Hands-on rice research at IRRI inspires undergrads towards work in food security

Students in rice fields.
Illinois students in the IRRI rice fields.

Working towards international food security is a career aspiration for a group of College of ACES undergraduates after they spent six weeks conducting research at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.  

The Plant Science for Global Food Security (PSFGS) summer program, co-facilitated by ACES faculty member Juan Arbelaez, Department of Crop Sciences, and funded by the National Science Foundation, is unique in that it introduces undergraduate students to the type of hands-on work that previously only graduate students could participate in.

“We conducted experiments on a fungal disease affecting rice plants and performed both lab work and greenhouse work,” explains Mirai Inaoka, a senior in crop sciences.

Leaving with hands-on experience in field and lab work as well as working with the diverse group of backgrounds at IRRI, the students realized aspirations for their future careers.

Quentin Herzig, a junior in crop sciences, recalls, “Working in an environment where I could see directly how my work could impact lives was also incredibly eye-opening. IRRI was an incredibly welcoming institution full of passionate researchers brought together by the common goal of improving global food security, and that work culture was truly inspiring to participate in.”

Through coordinated field trips, the students traveled beyond IRRI to experience the culture of the Philippines.

Inaoka recalls, “The most memorable aspect was when we travelled to a rural rice farm and had the opportunity to interact and interview the farmers there. The responses that the farmers provided inspired me to pursue agricultural work in an international setting after I finish my education, because I feel that I can make more of a positive impact this way.”

Arbelaez was thrilled to see this year’s strong representation from Illinois and will soon be recruiting students for next summer’s program. With the funding through NSF, successful applicants get all major costs covered. Find out more information about the program here.

Sasha Zvenigorodsky recaps the intensity of the entire experience in the vignette below:  

I arrived at the campus of the International Rice Research Institute late at night on a bus shuttle, having spent the last 24 hours flying from one airport to the next before landing at my final destination of Manila, Philippines. I was joined by the rest of the students in my program, who I had just met at the airport hours (or was it days?) prior. Exhausted after passing through multiple time zones and airport security checks, I quickly fell asleep in my dorm room, completely unaware of the amazing experiences that would await me throughout the next 6 weeks that I would spend at my internship. During my time at IRRI, I would conduct exciting research on a major rice plant pathogen, learn magnitudes about global food security and rice production, meet amazing individuals from all parts of the world with similar values and goals in crop sciences, and be fully immersed in Filipino culture. I got to enjoy new foods and learn a new language. I sang more karaoke than I could have ever imagined, used motorcycles as my primary mode of transportation, ate meals off banana leaves, swam with jellyfish, hiked a volcano, and made friends with great people I never would have met if it weren’t for this program. Thanks to this IRRI internship, I am now certain that I want to pursue a master's degree in crop sciences, with hopes of participating in more international research opportunities in the future that focus on global food security and sustainability. 

The PSFGS is a NSF-funded International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) program.

PSFGS is currently accepting applications for summer 2023. Applications are due January 9, 2023. Students can find out more and apply here.