Aflatoxin infographics: Making a complex issue more digestible

Aflatoxin – a naturally-occurring toxin produced by a fungus that infects certain crops – is getting a lot of attention right now in the agricultural development sphere.

I worked with a small team of USAID staff and implementing partners to develop an infographic on aflatoxin. Our goal was to create an eye-catching one-pager that conveys some core messages: 1) Aflatoxin is bad for human health; 2) Aflatoxin has global economic consequences; 3) Aflatoxin is a common/widespread problem; and 4) We can do something about it! This infographic has been shared with a variety of audiences to help spark interest in the topic and elevate it as a priority in international development.

Click on the image to view a larger version:

For another take on an aflatoxin infographic, here is a nice, concise image from the International Livestock Research Institute:

ILRI aflatoxin infographic

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A face-to-face conversation, half a world apart

A few weeks ago, I stepped into a large gold-colored box stationed on Woodrow Wilson Plaza in Washington, DC, and came face-to-face with a young man from Afghanistan. We stood about the same height, about ten feet from one another, yet we couldn’t shake hands – because the man was actually standing in Herat, Afghanistan, in a similar box in a similar public square. We were two participants in Amar Bakshi’s art installation of “Portals” that connect people around the globe for short conversations.

For better for for worse, I happened to sign up for a portal time slot when PBS was doing interviews. I agreed to let them film my conversation and ask me a few questions afterwards. Because I knew any portion of my conversation might wind up on TV, I had a hard time relaxing and felt somewhat hindered in the topics I could broach. But I still enjoyed meeting my Afghan counterpart, who was interested in becoming a doctor. We talked about med school, public health, food, and sports.

Interested in the short PBS News Hour piece on the project? Watch the video below. My entry begins at 2:20. It’s always a weird feeling to watch myself on camera!

 

Here’s a transcript of my portion of the video. I am “WOMAN”:

WOMAN (ME): Yes, what do you eat typically?

MAN: Red meat, chicken or something like that.

AMAR BAKSHI: And that, I think, is powerful in itself for people.

WOMAN (ME): I had actually planned to maybe talk about some maybe more in- depth, tough questions.

MAN: Do you live in Washington, D.C.?

WOMAN (ME): But when you’re kind of faced in just that short moment of someone you haven’t met, it’s difficult to dive right into the meaty, kind of controversial, tough questions.

AMAR BAKSHI: People can go in there and chitchat about the weather. And often they do, because it’s hot here and there.

PREETI PARULEKAR: OK. There we go.

(LAUGHTER)

AMAR BAKSHI: But they can also go in and talk about — and they do — marriage, online dating, you know, freedoms, war, loss.

KHALED SALAR: Life has really changed in Afghanistan, and everything has had a really big impact on our lives. Learning about a country or a culture through TV or media is really hard, but getting to know people and getting to talk to them in person is — it’s much more effective.

PREETI PARULEKAR: For a lot of people here, sometimes, you can feel very conflicted about to what extent did we play a role in causing that?

It was a really good experience. It was really interesting to hear kind of about his life and his perceptions of the U.S. and kind of to get a feel for a real person living in Afghanistan.

MAN: And what is your favorite sport?

WOMAN (ME): I wasn’t disappointed that we talked about some of the lighter stuff, because a lot of times that’s what you actually talk to people about in daily life. I think the value in this experience is just having that moment with someone partway across the world that you absolutely wouldn’t meet otherwise.

And I think it tells you that every human on the planet has something to connect around. And so it was a pleasure to get to talk to someone that I otherwise wouldn’t meet and make that small connection, even just for a moment, to start off my day.

My friend won 3rd place in the Bethesda short story contest!

The annual Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership short story contest winners have been announced, and I am excited to say that a very dear friend of mine has won third place! Heather and I have been part of a mini writing group for the past few years. While I fail on a regular basis to submit stories to the group, Heather reliably sends multiple pages of prose on the last day of every month. I am so impressed by her talent and her commitment to creative writing as an outlet amid a busy family life. If you’re looking for an interesting post-apocalyptic story to read, look no further!

Wireweed

by Heather Sisan

It’s been exactly eight days and 13 hours since Bram went out on patrol. I can’t help keeping the morbid tally, not to mention startling every time the intercom crackles. The whole community gets on edge when a patrol doesn’t come back. Even though we’ve all lost so many loved ones—no one’s ever safe—it still feels like we can’t bear another loss.

