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USDA education grant opens door to agriculture career opportunities

Former Montana State University student Ashley Williams meets with residents of Sanambele, Mali, to discuss water quality issues affecting the community.

Former Montana State University student Ashley Williams meets with residents of Sanambele, Mali, to discuss water quality issues affecting the community.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio. 

In 2004, as a junior at Montana State University (MSU), Ashley Williams knew she wanted to use her geography degree to make a difference internationally. She had no idea that agriculture would ever play a role in making that dream come true.

But that’s what happened when Williams found herself in a small farming village of 1,000 people in Sanambele, Mali, after a chance encounter with MSU entomology professor Florence Dunkel.

“Agriculture? I never even considered it. Now I work as a Forest Service hydrologist and collaborate with farmers on stream restoration projects to protect the environment,” Williams said.

Dunkel was the recipient of a USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. She used the grant money to give her students experiential learning opportunities that would prepare them to enter the agricultural science workforce.

“The Challenge Grant unbound my students from the narrow definitions of agricultural education,” Dunkel said.

From early research efforts, Williams learned that diarrhea, mainly from poor water quality, was a major contributor to childhood death. But when she got to Sanambele, the community had other ideas about what her mission should be. Working with the Mali Agricultural Research Organization (IER), she learned through participatory, gender-based focus groups with local famers that malaria was the most feared killer of children.

Williams credits Sidy Ba, a professor at Mali’s agricultural college, and IER’s Assa Kante with helping her ask the right questions in a culturally sensitive way, and for helping her get permission from village chiefs to conduct her surveys. She is now working with Ba on a project relating to diarrhea and water quality in villages near Mopti, Mali, the results of which they plan to publish.

“Florence gives you a lot of freedom,” Williams said. “Through her program, however, I developed my interest in science and learned how to conduct research that has carried me into graduate school and a future career in water quality.”

One Response to “USDA education grant opens door to agriculture career opportunities”

  1. Claire says:

    I just returned from a Panel discussion about Recovery efforts in Haiti. What struck me as the most interested element of these aid efforts was the incredible amount of value in truly communicating with the people and understanding their culture before making quick and careless attempts at aiding struggling third-world countries.

    I find this article extremely hopeful, not only for students pursuing their academic dreams and struggling citizens in Mali, but also for humanity on the whole. Ms. Williams shows a rare dedication to aid and relief with these specific and altruistic endeavors that is inspiring.

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