Stella Nordhagen's research focuses on how farmers’ crop choices relate to the incidence of environmental shocks.
Can farmers in developing countries mitigate the effects of climate change by diversifying their crop choices?
Stella Nordhagen’s PhD, which she will complete this year, looks at how farmers’ crop choices relate to the incidence of environmental shocks such as droughts. Her fieldwork was done mainly in Papua New Guinea in collaboration with Biodiversity International, an inter-governmental, non-profit research thinktank. She looked at how farmers could mitigate the potential risks of climate episodes by harvesting a greater diversity of crops, including more genetically complex crops which might be able to adapt better to climate change. “It helps spread the risk,” says Stella.
“I interviewed farmers about the effect of a drought caused by El Nino in 97/98. Many had noticed climate changes since, such as crops which used to not grow in mountainous regions now appearing in higher areas because of global warming.”
Stella’s PhD builds on her MPhil in environmental economics, for which she also had a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
It focused on farmers’ decisions around seed choice in developing countries. “I was interested in how farmers get access to seeds in developing countries, which is more complex than in developed countries. Often they save them from a harvest and exchange them with other farmers,” she says. “So if a particular harvest is blighted it has a major impact.”
Growing up in a small mountain town in Colorado, Stella  has always been interested in the environment and has also always had an interest in the wider world, in part due to childhood travels to Norway where her father was born. When she was a child, her parents were both ski instructors and Stella learnt to ski when she learnt to walk. She attended ski school rather than daycare. “It was the default entertainment for children in the area,” she says. Even off the slopes, she could usually be found in the mountains: hillwalking, hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, fishing or running.
She had broad academic interests at school and didn’t know what she wanted to study when she started her undergraduate degree at Middlebury College, a liberal arts college.
She thought she would do Chemistry, but ended up taking no chemistry classes. Instead, as befits the ethos of liberal arts colleges, she tried a broad range of subjects, including German, Russian, Political Science and Economics.
She fell in love with Economics, but her interest was not in monetary issues. She was more drawn to understand what motivates people’s decisions.
She also took classes in astrophysics and through that became involved in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates programme over her penultimate summer, funded by the National Science Foundation. Fascinated by her studies of stellar clusters, she considered continuing with astrophysics, but ultimately decided she wanted to focus on a research area which would have a more immediate social impact.
She had always been interested in social issues and politics. At college she was involved in the university debate team and travelled abroad to compete, including to Oxford. She joined the team to improve her public speaking and liked the idea of honing her ability to think fast on her feet. She also became involved in the College Democrats, initially drawn to the party by Al Gore’s focus on saving endangered species. She worked at climate change conferences in the summers throughout college and high school.
When she left Middlebury, she applied for a fellowship at Harvard to do global health research. By then she was fairly sure she wanted to work on economic development, but she didn’t know in what area. After her first year at Harvard, her research group was given a generous Gates Foundation grant to set up the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations in Seattle.
“It was really focused work on measuring health outcomes,” she says, “and it was interesting to view an organisation in start-up phase. The staff increased threefold during my year there. Many health statistics come from whatever information a country reports, but the statistics might not be supported by evidence. Due to lack of resources, there tends to be very little rigour and transparency, and figures are often not updated or adjusted according to changing population dynamics. Often evaluations of interventions are not done very well, so it is impossible to know what has worked best.”
In the last three months of her fellowship, Stella did field research in Tanzania, working with local women on verbal autopsy surveys in rural communities. This involved talking to families about symptoms patients may have been suffering from before they died, which could be run through a medical databank to ascertain a more accurate cause of death than might be on a death certificate. “Often if they do not die in hospital and have not been seen by a doctor, so the cause of death recorded is no more than a guess,” says Stella, “because there are not enough doctors to cover the rural areas.”
The experience in Tanzania convinced Stella she wanted to work on development issues, although more on agricultural development than health improvement. She had already applied for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
Since she has been at Cambridge, she has thrown herself into the life of Gates Cambridge and her roles included vice president of the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council and alumni officer. She is currently on the Global Scholarship Symposium committee. She has also found time to run marathons and be a member of her college’s MCR committee.
Stella says she has loved being a member of the Gates Cambridge community and meeting many like-minded individuals who are striving to improve the lives of others. “My Cambridge experience has been almost entirely shaped by the people I have met along the way,” she says. “Gates Scholars never cease to amaze me in their energy and level of engagement in their own passions and with the wider world.”
Picture credit: adamr and www.freedigitalphotos.net.