I don’t think it was fair of them to send him, not when I’m this close. As of yesterday morning, I’m officially 38 weeks—the 38 longest weeks of my life—and it could happen any time now. Mig read that first babies are usually late, which comforts me. I’m scared to death, if you want to know the truth; I don’t want it to happen, and I don’t want to go on being pregnant. I just wish, most of the time, that I could get out of my skin and be someone else.

Some more numbers, to put things in perspective. The community is 235 people, including about 40 children and teenagers, which includes me. It’s in what used to be upstate New York, used to be rolling pastures full of dairy cows, the kind of scene they printed on cartons of organic milk. No one would put our landscape on a carton now. The wind stirs up massive dust storms from the ravines and hillsides and clatters in the bare branches of the trees. There is an ethereal beauty to this kind of scenery, some people claim. The land is stripped clean, right down to its bones. At 15, I’m old enough to remember what Earth was like when it was green, when there were such things as birds, when rain didn’t pit and corrode the dome shields over the colony. Some of the youngest kids don’t know any different.

It’s the third shift and I’m falling asleep in my chair. I heave myself up, feeling the weight settle down hard like a bowling ball against the bones of my pelvis, my knees aching in protest, and start pacing back and forth. Across the room, Laner is scribbling in his notebook. It’s still about two hours before dawn.

“Go on home if you want, Jace,” he says without looking at me. “You don’t need to be here.”

“I’m OK,” I say. “It’s only another couple hours anyway.” The irony is that I can almost doze off in that chair, but as soon as I lie down on a bed I’ll be wide awake and fighting off a panic attack, my mind churning with what might have happened to Bram. With what could soon happen to me.

click here to keep reading!

Kindling knowledge exchange without bandwidth: An interview with Peace Corps volunteer Ryan King

I enjoyed the opportunity to practice my on-camera interview skills for the latest entry in the Agrilinks “KM Insights” video series. (Two lessons learned: curb the instinct to blink, and don’t wear orange pants!) Watch the video below to get the scoop on Peace Corps Ethiopia’s strategies for supplying its volunteers with the information they need to run agricultural projects.

This post is cross-posted from Agrilinks.

Most agricultural development practitioners—certainly, those based in major cities—rely on the Internet for daily knowledge exchange. There is no faster way to obtain new technical reports, join training webinars and conduct research than to use your favorite browser and a trusty broadband connection. But what about project implementers who are stationed in remote locations for more than a week or two? For example, many Peace Corps volunteers serve in small villages without reliable electricity or Internet bandwidth. How can they obtain the information they need to do their jobs well?

Ryan King, a Peace Corps volunteer leader serving in Ethiopia, and I discussed these challenges and honed in on a few good practices in a recent Agrilinks “KM Insights” interview, which you can watch above. He manages projects that support Feed the Future’s objectives, such as volunteer efforts to build productive household gardens, alleviate environmental degradation and educate communities about nutrition. To succeed in these projects, Peace Corps volunteers need to be able to access the best available information on low-cost technologies that can be employed at a household scale. However, as Ryan noted, getting information to volunteers is a constant struggle due to lack of connectivity.

As a step toward simpler information distribution, Peace Corps Ethiopia has equipped many of its volunteers with basic Amazon Kindle e-readers, which are refreshed with updated reports and briefs when volunteers return to post. Ryan explained that volunteers used to be sent to their sites with “a suitcase full of books” for reference, but now, nearly all of those volumes can be stored on a single hand-held device with a long battery life.

Ryan and I also discussed the value of video as a training medium for smallholder farmers, and the need for alternatives to online streaming in low-bandwidth areas. Open-access videos are preferable because volunteers can transfer them to DVD and give copies to their communities. In addition, audio transcripts are useful complements to video products, especially when translated into local languages.

Watch the full video for more of Ryan’s insights, and please share your experiences with low-bandwidth knowledge sharing in the comments section below.

Soup-er Simple: Autumnal beef, turnip, and cabbage soup

I love creating soups from scratch without a recipe. Sometimes the results are just “meh,” but sometimes I hit upon a dish that I think it worth repeating. Last night, I assembled a concoction that I found particularly delicious (I had 4 helpings!) so I thought I’d share the recipe with you. This is a hearty-yet-light soup, packed with vegetables and perfect for early fall.

