May 29, 2015

How to Comprehend a Fish

Catherine Kastleman

Catherine Kastleman

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Tilapia at the CLF Aquaponics facility.

Tilapia at the CLF Aquaponics facility.

“I learned more about fish than I ever imagined I would in my lifetime.”

This is the answer that I sometimes give to my friends when they ask me what it is exactly I was doing as a Research Assistant here at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. And despite how it may sound at first, it was some of the most exciting academic work I have ever had the opportunity to undertake.

Over the past few months, under the guidance of my supervisor, Dr. David Love, I analyzed data on the production and consumption of seafood in the United States and around the globe. I researched innovative Community Supported Fishery (CSF) projects and explored their role in regional food systems and learned about the process of submitting a USDA grant proposal. I dove into the details of marine finfish aquaculture, and even got down and dirty with fish “scurry” (inedible fish scraps) at a local seafood processing facility in Maryland.

This past March, I was offered the opportunity to participate in a multi-university panel called the “Sustainable Plate Salon” to discuss the 2015 Scientific Report of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee, along with several other student research assistants and fellows from the CLF. The panel was organized by Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy secretary of agriculture at the USDA and current leader of the Sustainability Institute at The George Washington University. Our group chose to focus on the sustainability recommendations for seafood, a topic on which the CLF has recently submitted comments to the USDA (I also had the opportunity to assist with drafting one of those comments).

It was exciting to work with the team to pull together recommendations for the Sustainable Plate Salon—we even spent late nights over our spring break doing research—and the experience made me realize how lucky I was to be part of the conversation. After our presentation, I looked around and felt grateful for the training and mentorship I have received from leaders at the CLF and from across the Bloomberg School of Public Health. I felt for the first time that I was ready to embrace my role as part of the sustainable food movement of the future along with my peers.

As you may be able to tell by now, there was much more to my Research Assistant experience than learning about fish.

At the beginning of the year I arrived with some knowledge of the U.S. food system, having worked at an advocacy organization on food system issues in my pre-Bloomberg life. But on the very first day as an RA, I was exposed to a concept that was almost entirely new to me: agroecology. After getting a basic grounding in the topic, I embarked on a landscape assessment project with Dr. Love to discover the state of research at the intersection of sustainable agriculture and public health. Based on over 20 phone interviews, we created a network map to understand how their work is linked together, and how it connects back to the field of public health.

People often balk when confronted with this kind of interdisciplinary work. Even career sustainable agriculture professionals cannot always articulate how the issues they work on every day are critical to human and environmental health. But the Center is boldly forging ahead and leading the conversation on this topic. The research that comes out of the CLF is helping to make important scientific linkages between food, environment, and health that will ultimately shape the future of food. I feel privileged to have been part of this amazing group of researchers and staffers and glad that I was able to contribute in some small way.

Now, when I look at a fish, I see a cascade of research questions and interconnections linking marine ecosystems to human health. I can use the tools I have learned here to zoom out from microbes, nutrients, and trophic levels to international supply chains and labor markets.

That is to say, thanks to the CLF, I’ll never see the food system the same way again.

One Comment

  1. Posted by Katharine Meacham

    This is a wonderful testimony to good teaching and learning — keeping curiosity and connections alive. Someday we’ll all realize that to assume that knowledge is confined to particular disciplines is what mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Thanks.

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