By Eleanor Burke
In a short video, the person behind the camera posed this question to a series of random people: “What is a phytopathologist?” Stupefied stares accompanied answers ranging from, “No clue!” to “Is it about dogs?” (Think Fido-pathologist.) The audience laughed uproariously—probably because it was a gathering of the American Phytopathological Society–some 1,500 of whose members attended their annual meeting last summer in the Rhode Island Convention Center.
Phytopathologists are specialists in plant diseases–doctors for plants, which, like people, can get sick and need medical attention. Why care about sick plants? Imagine one week in your life without them. No veggies, potatoes, or pasta; no meat or fish, since the drumstick on your plate owes its existence to plants, as well. Forget clothing, since fibers (even synthetics) originated as plants. In a plantless world, you would pretty much be living on water, wearing your birthday suit, and sleeping under the stars.
The sessions at the convention summoned visions of Greek mythological characters: Phytoplasma, Fastidious Prokaryote, Rhizosphere Ecology—yikes. But the keynote session, completely accessible to mere mortals, delivered a profoundly important message for scientists everywhere. The engaging speakers, Valerie Lantz-Gefroh and Evonne Kaplan Liss of the Center for Communicating Science (CCS) at Stony Brook University, urged the auditorium of scientists to re-think how they communicate their knowledge to the rest of us, because what they have to say is too important to get lost in the fog of research publications that most non-scientists—politicians, funders, policy makers, and commoners like us—can’t follow. Continue reading →
Published at www.Greenempowerment.org [Questions and responses edited for continuity.]
Patrick graduated from Purdue University in 2014 with a degree in Civil Engineering. While studying there, he participated in a team collaboration to develop a locally sourced, locally fabricated micro-hydropower facility in the rural community of Bangang, Cameroon, where he gained his early lessons in micro-hydropower (MH) as a sustainable energy solution for rural communities. He carried these lessons on to his work with Green Empowerment, first as an intern for our partner organization Tonibung in Malaysian Borneo, and more recently as a GE Fellow in Myanmar, where he has spent a year exploring the possibilities for GE collaboration in developing MH facilities for rural villages with no other access to electricity. The opinions he offers are his own, and not necessarily those of Green Empowerment or of the other networks mentioned in this article.
How did you decide to focus your work on Micro Hydro solutions to rural development?
I’ve always been intrigued by small hydropower production—especially with all the new technologies coming out. I love to geek out on solving the engineering problems—and nothing can match the cost per kilowatt of Micro Hydro, if it’s done right.
Fresh out of a one-year internship, you took on a Fellowship assignment as GE’s solo man-on-the-ground to explore MH possibilities in Myanmar. How did that feel, starting out cold and alone, and not knowing the territory?
It felt cold and alone! But I had a good foundation to stand on. Shortly after graduation in 2014, I had worked as a “deck hand” at an HPNet* practice-to-policy event in Myanmar. I photo-documented the event, and was fortunate to meet a number of local MH developers. Volunteering at that conference planted the seeds for my fellowship work this past year. [*HPNet = Hydro EmPowerment Network a community of MH actors whose mission is “Knowledge exchange for Community Micro Hydro in South and Southeast Asia.”]
Two key people paved my way into the MH community in Myanmar. GE’s Asia Regional Director, Gabe Wynn, had already established a solid landing environment for me. And HPNet’s Coordinator Dipti Vaghela guided my path to getting settled here. She also wasn’t shy about telling me the DO’s and DON’Ts about this work.
What sort of DO’s or DON’Ts did she recommend?
My early mentality was: “Find funding! Establish partners! Identify tech transfer opportunities!” But Dipti taught me that it’s not always about planting a flag for the rest of the world to see. Sometimes it’s important to stay behind the scenes.
Together with local developers we wrote a proposal to the biggest players—in the government and various bilateral development partners, for a Development Plan for Micro and Mini Hydropower Implementation of the NEP of Myanmar, using a Public-Private Partnership Approach. It lays a plan for the best chance for the MH sector to become sustainable. She taught me the important nuances of this proposal coming from local developers, not outside agents or NGOs. So the Small Hydro Power Association of Myanmar (SHPAM), a local practitioner’s association, authored the proposal, and we kept largely to the background.
What do you see as the most pressing issue affecting MH development in Myanmar?
Definitely the National Electrification Plan (NEP). It’s an ambitious plan which calls for 99% connection to the national grid by 2030, whereas currently only 30% of households are connected. The 1% not included in the grid-extension area would mostly access electricity through solar home systems, because they are too remote to connect to the grid before 2030, or maybe ever.
The target for sustainable MH mini-grids is primarily the half-million households in the “pre-electrification” zone, where their connection to the grid is 10-15 years out. MH is preferable to solar home systems for several reasons. Locally manufactured and maintained, it creates jobs in the local economy. And unlike solar, it runs both day and night, so it can power both income-producing end-uses like cottage industries, pumps, and rice mills, as well as evening household needs, and socially important facilities like schools and health care centers.
