Preliminary Instrument Testing

An FGD participant smiles in response to the discussion on diet. I have written this blog to be posted on the TCi blog, so expect that it will show up there in some form within the week. Here is the original (and somewhat lengthy) post:

Since arriving, the TCi Intern Team has taken great strides in the development of the Dietary Diversity module of the Minimum Nutrition Dataset for Agriculture, or MDNA. The majority of the work in the beginning was spent going over and discussing the survey instruments that we will be using to collect diet recall information from the women that we will survey in the field. This week though, we got to put these instruments to the test in some preliminary rounds of interviews, as well as conduct a focus group meeting. These tests helped us to identify both the positive and effective aspects of the surveys, as well as some areas that needed tweaking in order to be most useful for both our purposes, and for broad applicability in other places and contexts. This universal applicability concept has been one of the most challenging to integrate into our work. As a Masters student in International Development at Cornell, I often study projects that are highly contextual and oriented to specific regions and cultures. While this can be extremely beneficial, the goal of the MDNA is to be adaptable, flexible, and broad enough that it can be applied to many different contexts, allowing for the largest benefit in the effort to link agriculture and nutrition. We are hoping that by using this pilot, we will be able to achieve a set of instruments that are effective in collecting essential dietary diversity information not only in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, but also in other areas of India, Sub-Saharan Africa, and other agriculturally developing regions of the world.

This week, we have come even closer to achieving that aim. On Wednesday, we traveled to a village about an hour away from the ICRISAT campus. We had the opportunity to meet the two ICRISAT field workers that will be helping us during our village surveys next week, and work with them in this preliminary investigation to test the surveys. Each of us interviewed two women as to all of the foods they and their families had eaten in the past three days. This seems daunting—trying to recall out of the blue what you had for lunch two days ago— but the women were able to provide us the information we sought, and were excited to participate in the survey. In fact, the whole village was interested in our presence; several times the doorways to the houses we were in would become crowded with onlookers intrigued as to what we were up to. We returned back to the ICRISAT campus feeling rather sticky and tired, but satisfied with how the day had gone. We were able to discuss our individual experiences working with the survey device, communication matters with our enumerators, and dealing with other small issues that arose throughout the day and then translate them into useful revisions in the survey. These changes ranged from modifying page layouts to rephrasing questions to clarifying the purpose of specific sections. We are now feeling much more confident in using this survey device in the field when we conduct the piloting of the MNDA dietary diversity study.

The second big event of the week was a preliminary run of a focus group discussion (often referred to as an FGD, as everyone at ICRISAT and in the international development community loves giving things acronyms). This was conducted in a different village, also about an hour away. We had a really great turnout, with approximately seven women and ten men (plus two adorable toddlers) at the start, with some other villagers trickling in later. We had the help of two ICRISAT staff who have been incredibly helpful to use throughout our time here. The goal of the FGD was to see if the conversation starters we had identified would guide the discussion towards the information we wished to find out; what food do people normally eat, where do they get it from, and how much variation should we expect to see from seasonality and amongst those of different caste and class. Again, given this experience, we were able to make a few changes in the way we plan to conduct and record the FGD.

The biggest obstacle we see here is the language barrier. During this preliminary run, the moderator was a native speaker of Telugu, and could easily communicate with the FGD participants. He was sensitive to cultural issues, aware of the participants’ modes of thinking, and could easily probe participants who were remaining quiet, such as the younger women who were hesitant to contribute to the conversation. Unfortunately, we ourselves possess none of these skills. Rather, we will have to work through translators. We already know that our translators, the ICRISAT field staff who live and work in the villages we will be surveying, will be utterly invaluable in conducting these surveys. We will have to work hard to establish a rapport with them, and identify the communication needs that both they and we will have to contribute to have a successful working relationship. I am really looking forward to this process. After the FGD, we got to see a government-supported midday meal be served to the school children in the village, and went on a brief tour of the surrounding agricultural areas. This included a quick stop at a little hangout place, where workers came to sit in the shade and drink toddy brewed on the spot from the palm sap collected 80 feet off the ground by some very skilled climbers. Finally, we swung by a nearby bustling market, where vendors sold a considerable variety of interesting fruits, vegetables, and meats from tarps laid out along the street. Besides the culinary variety, we also got to experience some of the ethnic variety of India, observing at the market many members of different tribal groups that have maintained their traditional styles of dress.

