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Catching up with EFSNE Alumna Elaine Hill

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Posted: November 12, 2015

On a five-year project, turnover is a fact of life. The best kind of turnover happens when students working on the project receive their degrees and advance in their careers. One of these “project alumni” is Elaine Hill. Now an assistant professor of public health sciences and health economist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Hill worked with the EFSNE project from 2011-2014 as a graduate student at Cornell University. We caught up with Hill over the summer to reflect on her time with the project and to learn more about what she’s up to now.
Elaine Hill. Photo courtesy of University of Rochester

Elaine Hill. Photo courtesy of University of Rochester

Note: After this story was written, we were delighted to learn that Elaine Hill was selected to receive a $1.25 million Early Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) designed to boost researchers at the beginning of their careers. The grant will enable Hill to study the complex local health, environmental, and economic implications of oil and gas extraction in the U.S.

Congratulations, Elaine!

As Steve Jobs famously said during his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards…Believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart.” Elaine Hill believes that the dots of her diverse research interests will connect, even if it’s too soon to see those connections clearly.

“I have varied interests. I hope to develop several themes so that people can see the threads and lines that I’m crossing and bringing together, but maybe not this early in my career,” she said. “My CV, in the long run, probably is going to be pretty varied.”

In fact, it already is. As a graduate student in applied economics at Cornell University, Hill started out studying maize markets in Uganda. But her research plans took an unexpected turn when, back at Cornell, she became interested in the shale-gas development taking place nearby. She ultimately conducted her dissertation research on shale-gas drilling and its effects on infant health. But all the while, she also was engaging in food systems research as a student member of the EFSNE team.

“I saw the EFSNE project as a great opportunity to see a systems approach,” she said, noting that the project’s outreach component also appealed to her. “I wanted to learn more about making your research mean something to the population you’re studying and how to reach out to practitioners and people who are practically utilizing your findings to make change in the system.”

Hill joined the project when it first launched in 2011. She primarily worked as a member of the Distribution Team under the guidance of team leader and Cornell University economist Miguel Gómez. Her experience in Uganda interviewing farmers and traders turned out to be a boon for the team, since her insights helped shape the surveys they administered to store owners and supply chain intermediaries as part of the supply chain case studies.

She also participated in a three-year collaboration with Production Team member Nicole Tichenor, a doctoral candidate in the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at Tufts University. Together, Tichenor and Hill were responsible for developing a model of the national beef supply chain—an effort they affectionately dubbed “Team Beef.” That cross-discipline collaboration, and others like it within the project, underscores one of Hill’s most significant takeaways from her time with the project. 

“I would say that the most impressive aspect of EFSNE was the structure of team. There was this respect across the team and a willingness to work with people who speak different [disciplinary] languages,” she said. “We learned how to translate for each other.”

Translating across disciplines is something Hill has to do a lot of these days. After all, she is an economist working in a medical school, which involves communicating with doctors, epidemiologists, public health researchers and other non-economists.

“If I hadn’t had access to the EFSNE team for the three years before getting my job, I’m not sure I would have been as prepared to communicate with people who are outside of my discipline.”

“If I hadn’t had access to the EFSNE team for the three years before getting my job, I’m not sure I would have been as prepared to communicate with people who are outside of my discipline,” she said.

Now one year into her position at University of Rochester, Hill is setting up her research program with the aim of extending her dissertation work on shale gas development and its effects on infant health. She also is interested in birth spacing and maternal decisions during pregnancy as they relate to educational outcomes. And, she’s teaching two graduate-level courses.

Whether food systems will figure prominently in her academic future remains to be seen. But she thinks there's room for it.

“I’m broadly interested in environmental and nutritional factors that affect health,” she said. “I don’t think that you can ignore the food system in that line of research."

Hill is one of the dozens of students and trainees who have engaged with the EFSNE project. More information about the educational component of the project is available here.

-- by Kristen Devlin