By Celine Klosterman
FORT MADISON — Sarah Kunch hopes to work in public health someday, and the senior at Holy Trinity Catholic Junior/Senior High School is already building a foundation to that dream.
During an open house at her school Oct. 23, she shared how she spent June and July as an intern in Lima, Peru, at the headquarters of the International Potato Center, or Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP). She did research through a Borlaug-Ruan internship, which is associated with the World Food Prize (WFP) and allows students to work with scientists on food security issues in the developing world.
During eight weeks at CIP, Sarah gathered and studied weather data from 2006 to help determine how much carbon is released from soil with different potato farming techniques at various altitudes. CIP studies how to improve farming of potatoes, the third most important food staple in the world, she said.
A fan of research and a frequent presenter at science fairs throughout the state, she heard of the WFP through her mother Gail Kunch, who teaches science at Holy Trinity. Intrigued, Sarah wrote a paper that helped her qualify to attend the Global Youth Institute, at which high school students interact with Nobel and World Food Prize laureates and leaders from around the world.
“From the first day of the conference, I knew it was changing my life,” Sarah said. “After hearing the stories of poverty and how people’s lives can improve through science, I thought, ‘This is how I need to apply my research.’”
Because she had attended the Global Youth Institute, she could apply for the Borlaug-Raun internship. “At Holy Trinity my junior year, we learned about social justice and poverty, which are relevant to the World Food Prize. I thought the internship would be a great way to serve the global community.”
Sarah applied in December 2011 and received a call in January to undergo an interview. “In March, I found out I was going to Lima,” she said.
She was one of 21 students from across the U.S. who earned a summer internship in 2012.
In Lima she fell in love with her research at CIP, where English and Spanish are the two official languages. Her coworkers, host family and even people on the street were friendly, she recalled.
But there were challenges. “During the second week, my supervisor asked me, ‘Sarita, how do you like your research?’ At that point I was away from home; I had no idea what I was doing with my computer program; people were speaking Spanish, and I was freaking out. I just cried. He told me, ‘You think about how much impact your research is having on food security throughout the whole world. The rewards are so much better than the hard steps you’ll have to take to get there.’”
That message was one of the most important things she learned in Peru, she said.
After returning to Iowa, Sarah spoke about her internship at this year’s Norman E. Borlaug International Symposium in Des Moines Oct. 17-19. In her audience were foreign dignitaries, WFP laureates and the international director of CIP, she said.
Sarah hopes her research experience and the personal connections she’s made will help her achieve her goal of studying public health at St. Louis University, a Jesuit school in Missouri, or Tulane University in New Orleans. “I’d like a career in research, but I also want to work with people and see the hands-on effects,” she said.
More immediate plans include studying soil plots for a project to present at science fairs that will take place in Iowa this year.
Such research is a hobby, but sometimes also feels like a compulsion. “I’ll learn about something, see a problem and know it has to be fixed. I think about it constantly. It drives me nuts until I finish it,” Sarah said.
Her English teacher and former neighbor Renee Holliday has seen that drive. “Sarah is quite the accomplished student and never, never lets a learning opportunity get past her,” Holliday said. “She mingles with her academic success the sincere desire to help others by teaching them all she knows that will benefit them. She is a delight and a true humanitarian.”