Nisreen Abo-Sido ’18, 2018 Watson Fellow

Nisreen Abo-Sido ’18, 2018 Watson Fellow

Tell us a little bit about your Watson project and where it will be taking you!
On my Watson year, I will be studying innovative agroecological techniques — let me unpack that: I plan to work alongside farmers, ranchers, and gardeners to learn of how they creatively maneuvered their landscapes and resources (innovative) to manage agricultural systems that produce food while fostering the ecological interactions that sustain such systems. These techniques may be traditional, in that they were passed down intergenerationally, or novel in that they were developed or adapted to meet new challenges. By learning directly from small farmers, I hope to contribute to a movement bridging the gap between knowledge systems (local/native knowledge and formalized scientific knowledge) in promoting food sovereignty, which extends beyond food security (access to safe, nutritious food) and requires the support of farmer livelihood and environmental sustainability. My current proposal includes Iceland — where I hope to study how ranchers are coping with desertification and how people are utilizing geothermal energy to heat greenhouses; Peru- — where indigenous groups are using traditional methods of cultivating potatoes in the biodiverse Andes region; Malawi — where most people are small farmers, yet most people are also food insecure, and various initiatives are trying to bridge that disconnect; and Italy, where the international Slow Food Movement, to draw attention and care to how food is produced, began.

What (or who) are the major influences in your life that has inspired you to pursue this path?
My interest in food systems started in a first year seminar, then continued through Environmental Studies courses and experiences abroad. Namely, my Career Education-supported Global Engagement internship to the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) opened my eyes to thinking about agricultural systems as ecosystems, and widened my definition of sustainability to focus on farmer livelihoods, and not just resource consumption. Farming, eating, and living alongside grassroots leaders at ARI, and learning about innovative agricultural techniques form my mentor Osamu Arakawa, inspired me to think of science not as a solution for developing sustainable agricultural techniques, but as a tool for understanding and exploring techniques that already exist. Returning to Wellesley with these ideas in mind, I took a class taught by Katie Goodall on Food Systems in Latin America, which really solidified my thinking from my experiences at ARI and gave me the vocabulary to be able to talk about it, and feel like my goals aligned with a greater movement toward truly sustainable agricultural systems.

How did your pre-Wellesley life influence your interest in this project? 
My interest in the environment really flourished at Wellesley, so only in retrospect did I realize (while working on my Pamela Daniels Fellowship application, to fund my dream project) that traditional, small-farmer knowledge has always been so valuable to me. I used to garden with my mother and while working in the weeds she would always proudly call herself a fellaha, an Arabic term that literally translates to peasant farmer — but in Arabic, fellaha doesn't come with the negative connotations that peasant does. Rather, she was so proud because a fellaha is someone who really knows that land, produces food to support her community, someone who is strong, resilient, patient, and knowledgeable. My grandparents were small farmers, and their connections to the land were even stronger, as Palestinian refugees who were forcibly removed from their homelands.  Feeling this deeper connection to my farming roots and the value of traditional knowledge that I observed from my mother in the garden further motivated me to seek this knowledge from small farmers.

What inspired you to take the leap and apply? Or, what would you say to encourage your peers to apply?
I first learned about the Watson from noticing a bulletin board in the science center during my first year, and it had been in the back of my mind up until I decided to apply last summer. When the time came, I was both energized and terrified of the idea of traveling alone for a year, navigating new landscapes and deviating far from my 'normal,' especially since at the time of application, I was facing many challenges of being alone, feeling isolated, and trying to get around during my Albright Institute internship in rural Panama. What pushed me to apply was knowing that positive change is uncomfortable work, and only through these challenges could I learn and grow in meaningful ways.  For all of the challenges I faced in Panama, for example, I learned about myself and pushed the limits of my comfort zone further. Only after hiking through stinging nettle and muddy terrain could I summit the rolling hills on the Azuero Peninsula in Panama, to plant trees that would outgrow my stay and see the spider monkeys and the happy rancher that they would benefit. To my peers I say, embrace the uniqueness of this opportunity, and apply because you won't regret thinking about your passions and who you truly are, but you may regret never putting yourself out there and just applying.

What most excites you about this opportunity?
I am most excited about meeting and learning from people all over the world, and observing and hearing about their connections to land and food. Everybody needs food, but everyone's experiences and perspectives are different. I can't really imagine where this year will take me, but I know it will be transformative.