There are many—somewhere around 1,000—MH mini-grids built by private sector actors in Myanmar over the past 30 years, at a time when the former government was not paying much attention to rural electrification. These community-owned mini-grids are facing an uphill battle, because solar home systems can be implemented more quickly and on a larger scale than technologies like MH or biomass gasification, and the anticipated encroachment by the national grid is a disincentive for many MH mini-grid developers to pursue high quality sites, except in the most remote regions of the country. It isn’t clear what the new democratically elected government, led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), will do next. We hope to support our local partners, primarily the Renewable Energy Association Myanmar, make the case for MH mini-grids, and decentralized renewable energy solutions in general, as part of the new government’s energy planning process.
After your year of internship in Borneo, you blogged that “nothing trumps the culture element in community Micro Hydro. It is the single most accurate predictor of project success and failure.” Is that still your main takeaway, after a year in the field in Myanmar?
A Profile by Eleanor Burke
Four young professionals, guest speakers in a seminar class at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sat with a dozen freshmen in a circle of standard-issue college desks. All four wore the garb of their chosen profession: jeans, mud-splattered work boots, and flannel shirts. A pungent aroma of hay, horses, and earthiness pervaded the classroom. Something was not quite typically collegiate here.
The first speaker, a plucky young woman named Nell, her long auburn hair pulled into a charmingly unruly ponytail, asked the wide-eyed freshmen: “Have you had your life-changing moment yet, in John’s class?”
The savoir-farm Nell exuded had struck them speechless. “You will,” she said, “It happens to everyone.”
Nell was referring to John Gerber, the professor of this class and mentor to all four guests. Gerber had invited these recent graduates of the university’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture to talk to his first-year students in the Sustainable Food and Farming course about life after college—or more specifically, about how they managed to carry their agricultural degrees, skills, and knowledge into the real world of farming careers.
UMass Amherst, considered the flagship campus of the UMass system, grew in the Pioneer Valley soil in 1863 as Massachusetts Agricultural College, dubbed “Mass Aggie” back then. In recent decades, however, a focus on basic research has pulled the university away from its original roots, leaving only a tenuous connection to agriculture through an associate’s degree program and an ever-shrinking agricultural extension service, both on the brink of extinction. Until recently, that is.
On a tide of renewed interest in local, sustainable farming methods and food security, last summer the university reorganized its disjointed agriculture-related programs into the overarching Stockbridge School of Agriculture. It houses both 2-year and 4-year programs for students who want to apply their learning to the real world of farms–orchards, livestock, food production and marketing—as well as turf grass and sustainable landscaping.
Over coffee at the Blue Wall Café in the student union, Wes Autio, the Stockbridge School’s Director and a driving force behind its reconstitution, referred to Gerber as “Dr. John,” as he described a new breed of students in the program. “Dr. John’s Sustainable Food and Farming [course]…was the evolution of a curriculum that took us from a very few students interested in farming, to 80-90 students. …It piques students’ interests from all sorts of different lanes, from helping the world survive to normal agricultural production in its traditional sense.”
For Gerber, the hands-on nature of the program is its draw. Over a vegan lunch in the student-run Earthfoods Café, he said, “The University doesn’t really encourage practical experience. We have to create mechanisms for that to happen, so students can study and be credentialed at the same time. That’s what we try to do in the Stockbridge program—give them what they actually need, both science and experience.”
Gerber depicted his teaching mission as “building lifeboats to the future,” an image he credits to John Todd, another sustainable agriculture proponent. “These are actually lifeboats that I can help build. That’s my part. I can work with these students and contribute.”
Gerber’s students spoke candidly about how the Sustainable Food and Farming major, which he coordinates, had changed their lives. Several seniors described having meandered their way there through a series of what they earlier characterized as “failures,” which they now recognized as growing pains. One explained, “Everyone’s failed here—but we just fail, then fail better. This major is really what I would call an actual learning experience—it’s not just read, consume, and regurgitate.”
Max, another senior, described his transition from the 2-year program to the 4-year bachelor’s program: “What I learned my first two years got lost in translation my third year, because I was taking gen-eds that had no relation to agriculture, sustainability, food and farming, or vegetable production. It was discouraging, like being in purgatory for a whole year, constantly being bludgeoned” by irrelevant requirements, before he landed in Gerber’s program.
You can tell from their stories that John Gerber is the man-behind-the-curtain of these transformed lives. Taking no credit, Gerber merely said, “We have 75 in the Sustainable Food and Farming major that think they’re going to change the world one farm at a time. … That’s not me. That’s the world changing. I’m just riding the wave.”
Back in the classroom, the visiting graduates told the freshmen of the need for persistence at knocking on farmhouse doors to break into the profession. Gerber’s closing advice: “The answer to almost any question in life is going to be ‘no’ the first time. When somebody says ‘no,” you try again. That’s how it works.”