Rachel Wieme has big ideas growing in her experimental quinoa plot near Pullman. Her organic experiments hold the potential to improve soil and help feed the world. But it’s a long way from idea to impact.
To get there, Wieme, a graduate student in crop and soil sciences at Washington State University, is learning how to share her discoveries through a training program that helps agricultural, engineering and science students tackle environmental challenges.
For the past six years, graduate students in three WSU colleges—Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences; Arts and Sciences; and Engineering and Architecture—have taken part in NSPIRE: Nitrogen Systems Policy-Oriented Integrated Research and Education. NSPIRE trains students to understand the nitrogen cycle—how the element circulates through earth’s plants, animals and environment—and then effectively share that science with policymakers.
This winter, participating colleges will offer the latest version of NSPIRE: A new certificate program, C-NSPIRE, which explores both the carbon and nitrogen cycles and how they relate to the environment and public policy. The program is open to graduate students advised by faculty members of the Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach, an interdisciplinary network that pursues environmental research across WSU.
Scientists can’t solve complex environmental problems alone, said Kristen Johnson, interim chairwoman of the Department of Animal Sciences, who also chairs the NSPIRE program.
“Getting factual science accepted by policymakers and the public can be a challenge,” she said.
NSPIRE helps students learn how policy is made, then find ways to translate their science into policy.
“It’s about communicating science in a way people understand,” Johnson said.
Bringing it together
Along with a series of courses in biology, environmental and political science, and a few electives, participating students take part in a capstone activity, attending policy meetings or taking part in fellowships that tie policy and science together.
For his capstone, Chris Gambino, a 2015 Ph.D. graduate in animal sciences, worked with the Meridian Institute, a non-governmental organization that helps farmers and environmentalists find common ground.
“I got to experience this dialogue and watch it unfold,” said Gambino. “People come in with different values and needs, and science is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s really about discovering the answers together.”
Wieme, the quinoa researcher, is about to start her capstone project. In January, she joins the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), taking part in agro-ecology projects with a global reach. She is excited about sharing science and putting it into action.
“Being able to describe the connection between soil health and global food security is important to me,” Wieme said.
Students who complete the training gain perspectives that go beyond a single subject. They learn to work across disciplines, said Johnson.
“We’re trained in the physical sciences, and have understanding and engagement with what’s going on in policymaking,” Gambino said. “We’re the bridge between science and policy.”
• Interested students should apply for the C-NSPIRE certificate program by March 1, 2016. Learn more about the C-NSPIRE program here.