One of my soup rules is that it’s fine to add or swap out ingredients freely based on what you have in your kitchen. Don’t have beef broth handy? Use veggie stock instead. Have some carrots that are about to go bad? Toss ’em in! Soup can be a receptacle for pretty much any vegetable that you need to use up.

Autumnal beef, turnip, & cabbage soup

Dairy-free, gluten-free. Recipe makes about 6 large servings.

Ingredients
1 package beef cubes (~1 pound)
1  large onion, chopped
3-4 large garlic cloves, minced
4 celery stalks, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1-2 large turnips, diced (or sub in potatoes or rutabaga)
1 small purple cabbage or 1/2 large cabbage, chopped
1 box lamb broth (or beef or vegetable broth)
1 cup red wine
Five spice powder (~1 tbsp)
Italian or poultry seasoning (w/ thyme, sage, etc) (~1 tsp)
2 bay leaves
10 whole cloves
safflower oil or another high-heat oil (~2 tbsp)
olive oil (~2 tbsp)
salt, black pepper, & cayenne pepper (add to taste)

Cook time: 1.5 hours or more (the longer you simmer it, the better it tastes!)

Add some high-heat oil (I used safflower oil) to a large stainless steel pot or an iron/ceramic dutch oven, and turn heat up to medium-high. Once pot is warm, add in beef cubes. Brown the beef on all sides. Once beef is browned and sticking to the bottom of the pot a bit, pour in red wine. Allow wine to cook for a minute, then pour in box of broth. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer. While this is simmering, you can chop up all the veggies. Beef should simmer for about 30 minutes before other ingredients are added in, to help it soften. Depending on the size of your beef cubes, you can remove the cubes to a cutting board, chop them into smaller pieces, and return to the pot.

Autumnal beef soup 1

In another large pot, drizzle ~2 tbsp olive oil. Add onion and a pinch of salt, and cook over medium heat until slightly soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, celery, and bell pepper with another pinch of salt, and stir over medium-low heat for awhile. Once veggies are softened, add these cooked veggies to the first pot with beef and broth. Add turnips, cabbage, bay leaves, five spice powder, cloves, and Italian/poultry seasoning to the main pot. Add water as needed to make sure veggies are just covered. Let simmer for ~1 hour, until everything is tender to your liking. Add cayenne pepper for a kick.

Autumnal beef soup 2

Enjoy with a glass of red wine or your favorite fall beverage!

Autumnal beef soup 3

“Picky eater” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy

Picky Eater

I frequently see articles and blog posts around the web espousing various tips and tricks to get your kids to eat healthy foods. Although I don’t have kids yet, I’ve certainly put some thought into how I plan to manage my eventual children’s diets. But I’m sure when the time comes, I’ll struggle to get my kids to eat their vegetables. What if I get the dreaded “picky eater”??

Perhaps the key is to do away with the concept of a “picky eater” altogether. I recently read this article on Huffington Post titled “6 Tips to Start Your Kids Off Eating Right”, which suggests a more relaxed approach to raising healthy kids. I’d recommend reading the whole post, but here’s the gist:

  • The term “picky eater” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you frequently label your child this way, he or she will make it part of his or her identity. “When a kid hears that they’re a picky eater, it validates for them that shunning certain foods is a part of who they are.”
  • “Hiding” healthy foods isn’t such a good idea.  (For example, concealing cauliflower in a macaroni & cheese dish.*) Your kids will catch on, and will become suspicious of food more generally. That’s definitely not a good thing!
  • Model healthy eating for your kids.  Even if they don’t like asparagus at first, if they see you eating it frequently, they might try it the 20th time. In fact, research shows that it can take 10-20 exposures for a child to begin liking a new food.
  • Your kids won’t starve.  Your job is to provide them lots of healthy options, but they get to choose whether and how much they eat. Never force your child to eat something – that will only create negative emotions around that particular food.

I’ll remember these tips when the time comes, and will be sure never to label my child a “picky eater”!

Do you have any strategies to encourage your kids to eat something other than goldfish crackers? If so, please share!

*Making cauliflower mac & cheese is a great idea – but no need to keep the ingredients a secret!

