Meet Dr. Kelly Wilson, Agricultural Development Postdoctoral Researcher
Updated: Sep 14
Dr. Kelly Wilson works with passion and determination towards facilitating and developing interdisciplinary research, as well as creating tools for smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan African countries.
Kelly Wilson is a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts University. She works on research projects that integrate multiple expertise to address global issues in food security and agriculture. More specifically, Kelly uses mixed-method (integrates quantitative and qualitative research) and participatory research approaches to generate a better understanding of the social processes and power dynamics that influence access to resources and information, and innovation adoption.
“I thus facilitate training and workshops with communities to collaboratively design research objectives, develop instruments (both quantitative and qualitative), conduct research activities and data analysis, and report back through both writing and community meetings.”
The field that Kelly works in is called International Agricultural Development, especially in sub-Saharan Africa with small-scale farmers who face many different challenges.
“Most would say I am a “gender expert”, though I’d say I care about intersectionality and championing perspectives of vulnerable populations. Women and girls, unfortunately, tend to be in that group, so I think a lot about gender.”
Dr. Wilson’s passion for agriculture emerged during a study abroad program in India
During her undergraduate program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Kelly Wilson expressed how studying abroad inspired her future. She had the opportunity to live in an Intentional Community in India called Auroville, where one of their many goals is to create self-sustaining food systems that can meet the needs of all residents. Here, Kelly worked at an organic farm from where her passion for agriculture and the idea to study sustainable food systems emanated. Subsequently, Kelly worked on farms and re-centered her concentration of grassroots community development to incorporate community food systems in the U.S.A.
Upon her undergraduate program completion, Kelly became an apprentice at a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group. However, during this time she was also struggling with deciding what she wanted to do afterward in life.
“…I wanted to be a farmer, but I also felt pulled to work with communities. To add to the story, I was born and raised in sub-Saharan African countries, and I did not really know where I belonged. Ultimately, I was selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the agriculture sector. Although I had lived overseas for much of my childhood, working and living in a small farming community in northern Madagascar forced me to grapple with the nuanced challenges of poverty, food insecurity, and implementing community-driven development projects.”
After Peace Corps, Kelly pursued a Master’s Program in International Agriculture Development at the University of California Davis, and a Doctoral Program in the Department of Agricultural Communication, Education and Leadership at The Ohio State University, where she recently graduated. Congratulations Dr. Wilson! During these programs, Kelly developed and implemented projects with smallholder farmers and extension workers in Sub-Saharan African countries.
Being a young woman in the field of agriculture has been a challenge for Kelly
Kelly mentioned how being a young woman in the agriculture field which is typically a middle-age male-dominated field has been challenging for her, especially while working in sub-Saharan African countries continuously for the past decade.
“...Without going into too much detail, I will say that I know through observation and conversations that this is not a challenge that my men-counterparts working in development who are the same age (or younger) deal with.”
Great mentorship can create a very special and important impact on students
The graduate school process can have times of excitement, as well as frustration for many students. Kelly described her Master’s program experience as an exceptional one, where she became part of the International Agriculture Development graduate group at UC Davis. Exceptional mentoring and support from interdisciplinary faculty were some of the things Kelly highlighted from this outstanding experience; especially, from Dr. David Bunn, who gave her an opportunity to work with him.
“…For some reason, he loved my writing and thinking, and eventually offered me a graduate research position with the USAID Feed the Future initiative for Genomics to Improve Poultry. This project introduced me to the benefits of collaborating across institutions-as it involved universities in the US, Tanzania, and Ghana, and really shifted how I thought about development work. More importantly, his avid support for me made me feel like I could do things.”
Academia is the goal
A faculty position provides the opportunity to do academic research and to educate adult students which are things Kelly enjoys doing and sees herself working in the long-term. Kelly strongly believes that collaboration across expertise and experiences is critical to addressing complex global challenges. Therefore, she wants to develop interdisciplinary and cross-cultural learning experiences for students at undergraduate and graduate levels.
Dr. Kelly Wilson wants to highlight the importance of international development projects
Kelly mentioned she wants to shift the narrative of international development projects to care about humans, animals, and the environment. Not only because these are important for economic progress, but because they are important in their own right.
“I suppose I want to alter how we think about knowledge production to include perspectives and methods beyond those of the Global North, as is now the current paradigm.”
Diversity and collaboration within the agricultural disciplines may be the key towards improving the sector
“I think the most important thing is to break down the silos that exist within agricultural specializations. From academic departments through to the monocropping nature of how we farm (at least in the United States) we lack multiplicity and diversity. I think that students of agriculture need to develop interdisciplinary skills that enable them to understand different approaches and methods to study and address a problem.
To all the girls out there:
It’s no novelty that graduate school can be really challenging. When we asked Kelly if there’s some piece of advice she wishes she had at the beginning of her journey, she humorously said: “I wish I had been told to stick with farming" (she laughed). The important thing is to be persistent and believe in ourselves, no matter how hard it may seem. Here are a few words Kelly wanted to share with all the young girls out there:
“We need your minds! And: don’t try to “measure up” to the boys and men around you. Attack problems how you think they should be attacked. Trust your instincts.”
Make time to do the things you love and enjoy
Kelly loves cooking, especially preparing big meals to get her loved ones together. She also enjoys spending quality time with her animals; dogs, kittens, and chickens!
Why is it important to highlight minority women in agricultural sciences?
“...Research shows that it is important for women to have role models that “look” like them - that have similar experiences, that have similar backgrounds - to feel comfortable going into and remaining in a field. Highlighting the awesome work that minority women are doing in agriculture is hugely important to integrating more voices and perspectives into food and agricultural systems.”
Female role models are essential for inspiring other women
Kelly mentioned one of her most inspirational role models is Temple Grandin. She described Temple Grandin as an example of mindful, holistic thinking in agriculture through her decades of work in animal welfare.
“Fun fact? Grandin is part of the team that worked with McDonald’s to create an animal welfare protocol for the meat they purchase-this was one of the first times a private company adopted measures to improve animal welfare and since then nearly all the fast-food restaurants have followed suit. Considering the monstrous buying power of McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants, this made a HUGE difference for, well mostly beef production. Anyways, I admire Grandin as a person, activist, and scholar.”
Check out these resources:
Kelly highlighted the INGENAES group which is partners with Feed the Future
countries to build robust, gender-responsive, and nutrition-sensitive institutions, projects, and programs. The tools and information they provide is free of cost and is helpful to design, evaluate, and monitor projects,
You can contact Kelly through email: email@example.com
Thank you, Dr. Kelly Wilson, for sharing your story with us!
The WAGS Team
This interview was edited by WAGS co-founder Noelymar Gonzalez-Maldonado.