We have now been working on revising and refining our survey instruments for the past two weeks. On Monday, we will take these into the field and begin our pilot testing of the MNDA Dietary Diversity survey. I speak for us all when I say we are anticipating this experience with excitement and determination to collect good data, feeling a little nervous but well-prepared for the work that lies ahead.

Summer In(dia)ternship

Chaos under stately minarets.

One week ago, I arrived after a long but problem free two-day journey at ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid-Tropics. ICRISAT is part of CGIAR, formerly known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which is comprised of 15 agriculture and rural technology research centers around the world. ICRISAT is one center of a global network of passionate scholars and professionals working on the issues of poverty, malnutrition, environment, and agriculture.

I am here as an intern for the Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative, or TCi (blog here). TCi is a long term program established through a $25 million endowment from the Tata Trusts, established by the same prominent Indian family as Tata Group and Tata Motors, ubiquitous throughout the developing world. The main goal of this program is the exploration of the links between agriculture and nutrition, and the use of these findings in poverty and malnutrition alleviation. TCi works through partnerships with various organizations, universities, and government entities throughout India. And thus, I find myself on the campus of ICRISAT, one of these partners. (For information on future internships with TCi, check out this page).

What we will be doing is collecting dietary diversity data several households in a variety of villages as well as the diversity available at the market in order to establish household access and use of a diverse diet, which has been shown over and over to be linked to better nutrition. This is part of a larger TCi project called the Minimum Nutrition Dataset for Agriculture, or MNDA, which seeks to identify the key components of a nutrition survey, and then establish a method to easily measure these components during agricultural surveys. The dietary diversity component is just one aspect. Other indicators of nutrition will include biological measurements such as blood spot tests and anthropomorphic indicators such as arm circumference. Eventually, these short modules can be added to agricultural surveys as an addendum. By collecting indicators for agriculture and nutrition concurrently, it is hoped that the link between these two aspects will become more evident.

This past week has been full of preliminary research and preparation. The first tasks we had to complete over this week were the design of our survey instruments. This is a challenging and vital aspect of the project, as not only do the results of our surveys hinge on the efficacy of these surveys, but also they must be obtained using a short, concise questionnaire to be administered in a minimum amount of time. Hence, the Minimum Nutrition Dataset… what indicators are most crucial in order to gain a reasonably accurate idea of the nutrition in a village, amongst individuals and families? It is a fantastic opportunity to work on a project as real and important as this, and to do so amongst the talented staff at ICRISAT and my fellow Cornell colleagues. We have begun to really develop into a team, and I look forward to getting out into the field, collecting survey responses, and contributing to the efforts to find the links between agriculture and nutrition.

Stay tuned for a lighter post on all the fun we had in Hyderabad this weekend and the ICRISAT lifestyle we’re living!

Centre d’Education Inclusif


This semester, I’ve had the opportunity to be part of something really cool: the development and planning of a disability-inclusive primary school in Haiti. This is yet another foray into the world of educational development for me, involvement it seems I never plan, but the need so big that I fall in anyways. Centre d’Education Inclusif, or CEI, is a student-led initiative at Cornell to design, implement, and establish a school in Petit Goave, Haiti that seeks to provide a quality education to children regardless of physical or learning ability. This need has been drastically amplified since the 2010 earthquake, as the population of permanently disabled children increased from injuries, and schools were destroyed across the country. The need was already there, of course… Haiti has somewhere around a 50% literacy rate, higher only than some of the most war-torn North African and Middle Eastern countries. It has drastically risen in the past few years, thanks to huge influxes of aid after the earthquake, but not all have benefitted equally from the assistance. Port-Au-Prince received the most help, while other areas, some hit just as hard or harder, were mostly neglected due to lack of infrastructure to support aid intake. Petit Goave is one of these areas.

