I am a PhD student at the University of California Berkeley in the department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM). Prior to arriving on the West Coast in 2011, I was Senior Editor at Seed magazine in New York City. I have a master’s degree in science writing from MIT and a biology degree from Williams College.
At Berkeley, I am a proud member of the Iles’ Lab, an eclectic group of grad students whose commonality might be described as a broad interest in how scientific and technological developments co-constitute the societal situations in which they occur. Like most STS folk, we think a lot about how policy processes are interactive and multi-layered. We also pay close attention to issues of human rights, justice, and relations of power.
While my specific research topic has yet to be defined, I’m heading in the direction of the social and political dimensions of sustainable agriculture. Specifically, I am interested in agroecology, food sovereignty, and the social movements promoting these concepts as twin pillars of a food system that is both just and resilient. Questions related to the scale of ‘sovereignty,’ the strengthening of farmer learning- and participatory research networks, the co-creation of traditional knowledge and biodiversity, and the evolution of agrarian citizenship top a long list of subjects I’m mulling right now.
Prior to arriving at Berkeley, I spent five years as an editor and writer for Seed, a magazine with a unique focus on the intersection of science and culture. My editorial niche was environment and development, and within that area, I often gravitated to stories related to sustainable agriculture and food security. In addition to working for the print and online editions of Seed, I was briefly the editor of Visualizing.org, a new platform dedicated to data visualizations. Throughout my time at Seed, one of my favorite projects was managing the Salon, in which we brought together natural scientists with artists, public intellectuals, architects, writers, and humanists for live conversations on a shared theme of interest – ‘truth and beauty,’ ‘the limits of knowledge,’ ‘evolution and altruism,’ among others. In 2010, we published the entire set of Salon conversations in the book Science is Culture. Another of my great joys at Seed was editing environmentally focused feature stories and managing the bi-monthly slate of book reviews.
Raised in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains by a Peruvian father and a Dutch mother, I landed in New York after graduating from Williams in 2002. There, I spent many happy hours in a microbiology lab, attempting to discern just how Agrobacterium tumefaciens manages to inject its DNA into a plant cell (the bit of microbial wizardry that researchers exploit when creating genetically engineered plants). After graduating, I took my interest in biotechnology to MIT, where I became intrigued by something I’d eaten nearly every day growing up in a Peruvian-Dutch household: rice. The religious, historical, culinary, and political significance of this grain – from Southeast Asian rice goddesses to South Carolinian slave labor, from ancient Cambodian irrigation systems to modern-day Cocoa Krispies – provided numerous narrative side roads in my master’s thesis, which centered on research to improve rice nutrition and yield. Golden rice, inter-cropping, and flood-resistant rice varieties became my vernacular, M.S. Swaminathan and Norman Borlaug, my Green Revolution heroes.
Indeed, well into my career as a science journalist, I believed that advances in agricultural technology would be the answer to ‘feeding 9 billion’ sustainably. I’m a bit mortified to say that I wrote several articles in this vein, some even outwardly critiquing the organic food and farming movement. But sometime in 2009, after reading a superb article on biodiversity conservation and food security, and soon after, a book called Nature’s Matrix, my technological determinism began to crumble. To cut a long story short, today I’m no longer of the mindset that food crises are a problem of production, or that malnutrition and hunger will be solved through re-jiggering plant genes. At Berkeley, where I’ve been exposed to some incredibly lucid thinkers in biodiversity conservation, agroecology, ecological economics, and geography, I’ve begun to reconstruct my understandings of agricultural systems from the ground up: Process, instead of product; cyclical relations, instead of boxes with inputs and outputs; farming systems that support, and are in turn supported by, ecological and social diversity.
Within the new Berkeley Diversified Farming Systems Center, I’ve found a community of scholars dedicated to researching these sorts of food systems. This discovery, in a way, has brought me full circle, to appreciating the indigenous knowledge that I grew up respecting in my Peruvian family, and the small scale, agroecological systems that have supported Andean communities since pre-Incan times. In my work now, I’m hoping to understand how agroecological food systems are embedded in learning institutions at multiple levels, and to suss out the political and economic contexts that can enable these relationships to thrive.