Thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, Colorado State University is entering its third year of training Ph.D. students from diverse backgrounds to help solve complex problems at the intersection of multiple disciplines.
The Interdisciplinary Training, Education and Research in Food-Energy-Water Systems, or InTERFEWS, program brings together students and faculty who are interested in studying food, energy and water systems and the many ways in which those systems affect each other.
This fall, the program welcomed its third cohort, for a total of 20 trainees representing five colleges and 10 departments. InTERFEWS faculty span all eight colleges and 21 departments.
“The highlight of InTERFEWS is the interdisciplinary collaborations formed among students,” said Sybil Sharvelle, a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering and InTERFEWS director. “This vibrant group of students will serve as the next generation of leaders to solve complex problems for food, energy and water resource management.”
With increasing pressures from population growth and climate change, the trainees’ ability to work collaboratively across disciplines and use systems thinking to solve tough challenges will be more important than ever before.
The program prepares trainees by offering a host of courses addressing food, energy and water issues; involving them in interdisciplinary research at this nexus; and connecting them with apprenticeships through partners in industry, government agencies and non-governmental organizations. InTERFEWS also provides professional development opportunities and science communication training.
InTERFEWS faculty propose interdisciplinary research projects that align with the program’s focus. Trainees can choose to join a project in which they are interested, and faculty mentor the students who have chosen their projects.
InTERFEWS projects demonstrate the breadth of CSU research in this area and foster collaboration across departments and disciplines.
Research that aligns with needs
Ph.D. student Annika Weber applied to the InTERFEWS program to deepen her studies in Food Science and Human Nutrition.
“I was interested in the health and nutrition aspects of my research but saw the necessity to apply a larger lens that incorporated food-energy-water considerations,” Weber said. “It seemed logical to me that research and clinical studies involving food science and nutrition should also consider the FEW nexus if we really want to find realistic and sustainable food solutions.”
Weber is working with Elizabeth Ryan, associate professor in Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, on the development of rice bran as a nutritious and sustainable food source. Rice bran is a byproduct of rice processing that has been treated as waste, but it could potentially help alleviate food insecurity and prevent malnutrition and diarrheal diseases. Over the past year, Weber was lead author on a publication covering this research and co-author on a second publication.
Weber said InTERFEWS has taught her the value of multidisciplinary teams.
“It has been helpful presenting and discussing research with my peers who come from disciplines as diverse as political and social sciences to engineering and crop and soil sciences,” Weber said. “Their questions and input have helped me discover new research perspectives that I may not have gathered otherwise.”
Weber’s favorite InTERFEWS experience so far was a workshop in which the trainees visited local farmers, ditch companies, environmental rights activists and hydraulic fracking sites. These diverse stakeholders shared their views and food-energy-water issues with the students.
“I found so much value in hearing from stakeholders directly, and it was a reminder of the importance to conduct research that aligns with the needs of our community,” Weber said.
InTERFEWS will open its fourth and final call for graduate student applications Oct. 25 for trainees to begin fall 2022. The application period will close Jan. 14. The program is open to CSU Ph.D. students, with priority given to those entering the first or second semester of their program. Ph.D. students beyond their third semester are not eligible. Both funded and unfunded positions will be offered.