During a March 2013 visit to Haiti, a group of Cornell students connected with a local philanthropist, who, through his organization Light Path 4 Haiti, was advocating the need for an inclusive school in his community. He had purchased the land, but lacked the academic resources necessary to design and implement the school in a successful and sustainable way. Thus, CEI was born, under the original appellation Project Inclusive School Haiti.

Throughout this semester, three student groups have been working on the architecture, curriculum, and business plan of CEI. The architecture group has come up with some amazing and accessible designs that utilize local materials in innovative and dynamic ways. The curriculum group has studied creative school pedagogies, strategies for inclusion, and inventive ways to adapt lesson plans to meet the needs of all students. And my group, the development team, has spent the semester conducting literature reviews, designing construction and operational budgets, analyzing potential partners, and even taking a spring break trip to Haiti to connect with stakeholders, the community, and to further formulate the future of CEI.

The coolest thing about this whole project is that it’s real. I’m sitting in a classroom, working on powerpoint presentations, staying up until 3 am working on Excel… but, everyone cross your fingers, the final result of everyone’s hard work will be a successful, sustainable, and life-changing school for the children of Petit Goave, Haiti. There is so much passion among these people, and they are absolutely ready to put in the time and effort to do this project right. It is inspiring to see and to be a part of. The support of the Cornell community has been instrumental, and I can’t wait to see where this project goes!

Cool and fresh


That’s today. It’s spring, we can tell by the flowers pushing up on every street corner and the interminable bird song from the heights of every budding tree, but it’s a crisp 34 degrees. It seemed that a light, quick, green lunch was on order for the day, so I made this fantastic cilantro noodle bowl.

Something about the words “noodle bowl” to me contain the essence of comfort, simplicity, and wholesomeness.

First, I should say that I don’t use recipes past a source of inspiration. I tend to look them over, get a general idea of whatever is being made, and start cooking as however the ingredient spirits move me. Some of you, however, are probably not as in touch with your culinary muse (although I know many of you are!) So here is a brief recipe for inspiration:

1 serving of Asian noodles of choice (I used wheat, but rice or buckwheat would also be yummy)
Cook as per directions, rinse with cold water.
Meanwhile, in a bowl mix about
2 tablespoons sesame oil,
1 tablespoon sweet rice seasoning,
1 tablespoon sushi vinegar (or white vinegar)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
splash of soy sauce
splash of fish sauce
Add to this:
chopped fresh cilantro (I used about 1/2 c. packed, but I am a cilantro fiend) 
grated ginger (mine was from a jar)

Add noodles, mix.

Yum! Have a great day, friends.


Every blog must have a first post.

The Narrows- Zion

Do you remember when the automatic tagline used to be, “Just another site” ? They’ve changed it since then, but maybe that’s what this is. I’ve been searching for awhile for a suitable platform to write the things I’m thinking about, and to share the things that move me. Tumblr isn’t large text friendly, blogspot felt dated. I’ve recently come across a few very elegant wordpress sites, and so that is where I am trying now. I’m hoping to post at least weekly on something in my life I feel worth sharing, whether that be to promote an issue or opinion, or just to flex the creative muscles in my fingertips. I’m not really sure what route these musings will take, but given the preview of the road I’ve traveled thus far, I can’t help but imagine at least a few interesting things will pop up here and there.

Regarding the title of this blog, ‘onwards’ has, for at least the recent years in memory, been a word that speaks to me. One of the saving graces in life is that time always moves forward. No matter what bad things happen to you, or around you, you will never be forced to repeat them. It’s over now, and the continued existence of those things and of what you felt depends on your continued dwelling in them, or push to put them behind you. Time always moves forward. It doesn’t stop. It doesn’t rewind. You’re not reading that last sentence now. Does it still exist? To find out, you must go back and re-read it… And if you just did, you created a copy that you just moved into your present. See how that works? You decided what your ‘now’ would be by selectively recalling the past, or choosing to keep moving forward and reading this sentence. If you embrace that power, it can be applied to so many aspects of your life in so many positive ways. Difficult conversation, painful memories, feelings of shame, frustration, aimlessness… do you want them in your present self, the only one you know to exist for sure right now? It’s up to you. So to this I say, onwards! I want to move forward, I want this present to keep pushing ahead, and the nature of time facilitates that so well. Let’s go, into the adventure of life!