Driven by faith and purpose, a graduate student helps the developing world find better ways to feed itself.
In the 1980s, a young girl from rural Bruce, South Dakota, was moved by news of a famine that struck Ethiopia, and felt she should do something to help. She heard what she believes was the voice of God saying, “Go to Africa.”
Today, Londa Vander Wal has done that and more.
The University of Iowa PhD student has made many trips to the continent as an employee of the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and will return to conduct research in the Gambia, West Africa, this summer. Her faith has guided many of her life decisions, whether it’s joining the FAO or dropping off lunch for Meals on Wheels.
“I just got this idea in my head—‘Well, I’m interested in food and agriculture. I’m interested in helping people around the world.’ The FAO seemed like the right place to work,” says Vander Wal, who’s studying agricultural safety and health in the UI College of Public Health.
The breadcrumb trail that led her to Africa included a stop at the Iowa State Fair. Visiting a booth there, she got the name of a contact at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who told her the department was sponsoring two FAO jobs. She applied within two days, just meeting the application deadline, and was hired six months later.
Over a span of four years, and across several continents, Vander Wal educated government officials and set up FAO’s information portal on international food-safety standards. She has a bachelor’s degree in animal science and food science from South Dakota State University and a master’s degree in food science from Kansas State University.
Vander Wal joined the FAO knowing she’d return to grad school one day, but she didn’t know what she’d study until she visited a friend’s sister in a Kenyan hospital.
“After seeing the health care conditions in that country and seeing how obtaining good health care was such a critical part of their lives, I decided I wanted to study something related to health,” she says.
Her stint with the FAO gave her insight into how government and international bureaucracies work, which has informed her research, says advisor Risto Rautiainen, clinical assistant professor of occupational and environmental health.
“Londa’s previous employment at FAO has given her a great understanding of what high-level government officers and large bureaucratic organizations can and cannot do,” he says.
Vander Wal’s research goes back to her roots—her parents and brothers are farmers—but with a public health perspective.
She’s studying health and safety among women farmers in the Gambia. They tend to farm vegetables, a more labor-intensive pursuit than the farming done mostly by men, who grow the cash crops of peanuts and cotton. But Vander Wal notes that Gambian women often use hand tools made for men, which are too heavy and too long.
“There is a great need in the Gambia, in Africa, and in developing nations around the world to fight hunger and poverty,” says Rautiainen. “Londa’s project will help in a small way, setting an example of how research and aid organizations can work with local populations and organizations, and various stakeholder groups, to find interventions that really work.”
Vander Wal hopes her research also will prove applicable in developed countries, which are growing more labor-intensive organic produce.
Vander Wal is an active member of the community outside of the classroom. She teaches Sunday school, sings in a church choir, and serves on the board of a campus Christian group and the College of Public Health Student Association. She’s also volunteered with the Special Olympics, the UI Mobile Clinic, and Meals on Wheels.
Why would a busy grad student take the time to do this? It’s because of that guiding force that told her to go to Africa when she was a kid.
“For me, a huge part of why I volunteer is because of my faith. I feel like this is what we’re called to do, to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world,” she says.
“Also, from a more secular perspective, I think if I’m only taking things from the world, if I’m not giving anything, really, of what value is that? I know, for me, that when I help these different organizations, I am so much more blessed by the people I’m helping.”
Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tom Jorgensen
May 19, 2008