In the midst of a nationwide lockdown in India and a stay-at-home order in New York State, Tata-Cornell Institute (TCI) scholar Shiuli Vanaja completed her final PhD exam the same way that much business is completed these days—on Zoom. As the COVID-19 pandemic slows much of the global economy to a halt, TCI has continued with its work, although things have certainly changed.
“The coronavirus pandemic has upended many aspects of peoples’ lives, and TCI is no different,” TCI Director Prabhu Pingali said. “While we are putting the safety and health of our staff and scholars first, we are changing the way we do things in order to continue doing our important work in support of nutrition-sensitive food systems.”
Vanaja had been scheduled to be in Ithaca to take her exam in late March, but the spread of the coronavirus cancelled those plans. Instead, she sat in front of her laptop in her Delhi apartment while her PhD committee sat in front of theirs in Ithaca. Despite a spotty internet connection, she was able to present the papers she had spent years working on. She left the call while the committee members made their decision, and when she logged back on, Pingali congratulated her on earning her doctorate in applied economics and management.
“I wanted to present my thesis in person, to explain it in detail and answer questions while looking at the faces and expressions of my committee members, so, participating in my exam remotely was quite a different experience,” Vanaja said. “But I am happy to say that it went well, and I was able to interact with my committee members and answer their questions satisfactorily.”
Much of TCI’s business has been conducted online since mid-March, when Cornell University decided to have all nonessential workers work remotely. Even the weekly coffee hours, where staff would start their week over warm beverages in the TCI conference room, are now conducted over Zoom, with people calling in from Ithaca, Boston, India, and elsewhere to share news and unwind.
TCI’s weekly research group meetings, which brought together staff, scholars, and others for seminar-style research presentations, have also moved online. TCI scholars have quickly adapted to the change.
“In this time of crisis, Zoom has emerged as an important lifeline for maintaining the supportive and enriching atmosphere that the research group provides,” said TCI Scholar Anthony Wenndt, who gave the first research group presentation over Zoom. “While, ultimately, it is never as satisfying to address your colleagues online compared to in person, I’m very grateful that video conferencing has enabled us to stay in touch, and to continue sharing our work and learning from one another.”
Perhaps the biggest change for TCI has been the suspension of travel and the lockdown in India, which has put the field-based research that forms the crux of its work on hold. TCI usually sends two graduate student interns to India each summer, where they assist researchers and complete research projects of their own. Two undergraduate students also participate via the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences’ Global Fellows Program. This summer, one undergraduate intern will work remotely, assisting with research and other tasks.
TCI staff also worked remotely to publish the 2019-20 Annual Report. The report would normally be released at a special, celebratory event on the Cornell Campus. This year, after many hours of video calls spent sharing screens to fine tune the design, it was released in PDF format online on April 22.
Among the projects discussed in the Annual Report are some that were in nascent states when the pandemic hit, like a study of farmer-producer organization models funded by the Walmart Foundation. TCI researchers working on that project had planned to spend part of the summer in India and Mexico conducting research. Now, they are conducting initial research in Ithaca so that, when the it is once again safe enough to travel and do field research, they can hit the ground running.