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Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture #13 – Soroush Parsa

Our “Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture” series of interviews, which puts a face to the youth in agricultural research for development (ARD), hears their voices and obtains an insight into their roles, perspectives, experiences and aspirations, continues with Soroush Parsa. This entomologist began life as a displaced citizen but, after a few twists and turns, went on to realize his calling in life in his adopted country. This is the second interview under the “Behind the scenes: Youth in laboratories” chapter. Click here to find out more about the series.

Finding a home and a calling

In 1978, Soroush Parsa’s parents were forced to flee their native Iran shortly after their son’s birth. With the Shah of Iran struggling to stay in power as the rumblings of revolution grew ever louder, the young Baha’i parents envisaged a life of persecution for their religious beliefs should the ruler fall. So they abandoned their homeland and eventually found refuge in Peru.

Today Soroush dreams of visiting Iran someday to find the relatives they left behind and to see some of the places his parents often described to him. But he has another bigger dream; a dream that came about as a result of the poverty he witnessed in his adopted country.

“I want to be of service to others,” says this entomologist. “I want to get to a point in my work where I can feel I’ve done something meaningful, even if it’s only for a small number of people.”

Soroush points out that his education has done more than just help him work towards achieving that goal.

“Obtaining my Ph.D in Ecology in 2009 was a big deal for me because my parents weren’t even able to finish their undergrad education,” he says. “But earning a Fulbright fellowship back in 2006 was even bigger.”

This opportunity, earned 10 years after Soroush had moved from Peru to the United States to pursue a career in development, seems to have changed his life in a number of meaningful ways.

“The fellowship was one of the most validating things I’ve ever experienced,” he explains. “I cried when I received it. You see, I applied for the fellowship so that I could return to Peru and spend a year with poor farmers in the Andes to learn about their agricultural challenges, but I’d only been a  naturalized American citizen for a few years. I wasn’t very hopeful that I would get a scholarship, because they are for American nationals.  So when my application was successful, I finally felt ‘adopted’ by the USA – I began to believe in the so-called American dream”

The accidental entomologist

Shortly after receiving his doctorate, Soroush took up his present position at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia. As the Center’s chief entomologist, he is in charge of developing integrated pest management programs for tropical crops and forages.

“I almost didn’t become an entomologist,” says Soroush, when asked why he chose his particular career path.

“Initially, I began studying for a degree in Economics and Finance and International Relations, which was to be a triple major. But I changed my mind after watching a documentary about a missionary woman who traveled around the Amazon Basin visiting native communities. Along with a physician who accompanied her, she brought in some basic medicine and treatments for these people. This really moved me.  So much so that I gave up my business studies and eventually graduated with a degree in Biology and Pre-medicine. Then I realized that if I studied medicine in the USA, it would take about 12 years before I would be able to help people in the field. That’s when I decided to take a year off.”

An ancient cradle of agriculture

For the next 12 months, Soroush focused on volunteer work in the Andes: teaching children biology and English in Ecuador and conducting character development courses in Bolivia.

“During this time, I became very interested in the development of Andean agricultural communities,” he says. “It’s fascinating to think that this is one of the very few areas in the world where agriculture emerged independently, thousands of years ago. Worldwide, most people are not aware that potato agriculture was adopted from indigenous Andean farmers. I simply became enchanted by the biological history of it all; the evolution of both the crops and the farming systems.

“When I returned to the USA, I wrote to people who were already working in agriculture in the region. That’s when the McKnight Foundation took me on board to help with an agricultural development project in the Central Andes. Then, in 2005, I was fortunate to obtain an internship with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, to investigate the influence of certain potato pest outbreaks among peasant farmers. Through this work, I realized that I’d finally found my calling and ended up doing my Masters thesis at the Center.

Soroush at work in the field

Today, Soroush spends much of his time at CIAT honing his administrative and managerial skills. Whilst he accepts the need to do this, he is looking forward to getting back into the field and interacting with farmers, learning about their problems, and coming up with appropriate technologies to help them. In the meantime, he is relishing the challenge of leading a team of 19 people.

“Currently, I’m also thinking about systems and technologies that can potentially be applied to multiple crops that will enable them to inherently fight pests themselves. I’m excited because, from the perspective of the farmers, one solution that tackles many problems will be cheap, easy to apply and multi-functional.”

Crediting mentors

“I’m here really because of my mentors,” Soroush claims, “especially Harry Kaya from UC Davis, my mentor when I was studying for my Masters. He supported me, encouraged me and allowed me to explore. He was always telling me to focus, probably because I usually have a thousand ideas running through my head at one time, but he never tried to suppress me in any way. Then there was Jay Rosenheim, my Ph.D advisor from the same university. Not only is he an amazing scientist but he also influenced me beyond the realms of academia. He taught me about the human dimension of research: the fundamental importance of collaboration, working in groups and establishing teams – things I’m trying to incorporate into my work today.”

Soroush would also like to be a mentor himself. He currently has three thesis students on his team and feels that he learns as much from them as they do from him.

“I think it’s important for students who want to pursue a career in entomology to consider the complexity of both the agriculture systems and the farmers involved. Although pest management addresses a biological problem, it’s critical to think about the perspective and the cost benefit and decision making of farmers before we enter into a research program. We often come up with technologies that are effective under circumstances in the lab but which can’t be adopted by the farmers.”

Now that this dynamic young man has finally found his true calling, there’s no telling the impact that he will have on poor farmers in his region.