In November 2020, the Office of International Programs honored three graduate students who demonstrated an active commitment to making a global impact through research. The three winners were Yuiko Chino with research on temporal change in the forest stream ecosystems in Fukushima, Japan; Brittney Sly with research on sustainable nutrition education with Rwandan women; and Melody Zarria-Samanamud with research on climate change, mountain landscapes, and the Andean agropastoral communities.  

Learn more about their areas of research through the abstracts below that the winners submitted for the 2020 virtual Graduate Student Showcase. Congratulations to all three award winners on their amazing and helpful research! 

Yuiko Chino: Temporal change of Cs-137 in forest-stream ecosystem in Fukushima, Japan 

Nine years have passed since Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident in Japan, but large amount of radioactive cesium (Cs-137) remains in forests. Understanding the fate of Cs-137 in forest environmentis indispensable because of the long half-life of Cs-137 (30.1 years). Forests in Japan are associated with well-structured stream systemand those in the contaminated area are typically mono-cultures of evergreen, where Cs-137 migrates within terrestrial and stream ecosystems via physical processes, such as through litterfall and soil erosion, as well as biological processes, such as for the food web.  

In this study, we examined the temporal change of Cs-137 concentration based on a comprehensive field sampling in a headwater forest ecosystem in Fukushima in 2012-13 and 2016-17. Cs-137 concentration significantly decreased between the two sampling periods for all the target ecosystem components. However, the decreasing rates of Cs-137, which is descried as ecological half-lives (Teco), were largely varied. The relatively longer Teco of soil indicated the accumulation of Cs-137, and stream insects had different Teco depending on their feeding functions. Overall, the terrestrial ecosystem showed higher contamination compared to the stream in 2012-13, while the systems had similar contamination in 2016-17 except significantly high contamination in soil, indicating the soil will be the main source of Cs-137 in the forest ecosystem in the future.  

Considering the increasing demand of nuclear power plant in the world, this study can be useful for the long-time risk assessment of Cs-137 contamination in the environment of Japan as well as other countries with warm and humid climates. 

Brittney Sly: Sustainable nutrition education: empowering Rwandan women with participatory action research 

Despite national efforts to combat malnutrition in Rwanda, rural residents exhibit a lack of knowledge regarding small-scale vegetable production and nutrition education, particularly regarding diet diversity. Using participatory action research and peer-training methods, we developed an intervention model to determine if sustainable community-level health behaviors, addressing malnutrition at the household-level, can be established. The primary aim of the intervention is improvement in household food security and enhancement of dietary diversity associated with consumption of a greater variety of fruits and vegetables. A secondary aim is to foster dissemination of small-scale agricultural and nutrition information throughout the community. 

Small groups of women (n=42) received agriculture and nutrition education over the course of 16 weeks and the support to start and maintain kitchen gardens. Participants became peer educators who trained approximately 84 additional women in the community. Participatory active learning activities were conducted to enhance collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and empowerment amongst participants. Evaluation was conducted using food frequency questionnaires and household hunger scores, along with participatory evaluation methods during focus groups and semi-structured interviews, in addition to GPS mapping of kitchen gardens.  

The outcomes of this research showed changes in dietary patterns that exhibit improved diet diversity and food security; the dissemination of information throughout the community; empowerment by participants in feeding their households; and culturally appropriate training materials for use at the community-level. 

The future implications of this research are that this collaborative model can be used as a basis for program design and evaluation with similar populations and communities facing malnutrition and food insecurity at a regional and global scale. 

Melody Zarria-Samanamud: Climate change, mountain landscapes, and Andean agropastoral communities 

Mountain ecosystems cover approximately 22% of the world’s land surface with more than 60% of them located in developing countries. People in these areas have developed livelihood strategies to adapt to fluctuating environmental conditions. However, emerging climatic pressures as well as social and economic stresses represent new challenges mountain people are facing.  

This research aims to (i) analyze the effects of landscape heterogeneity on land-use dynamics of agropastoral systems, (ii) study the role of social factors in the decision-making processes of agropastoral communities, and (iii) explore the effects of climate change and management scenarios on the socio-ecosystem.  

The study area comprises three communities settled in the boundaries of Huascarán National Park in the Andes of Peru. The socio-ecological system will be studied through a coupled system approach. An agent-based model will be built to analyze land-use dynamics at the community and household level. This model will be linked to an ecosystem model that estimates primary production of rangelands. A spatio-temporal analysis of landscape patterns will provide complementary information to the models. Field assessments will be conducted to validate the estimations of the ecosystem model. Social information will be collected through interviews and workshops. The development of the coupled model will provide insights into the role of natural and human drivers on the ecosystem and explore the impacts of short vs. long-term climatic and land-use scenarios.