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Learning and inspiration while getting down and dirty in the rice paddy

Though I never realized it until now, my life seems always to have revolved around rice.

When I was growing up in Hawaii, my family's pre-dinnertime ritual was for me to invite the adults for dinner. "Popo, chi fan. Mama, chifan. Baba, chi fan." Grandma, please eat. Mom, please eat. Dad, please eat. Chi fan, in Mandarin, literally means "eat rice" or "eat food."

Janelle Jung plows rice paddy in the Philippines

Janelle Jung takes a turn plowing a rice paddy in the Philippines behind a water buffalo. Jung took the Rice: Research to Production summer short course at the International Rice Research Institute in 2008 and returned in 2010 to help develop new opportunities for the course. See larger image

Until I did my graduate rotation in Professor Susan McCouch's lab, that was really all I knew about rice: how to eat it. Despite visiting parts of Southeast Asia as a child, I had never even seen a rice plant up close. After a semester in Susan's lab working with Asian rice's ancestral, wild species, Oryza rufipogon, Susan suggested I apply for the 2008 Rice: Research to Production summer short course at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.

The three-week course, a Cornell-IRRI collaboration that Susan helped develop, was more like rice boot camp. Our crew of 29 students and young scientists from 13 countries, rushed through a whirlwind dawn-to-dusk schedule of seminars, tours, fieldwork and trips centered around the rice science and cultivation work at IRRI and its national and international partners. When we weren't shivering in the air-conditioned classroom, listening to IRRI researchers explain how they were developing higher-yielding, stress-tolerant rice varieties, we were sweating in the humid summer, visiting field plots, screen houses and labs, seeing that work in progress. Nor did we get to sleep in on weekends. Instead, we escaped on 4 a.m. bus rides – to the beaches of Batangas one week and the breathtaking 2,000-year-old Banaue rice terraces and their farmers the next, getting to know the Philippines and each other a bit better.

Yet for me, as for many participants with plant science backgrounds for whom "hands-on research" meant tedious, exacting lab work, it was the opportunity to get down and dirty planting rice that got us most excited. Taking that first tentative step down into the mucky squish of a rice paddy or plowing a paddy behind a carabao – water buffalo – felt like a momentous plunge into a familiar new world. Soon I, too, was planting crooked rows of rice seedlings across the paddy, marveling that, unlike the words in the song my mother used to sing, planting rice is a lot of fun – especially when it involved laughing at each other's muddy faces for an hour.

Coming into the course, most of us wanted to learn more about rice cultivation, germplasm use, varietal development or cutting-edge genomics. Yet when we left the course, it was the insights we'd shared, the discussions we had and the relationships we built that we valued most highly.

That inspirational process wasn't always warm and fuzzy. My small group of three American women, a Filipino woman, a South Korean man and a Tanzanian man, all with different levels of experience and fields of expertise, had daily cultural clashes, disagreements and misunderstandings as we hashed out a team project proposal on improving rice production in Guinea that we presented on the last day of the course. But living through that process and learning to better listen, negotiate, include others and stand firmly for what I believed in is a learning experience I value.

It is precisely these experiences that Susan McCouch and Robert Zeigler, IRRI's director general, were hoping to encourage when they developed the course with the goal of educating and inspiring a new generation of scientists in international agricultural research and development.

When I was a little girl, it was almost a post-dinnertime ritual for my grandma to glance over at the half-eaten bowl of her granddaughter, a slow-eater, and say something like, "Eat the rest of your rice." Having some experience to appreciate the hard physical labor, scientific innovation and social cooperation needed to bring that rice from field to table, I like to think she'd be proud that I now finish every precious grain.

Janelle Jung is a graduate student in the lab of Susan McCouch, professor of plant breeding and genetics.

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