Natalie Hanson Explores Nutrition in Developing Countries During Eight Week Internship in Taiwan

By Mike Whittlesey

It’s safe to say that college students returning to life at the University probably will not be required to write an essay about their summer vacation. But if they were, oh what a story La Porte City’s Natalie Hanson could tell. While many students were taking a well-deserved break from their studies, Hanson traveled nearly 7,500 miles this summer to complete a prestigious Borlaug-Ruan International Internship in Taiwan.
The road to Hanson’s internship actually began as a high school sophomore in 2011 when, with the assistance of Louis Beck, Union High School Ag instructor and sponsor of the La Porte – Dysart FFA Chapter, she prepared a paper to present at the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute in Des Moines. Participation in the Youth Institute is a prerequisite for would-be Borlaug-Ruan interns, and with only 23 all-expense paid internships available each summer, competition for them is fierce. Last year, Hanson, a first-year student at Iowa State University, decided the possibility to work and study abroad was an opportunity too good to pass up. After submitting her application in December, Hanson participated in a brief interview in February. The following month, she was notified of her selection, making her one of a handful of interns chosen to work with some of the world’s most respected scientists and policymakers at research centers around the globe.
Hanson, a Biological Systems Engineering major, did not have a strong preference regarding the site of her internship, content to let organizers choose the location they felt would fit well with her interests. They chose Taiwan, home of the World Vegetable Center, an international nonprofit research and development institute that is committed to alleviating poverty and malnutrition in the developing world through the increased production and consumption of nutritious and health-promoting vegetables.
The Center utilizes resources from the public and private sectors to disseminate improved varieties of vegetables and production methods in developing countries. Their goals include increasing vegetable harvests, raising incomes in poor rural and urban households, creating jobs, and providing healthier, more nutritious diets for families and communities.
Along with a seed bank and demo garden, Hanson noted the Center also works to breed new lines of vegetables that are more nutritious and resistant to disease.
Hanson’s eight week internship began the second week of June. It was her first trip out of the country.
“The people in Taiwan are super friendly,” she stated.
“It was a great first place to go.”
Working closely with the Nutrition Group, led by Nutritionist Dr. Ray-yu Yang, Hanson’s primary responsibility focused on researching vegetable nutrition at the Center to help in the making of booklets about vegetables for school garden projects in developing countries. Similar to a regular full-time job, her workdays typically began at 7:45 AM and concluded at 4:45 PM.
While working eight hour days, opportunities for learning were not limited solely to her desk job. Though not a coffee drinker, Hanson still enjoyed the opportunity to interact with other interns and scientists during scheduled coffee breaks. Along with scholarly discussions came lighter moments, as colleagues representing many nationalities bantered about the results of the World Cup soccer action that was headlining the news at that time.
When not on the job, interns often traveled 20 minutes by train to the nearest city, Tainan, which offered much to see and do. Hanson was particularly impressed with the variety of cultural influences on display in Taiwan’s oldest city. Along with the expected Asian influences, Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese, came an unexpected one- Dutch, whose settlements in Taiwan date back to the mid-1600s.
“There were images and illustrations of windmills and tulips. For a moment, I thought I was back in Pella,” Hanson said.
The weekends offered interns additional opportunities to explore the countryside in more depth, including a trip to a nearby island and a trek up a mountain. Of course, Hanson’s first trip to a foreign country included a number of opportunities to taste new foods.
While she acknowledges sampling fish intestines (“They wouldn’t tell us what it was until we tried it.”), she politely declined the cubes of rice mixed with chicken blood and another treat she described as “stinky tofu.”
“Apparently, it tastes good, but it smelled really awful,” she recalled.
Before her return to Iowa at the conclusion of her eight week internship, Hanson was required to write a paper and make a brief presentation about her experience. In October, she will return to the World Food Prize Youth Institute in Des Moines and do the same.
Reflecting on her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study and work at the World Vegetable Center, Hanson affirmed that the experience has helped validate her career aspirations as they relate to food security and developing countries.
“One thing I discovered is the solutions that we can use in developing countries don’t have to be super-complicated. In U.S. agriculture, we have combines, precision placing and all this technology. But in developing countries, it can be as simple as giving information about how to grow and harvest vegetables,” she said.
“One of the projects they were working on at the World Vegetable Center was called fertigation. It’s an irrigation system that can also apply fertilizer. [Another example included] something as simple as placing nets over crops to keep birds and bugs out, which can significantly improve the quantity and quality of the vegetables harvested. The simplest things can make a big difference, which is really cool.”
Thanks to opportunities like the Borlaug-Ruan International Internships, bright minds and hard-working scholars like Natalie Hanson, daughter of La Porte City’s Robert and Maureen Hanson, can use their time and talents to move the planet one step closer to achieving the World Vegetable Center’s ultimate goal of “prosperity for the poor and health for all.”

About the World Vegetable Center

The World Vegetable Center (AVRDC) in Shanhua, Taiwan has hosted eight high school interns since 2006.

Established in 1971, the AVRDC works to alleviate poverty and malnutrition through the increased production and consumption of safe vegetables.

The AVRDC carries out research and development in health policy, climate change, malnutrition, and women’s livelihood improvement.

Headquartered in Shanhua, Taiwan, the AVRDC also has research centers in Thailand, India, and Tanzania, among other countries.