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‘New Visions’ of food security from Cassandra Proctor

Intern Cassandra Proctor

Cassandra Proctor during her internship at the International Rice Research Institute (photo courtesy of Cassandra Proctor).

BTI intern Cassandra Proctor has developed a self-described “obsession” with food security.

The first-year plant science major at Cornell University developed a newfound fascination with plants through her internship in the lab of BTI Professor Maria Harrison her senior year of high school. That interest deepened through her involvement with Global Youth Institute and during a summer spent in the Philippines working at the International Rice Research Institute. Now, she’s excited about improving access to affordable, nutritious food, whether that means working for better, more sustainable crops as a plant scientist, or working outside the lab in the realm of policy and outreach. Food security touches so many other issues, said Proctor, that there are many ways to have an impact on this complex, global problem.

“Food security is a mixture of all the different aspects of agriculture. It’s not just growing the food, it’s transporting the food, it’s protecting the food from disease, and having markets to sell it in,” said Proctor. “It’s not just planting something in the ground – there is a lot more to it.”

Proctor began her work at BTI as a New Visions Intern with the Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services program. New Visions is an alternative school experience for seniors, which gives them the opportunity to complete their coursework while also exploring careers in the medicine and the life sciences. After spending her junior year abroad in France, Proctor was eager for a “real-life experience” beyond what she would encounter during a final year the familiar Trumansburg school system. She chose the life sciences track of the program, which enabled her to have a lab experience on the Cornell University campus.

An interest in genetics and a recommendation from a former BTI intern led Proctor to join the Harrison lab.

“I heard that it was a great place to intern at,” said Proctor. “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do plants, but I really enjoyed it here and now I’m majoring in plant science.”

She worked with former postdoctoral researcher Stephanie Watts-Williams, assisting her in a project to understand how underground fungi could be used to increase the growth of sorghum plants for use as a biofuel feedstock. Sorghum is also a staple crop in many African countries.

“Cassie was a genuinely interested and motivated intern, and it was an absolute delight to host and mentor her in the Harrison lab,” said Watts-Williams. “She is a budding research scientist who will be an excellent addition to the scientific community.”

During her time in the New Visions program, Proctor successfully applied to the New York Youth Institute, a day-long event held at Cornell that brings New York high school students in contact with researchers and policy experts to discuss the challenges we face in feeding the world’s growing population. Her application essay on food insecurity in Nepal, and the complex issues that accompany food aid to the country, also won her a spot in the 2015 student delegation to the Global Youth Institute, a three-day meeting hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation.

At the Global Youth Institute, Proctor was one of the 200 high school students from around the country that meet each year with international experts and global leaders in food security to discuss agricultural issues. Proctor also attended a Hunger Banquet – an event that simulates the stark realities of global food shortages and food insecurity, where a small percentage of the participants receive a full three-course meal, while the majority eat just a small cup of rice. She also helped package meals for vulnerable populations as part of the Kids Care International Outreach training program and attend the World Food Prize award ceremony.

Through her participation in the World Food Institute, Proctor became eligible for the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship, which supports an 8-week experience at one of 34 international agricultural research centers. Proctor traveled to the Philippines to work in a plant molecular biology laboratory.

While she enjoyed the research aspect of her internship, her experiences outside of the lab were the most memorable. Los Baños was the first place Proctor had lived where there was extreme poverty, which squatters living in shacks and children begging in the streets. On one occasion, two dirty, malnourished girls followed her through the streets asking for money.

“I don’t think that I will ever be able to forget the faces of those young girls,” said Proctor. “Little girls shouldn’t have to run down the streets begging for money; they should be in school. I want to work towards food security because no one should have to live that way.”

Upon returning to the U.S., Proctor began a challenging first semester at Cornell and resumed her work in the Harrison lab, now working with postdoctoral scientists Armando Bravo and Lidia Campos Soriano on Brachypodium, a model species that stands in for wheat.

But her experience in the Philippines has stayed with her, and is part of the inspiration that led Proctor to use her fall break to return to this year’s Global Youth Institute. At the 2016 meeting she served as a student leader, showing around first-time attendees. She was also part of a group that organized their own local hunger banquet in Ithaca, to show Tompkins county residents the realities of global food inequity.

“It’s another way to show the youth that this is a problem and you can do something to help,” said Proctor. “It’s a huge problem, but not one that doesn’t have a solution.”

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