The “third presenter” method of streamlining your presentation

PowerPointHumor

Here’s an all-too common scenario: Three presenters are scheduled to speak at a seminar, for 15 minutes each. The first two presenters go way over their allotted time, despite the timekeeper’s hand signals, in order hit upon every point they intended to make. The third presenter then comes up to bat, acutely aware that his or her time has been cut short. (S)he blows through his/her slides or notes, lamenting the lack of time, skipping the less-important or already-covered sections in favor of a few key messages.

Recently, I was the third presenter. I didn’t have PowerPoint slides, but had a long list of hand-written notes I intended to cover. The meeting started a bit late, and the two presenters before me went 5-10 minutes over their allotted time, so that by my turn, I was starting five minutes after I was originally supposed to end my talk. Even though I was allowed to take my full ten minutes, I knew that every minute I spoke would take a minute away from the discussion part of the meeting (undoubtedly the most valuable part). So I had to speak quickly.

As I glanced down at my notes, my brain automatically crossed off about half of the talking points on the page. That one’s not as important. That one’s self-evident. That one can be covered during the discussion. Instead I focused on the most salient and most interesting points, and expressed my desire to continue the conversation.

So the question is – if many of my points could be casually cut from the presentation, why did I include them in the first place? I think most presenters will agree that they try to squeeze too much content into any given talk, even knowing that the audience will only retain a few major points.

This experience gave me an idea for a way to streamline future presentations. The strategy is simple: pretend that you are the third presenter. Prepare a fifteen minute presentation as normal, but then pretend that you’re only allowed, say, seven minutes to talk. Practice out loud, using a countdown timer, to make sure that the time pressure is on. What messages and slides do you keep? What do you cut? Hopefully you will emerge with clearer picture of where the strength of your presentation lies. Go back and edit your presentation, focusing on the essential messages that you want the audience to retain. Plan for a clean, concise talk that goes under your allotted time.

…and next time you give a presentation as part of a panel, ask to go first! 😉

Three mantras for a less-cluttered home

For many people, myself included, being tidy and organized doesn’t come naturally. We tire of constantly fighting the second law of thermodynamics in our living spaces, and, dang it, spotless surfaces just aren’t our priority in life. That being said, I would prefer to live in a clean, uncluttered environment. Thus, for day-to-day life, I hold on to a few simple mantras to serve as motivation for tidying up my home. Perhaps they will help you out as well:

1) Complete the Task

How many times have your started a household chore or project – folding the laundry, sorting through old papers, decorating the walls – but stopped partway through? In our homes, we have the freedom to leave projects unfinished or dishes unwashed. In an attempt to counteract this tendency, I developed a very basic mantra for myself – complete the task. It provides a useful nudge to prioritize the unfinished chores or projects before starting any new ones.

  • Just cooked a delicious dinner, but thinking of leaving the dishes for tomorrow? Complete the task.
  • Paid some of your monthly bills, but letting a few linger? Complete the task.
  • Started organizing the pantry last weekend but never finished? Complete the task.

2) Gone in 60 Seconds

Admit it – you sometimes neglect to do the most basic of tasks, such as:

  • Putting a used dish directly into the dishwasher
  • Hanging up a piece of clothing you’ve decided not to wear
  • Putting the new roll of toilet paper on the holder
  • Filling the ice cube tray or the Brita pitcher

What do all of these tasks have in common? They all take less than a minute to complete. One rule that I’ve found very useful for household management is to never put off a chore that can be conquered in 60 seconds or less. A minute here and there should have little effect on your day. But if you continually put off the quick, easy chores for a couple of days, you’ll wind up with a major clean-up on your hands. I try to keep the 60 second rule at the forefront of my mind, so that I don’t procrastinate on simple tasks. Conquering the low-hanging fruit of chores keeps a house clean and livable.

3) A Place for Everything, and Everything in Its Place

This time-tested saying has definitely helped me organize my living space. To abide by it, every item in your home should have its own “place,” or a spot where it belongs. This goes not just for the obvious pairings – socks in the sock drawer – but for every knick-knack, piece of paper, food item, and toiletry. If an item doesn’t have a proper place, then you must either make a place for it, or get rid of the item. This doesn’t mean you have to get rid of all the miscellaneous or useless items in your home, but it does mean they need a designated spot, even if it’s just in the “junk box” under your bed. Once this rule is enforced, then cleaning & organizing becomes a matter or returning everything to its proper place. I think this feels much less daunting.

Do you have any mantras or rules that you use to keep your living space in order? I’d love to hear other suggestions, as I am always striving for a cleaner, less-cluttered home!