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Winrock International

Volunteer Post

The World is Small When You Have the Internet

In January 2014, Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) volunteer Dr. Andrew Sánchez Meador provided training to faculty and post-graduate students from the Continuing Education Center of the Agriculture and Forestry University of Nepal. One of the training participants recently reached out to Winrock’s F2F Nepal staff to share how this training has impacted him personally and professionally:

“I had just begun my research and it was in an extremely early state, yet was able to recognize that I had chosen to implement an experimental design which was largely unknown amongst the researchers in my country. While my dilemma, not knowing how to properly analyze my data, was likely due to my unfamiliarity with the design, I knew I had to persevere. The data collection had been straight forward and I had read quite a bit on the analysis of augmented designs, but I remained unaware of how to move forward. In an effort to get results and make conclusions, I knocked on the door of every possible expert in biometrics to see if anyone could help me. Commonly, I recounted responses such as ‘Sorry. I‘m not familiar with this particular design. You should visit with [a specific person]’.

In an attempting to avoid further notice or attention, I would thank them for their help and move on to the next source of potential information. This process went on for a few months. After the first few days at my new office, I heard that Winrock International, on behalf of USAID’s Farmer-to- Farmer program, had arranged to have a volunteer come to Nepal to conduct an applied statistical workshop. I felt extremely fortunate, not only because my advisor and I were put me on the short list for the workshop but also because the training would focus on agricultural and natural resource applications.

It was the first day of the program when I came to know that we would be learning and applying a hugely popular software package for analyzing data and computing called “R”. I had heard of the package before, but the stories I was told were mainly focused on the difficulties (i.e., it runs using a series of perplexing code that results in output that is equally difficult to translate). The first day of the workshop started with introductions and I found myself hesitating to let my instructor know that I was a plant breeder and that I had no idea how to analyze my data. The instructor was a young scientist and as far as I could tell possessed a wealth of experience in computer science too. Additionally, his name was Andrew Joel Sánchez Meador, which is a pretty long name to recall after one introduction!

The introduction to R went well, yet I still found myself confused and unsure if the software would work for me. I was intent on learning every bit of word that my instructor was delivering and was not there solely to expand my vita. While some eagerly awaited the end of each session, many of us were enthusiastic to learn and struggled to take it all in. It took me almost three full days before I understood how R actually worked, and on the fourth day, I decided to approach the instructor to find out how I might use the software to investigate my exact problem. I asked general questions focused on design analyses that I thought I might conduct in the future, but really I was just asking questions to begin a conversation. I secretively remained focus on my design and the trouble I had been having, hoping to get help. After quite a while (maybe 5 whole minutes), I just showed him some of my research data and asked how he might analyze it. He listened intently, and with some translation I explained my research questions and the implemented design. Dr. Andrew went to his computer, furiously wrote some code, and came back with the results I had been seeking! I was so happy. I had finally found someone who could help me get the results I had been after and now I could work on interpretations and make conclusions.

While it was he that analyzed my research data first, I still wanted to understand what he had done so he instructed me to try it myself and explore. I immediately went home and tried replicate what he had done but the code was hard to decipher and I honestly remained confused. Soon thereafter the training came to an end and I prepared to tell my instructor “Goodbye”, but we talked and he promised to stay in touch. True to his word, we had many conversations via Facebook and every day I would ask questions and explore code. I would ask Dr. Andrew questions and he would send me code snippets as answers, which I devoured. When I would write my own code I would often get errors, which I would immediately send through the web (the world is small when you have the internet!) to Dr. Andrew and he would suggest corrections. This process went on for few months and finally I began to understand R and my design was no longer incomprehensible or overly complex. The code was no longer baffling. I found myself generating descriptive statistics and performing the analyses I had originally desired to learn. Finally, I was making conclusions and my thesis was beginning to take form.

Eventually, we would go on to publish the study in an international journal of agriculture research and the collaboration with Dr. Andrew would continue to grow. Today, we still talk frequently and there seems to be no end in sight to the process. I am extremely thankful and would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Andrew for his help and mentorship. I also want to express my appreciation to Winrock’s [USAID-funded] Farmer-to-Farmer program.

Yes, Dr. Andrew, collaboration does truly work and while it was an unlikely circumstances, the success is undoubtable and it has been a great opportunity. I look forward to our continued collaboration and to your next visit. Did I mention I have some code I’d like for you to review…?”

–Sushil Nepal, Technical Officer, Department of Plant Breeding, National Maize Research Program, Nepal Agricultural Research Council, Rampur Chitwan, Nepal