Kayla Sohn was selected for an internship with World Food Prize Foundation.

International Intern: Local Alum Studies In India

Kayla Sohn has always had an interest in water and its influence on human health. Sohn, a rising junior at Yale University and a Town of North Hempstead native from Manhasset Hills, is majoring in molecular biology while also pursuing a certificate in global health.

It all started with a project in high school where Sohn was mapping water data in Python. Next, she noticed that the water in Long Island Sound was not being tested for certain contaminants. This project became her Regeneron project.

“I realized like they didn’t test for these sorts of hormonal contaminants that can lead to breast cancer in women and a lot of other things. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to go to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in 2022 and receive a grant Award in the category of Earth and Environmental Sciences my senior year of high school,” said Sohn. “After presenting at the New York State Science Engineering Fair, I got to go to the international one. It was an amazing experience.”

Sohn at at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (Photos by Kayla Sohn)

But her journey didn’t end there. Sohn was selected this spring for the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship program. Her work there delves into issues related to global food security, sustainability and development during her eight-week internship at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, India, through the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship. Sohn is contributing to MSSRF’s efforts to accelerate the use of modern science for sustainable and rural and tribal agricultural development.

Sohn is invested in the complexities of the water crisis and research surrounding the issue of water insecurity. She is currently working alongside researchers who have devoted their lives to this field.

“I’ve been able to work with scientists who have passions and are experts at research and environmental justice and in botany and biodiversity. That’s what motivated me to apply to this for this internship,” said Sohn.

Now she is studying how tribal communities in India are affected by their access to clean water for their most basic needs. Specifically, she wants to understand how the role of gender, in relation to water insecurity, impacts women and children’s health and well-being.

“I go to these communities and I do interviews through a translator about their water security, food security, sanitation and hygiene. Those include bathroom accessibility, drinking water accessibility, cleaning water accessibility, bathing water, if they have enough food, their wages. It is affecting everything,” said Sohn. “It’s a really eye-opening experience, definitely once in a lifetime. It has been really impactful to communicate with these people halfway across the world from my home.”

Sohn is working with locals to learn more about water insecurity.

One of the topics Sohn discusses is menstrual hygiene, which can be a sensitive issue for some cultures. What she has encountered is an issue of resource allocation, where more modern products are becoming available, but individuals are more inclined to spend that money on other needs, such as food, and make do with cloths that they can wash and reuse.

Sohn expressed a deep gratitude for the opportunity to study public health with World Food Prize Foundation.

“I knew I wanted to pursue a career in public health and Health Sciences. So experiencing this, where I get to go to a completely different country and see firsthand some of the socioeconomic problems and accessibility issues that are going on with water security and food security, it’s definitely helping to shape the way I see my future and the way that I approach problems as somebody in a public health field,” said Sohn. “I am definitely very, very grateful for that.”

Community members gathered around a well.

Inaugurated in 1998 by Dr. Norman Borlaug and John Ruan Sr., this initiative enables high school and early career college students to engage in projects alongside esteemed experts at top agricultural research and development institutions worldwide.

The program has grown significantly over the past 26 years, initially sending just two students overseas. At the culmination of the 26th year, 431 emerging scientists will have taken part in the internship.

Borlaug-Ruan Interns will return to Des Moines and attend the 30th annual Global Youth Institute in October. During this week-long academic conference, students have the opportunity to engage with their peers from across the world while deepening their understanding of global food security, agriculture and sustainability. Additionally, student delegates will present their research to global leaders, participate in interactive workshops, attend the Borlaug Dialogue and more.

The World Food Prize is an international award that honors individuals who have improved the quality, quantity or availability of food world-wide. The Prize was founded by Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, for his work that contributed to increases in agricultural outputs which was termed the Green Revolution. Since then, the Prize has been awarded to 53 distinguished individuals during the Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue. The Dialogue, also known as the Borlaug Dialogue, is a week of events dedicated to an issue surrounding food insecurity or hunger each year.

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