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Northwestern University

Circling the Globe

Circumnavigator Grant winner Tara Mittelberg ’17 will travel the world this summer to research food security

This summer adventure for Tara Mittelberg ’17 has been a long time coming.

When the Iowa native toured Northwestern University as a prospective student during her senior year in high school, she learned about the University’s annual Circumnavigator’s Travel-Study Grant. The $9,000 prize jointly funded by Northwestern University and the Chicago chapter of the Circumnavigators Club allows a Northwestern undergraduate to travel the world and research a topic of personal choice.

Mittelberg dreamed of landing the grant — and her vision is now a reality. 

In June, the environmental science and international studies major will begin a 10-week, three-continent tour researching food security for her project, “Beyond ‘Pro-GMO’ and ‘Anti-GMO’: Progressing the Global Conversation on Transgenic Crops.”

Mittelberg discusses her reaction to winning the competitive grant and the exciting adventure before her.

What was your reaction to winning the award?

I was sitting in a coffee shop when I got the call. Of course, I was excited, but reality quickly set in. I had been planning this trip in my mind for so long, but it was always an abstract idea. Now, I actually had to start planning.

Where will you be going and what will you be doing?

I’ll start in Brazil before moving onto Ghana and Burkina Faso in Africa, Bangladesh and then the Philippines. I’ll talk with farmers about their perceptions on transgenic crops, those who have planted GMO crops and those who haven’t, and visit an agricultural research institution in each country as well. Typically with GMOs, there is so much pro- or anti- conversation, but I believe there is a place for a more nuanced dialogue.

How did you first get interested in the topic of GMOs?

I fell in love with biology as a sophomore in high school, but knew I wasn’t interested in medicine or sitting at a lab bench. I learned about Dr. Norman Borlaug, the agronomist and humanitarian who initiated the Green Revolution, and his story got me inspired to pursue a career fighting hunger through agriculture.

How does this trip fit into your future plans?

I eventually want to pursue a Ph.D. in a topic related to food security so I can help inform policy and help the people on the ground directly affected by these global forces. With the mix of classes I’ve had at the College, I realize that food security isn’t just about science. There are social, political and economic considerations that must be factored in, and those are the elements I hope to better understand with this trip.

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