safety is a really dynamic discipline. And there's always a risk to be calculated. Right. And so I think that that is entirely risk free, nothing's risk free. And I think that individual people can kind of calculate that risk for themselves. And so for me, I always tell, you know, people that hey, I'm a pretty good risk assessor. And so there's certain foods that I know, probably, I have a high likelihood of vomiting, and I don't like to vomit. Now, my friend, my friend, Dave, he seems to not worry that much about vomiting, he kind of can push through it, and he would rather eat the street food is valuable to him. Now, does that change the science around it? No. I mean, he's definitely a public health stat. I mean, we're gonna keep we're gonna put him in a number of foodborne diseases. But at this point in his life, you know, he is young, he's healthy. He doesn't have you know, any, you know, immuno compromised disease, you know, or he's not immuno compromised. And so he vomits. And that's about it. Now, as he gets older, he might want to think about that differently. Right. And so I think that people tend to kind of think about food safety as, as that we're like, the people who are there to say, No, you don't get to do anything fun. Versus can we take what we know, to apply strategic interventions to a value chain to try to make it as safe as possible? We can't make there's no such thing as 0% in food safety, but we can make it as safe as we possibly can. And then what's the role and responsibility of consumers in their decision making? And so you know, I think we've got a lot of great science that can help us get to that food value chain, and safe food value chains perspective, and then education extension programs that can help consumers think through what is their risks associated. And then I think there is a part of it, where you sometimes you end up vomiting, particularly if you're gonna eat your street food.
But you know, maybe sometimes it's worth it.
Well weigh that risk a little bit. And I by no means him, you know, cheering anyone on in that area, as I think as a food safety scientist, I wish to just, you know, maybe don't do this, I really don't do this at home. I'm not a big believer in like swallowing raw eggs, and things like that. But then again, like I said, I've got lots of, you know, epidemiologists, food, microbiologists, food safety scientists around me that eat things like gras, oysters and tar tar. And they just say, Hey, I've assessed the risk, and I don't I'm not that worried about it.
And just one one last question that I have for this sort of off topic. But one thing I've heard a lot is that there are foreign corporate entities that are investing a lot in agriculture in developing countries, is that something you've seen at all in the countries you've worked in? Or no?
So which, which companies?
Are you not even necessarily like, chemical companies or anything like that, but like wealthy individuals buying up large tracts of land, you know, whether they be from China, or I know, Brazil is investing a lot in South and Southern Africa, is a way of providing possibly another source of food for their own home country, as anything that you've witnessed or not really.
So yeah, I mean, to some degree, in most countries, even our own, you can see things like that happening, where there's investor foreign investment occurring. And I mean, I think that there's someone wiser to comment on some of those issues than me, what I think is very valuable from a global food systems perspective, is that we try to manage equity as best as we possibly can. And equity is always a huge question in lots of different areas, right. And equity is different than equality a little bit, you know, and so we're looking at how do we kind of help support certain groups so that they have the advantages that are maybe afforded to other groups? And so for me, I think that there always has to be a question of equity involved in the things that we're doing. And I do think that there's a lot of private industry investment that's seeking to do Things like that. So I think that lambda lakes would be a really good example of that. They have obviously, their, you know, products that they produce that they have interest in. But there's also this really cool research arm that they have, that has a development perspective to it. And they're doing some really great things, particularly in East Africa, looking at milk and kind of butter production and some of those things. And, you know, one of the questions that they commonly ask in the research that they're doing is, you know, how do we help creates opportunity for for the people that we're working with and around? And so I guess that that's where I will, I will come down on that, as I think that no matter who the development group is, whether it's research, whether it's private industry, whether it's government, NGOs, which would be non government organizations, you know, that we kind of always have to go back to that question of equity. And are we engaging in a way that helps everyone get involved.
or the capacity building we were talking about before?
Absolutely, and private industry. And I know, I'm just talking, talking, talking, but private industry has a huge role to play and it's very unengaged, not necessarily, from because they don't want to be engaged, but I think that there's been a lot of challenge in identifying how private industry can engage in some of the development that's happening. And, you know, where's the benefit for both sides in that? And so, you know, there's a lot of discussion around, you know, does it make sense for private industry that already exists in places like Brazil or the United States European Union to go and engage there? Or does it make sense to kind of try to do some grass roots entrepreneurship, particularly with youth, there's a lot of discussion around youth entrepreneurship in different contexts, to create that private industry. And depending upon who you are, I think You think differently about both those two sides. But from my perspective, it's a underdeveloped part of development. It's super necessary. And if there's anyone from private industry listening, I think that, you know, take a look, lots of opportunities, lots of opportunities there. And there are lots of young people in some of the different countries that we work in, who are really energetic, motivated, bright people, and they don't have the opportunities that are as vailable in the United States. And so I think you would find a workforce that is super excited to get an opportunity.
Great. Well, we certainly appreciate you taking the time to talk to us, is there any way people can get in contact with you, they would like to share where they can find more information? Sure, yeah. I mean, your email address anything like that.
But what I will say is, that Kansas state's, you know, is highly engaged in this conversation, I think that from all the way up, from an administrative side down to a researcher side, down to a student side, we have people who are really excited to do these types of activities. And that's if you want to look into what the innovation labs are doing, as well as just what individuals at Kansas State are doing. There's a lot of cool stuff happening, a lot of great researchers that are doing really important, robust science in this area. And I couldn't be prouder to be involved in Kansas state's efforts here because I think that it's a a exciting new frontier that Kansas State has decided to engage in. So please look into what Kansas State is doing from a global food systems development perspective. Great, thanks. Thanks a lot. Thank you. It's was really fun.
If you have any questions or comments you would like to share check out our website at https://www.k-state.edu/research/global-food/ and drop us an email.
Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.