UT economics student researches sustainable agriculture

November 8, 2016

When economics junior Joy Youwakim was growing up, she grew tired of being told to eat everything on her plate because people elsewhere were starving.

“It’s ridiculous that it’s 2016, and there are still people that are hungry in the world, especially when we produce enough,” Youwakim said.

Now at UT, she researches sustainable ways of growing food. Youwakim, also a mathematics minor, works with UT mathematics lecturer William Wolesensky to model resources for sustainable agriculture.

“A part of investigating sustainability of a resource is modeling the use of that resource, which is usually done using some mathematics,” Wolesensky said. “Joy and I collaborate on doing an experiment in modeling whatever resource she is looking at conserving, and that usually takes a mathematical slant.”

Youwakim’s previous research was about finding ways to grow more food while using less water. Youwakim said that in the future, climate change could mean less rain for crops, so she decided to study the effects of less frequent watering on corn and sorghum, a grain that is similar to corn but more nutritious.

“Corn is a really big staple in the U.S., so we were trying to show that it’s more advantageous for everybody to grow more sorghum and less corn and substitute it, because sorghum uses a lot less water and can conquer the effects of climate change a lot better,” she said.

Youwakim grew two rows of both corn and sorghum and watered one weekly as a control and the other row once every two weeks. Between the control row and the row that got watered less, there was a 27 percent yield decrease in corn and only a 13 percent yield decrease in sorghum.

“Sorghum just fared a lot better, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t be growing more,” Youwakim said. “Environmentally and agriculturally, it’s a lot better, and if the goal is to feed people and lower poverty rates, we should really start growing more sorghum.”

Youwakim said it’s important that people realize hunger is still present in the United States, but that it is a solvable issue.

“You can’t expect society to advance when people are hungry,” she said. “It’s important to realize that it’s a domestic issue and we should be doing things about it.”

Wolesensky, who has worked with Youwakim for a little over a year, said Youwakim is persistent and hardworking, even when faced with obstacles to her work. He said she is also enthusiastic about her research.

“What sets Joy apart from some people is Joy will actually do things, meaning instead of constructing barriers not to do things, Joy finds ways to go around barriers and actually accomplish something,” Wolesensky said. “Her name is very descriptive, she’s a joy to work with.”

Youwakim said research can be difficult because some ideas don’t work out and she has to be ready to revise her plans.

“Wolesensky and I started the summer after my freshman year planning things, and things had changed so many times before we finally settled on something,” Youwakim said. “You have to be willing to be invested and to have your heart broken over and over again. You should really love what you’re doing because it takes up a lot of your time.”

Regardless of the time it takes, Youwakim said she encourages students to get involved with research because it can help them find the career they want. She said her research in sustainable agriculture has allowed her to combine her interests in mathematics and the environment.

“If I had never engaged with something like this, I’d be an economics major doing math problems and thinking I would work for a bank someday, which there’s nothing wrong with, but it wasn’t my thing,” Youwakim said. “You can find that niche thing you want to do with your life. Research has been the most comforting thing and my favorite thing about college, because now I know what I want.”

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