May 6, 2015

Getting started with online historical research

First off, it's official that I'm a PhD and I have a two year fellowship at the USDA's Climate Change Program Office! I'm moving from Arizona to Virginia and I couldn't be happier.

In the course of my dissertation research I utilized many online databases and archives. Some of these were through my library, so they required a university login and password, but many are freely available to anyone. I thought I'd list some of these resources.

Universally helpful:
  • Google n-gram viewer. When I'm learning about a new historical topic, this is one of the first places I turn to, especially when I want to know about the etymology of a specific phrase or word. I can then click on the link to Google books from specific time frames and check out how the word is used, in what contexts, etc. 
  • WorldCat is a database of virtually all published (and some unpublished) materials. While no website has a universally perfect search function, typing keywords or authors into WorldCat's search usually turns up a relevant list of publications. WorldCat is helpful because it lists the complete biographical information and what libraries hold a specific item. If it is available online, it will often link to it.
  • Hathi Trust and These sites contain thousands of open-access digitized texts. You may have to refine your search terms to find relevant texts. (FYI "hathi" is Hindi/Urdu/Bengali for elephant, so it's pronounced with a hard aspirated "t". Listen here!)
  • and Google Scholar. I'm not an expert at database querying so I spend a lot of time trying out different keywords and strings of words in Google and G-Scholar. Google often leads me to documents that I wouldn't have been able to find even within an institution's website. For example I find a lot of documents scanned and uploaded on USAID's website (because USAID funded many of the projects I studied), but there was not a good way to access these through USAID and there is no hierarchy or organization of the information, so it's just random.
International agricultural research history:
  • CIMMYT Repository and University of Florida Digital Collections. CIMMYT's repository has been organized by topic, the link provided is for "wheat" but there is a sidebar on the left titled "Collections." In this case I sorted the repository by year. This repository contains published materials as well as a large amount of published and unpublished CIMMYT reports and conferences. UF's Digital Collections has a repository called "International Farming Systems" that is a collection of materials donated by Peter Hildebrand, an agricultural economist. I'm not sure what his professional affiliations were, but this repository has over 2000 international agricultural reports, some in English and some in Spanish, from roughly the 1950s onwards.
  • University of Minnesota Library's digital collections. There is a large amount of scanned materials deposited here. The green revolution collection (no link, just cntl-F it on the homepage) hosts correspondences, diary notes, and biographical details of Norman Borlaug, John Gibler, and Elvin Stakman among others. It takes a while to load each scanned page, but if you're interested in finding the "raw" archival data, this is it. Borlaug's oral history is included here, so if you can't make it to the Rockefeller Archive Center but still want to read it, find it here!
Foreign policy history, Cold War era-specific:
  • US State Department Historical Documents. This repository spans from 1945 to 1980 and the archivists here have helpfully separated various documents (memo's, correspondence, etc.) by date, topic, and region. All materials are transcribed so it is easy to read and to copy-paste exact quotes.
  • Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. I haven't browsed this fully, but it has a collection of digital material from Truman and his cabinet, advisors, and other policy-related people. It has a large collection of oral histories.

April 6, 2015

Publication: Wide adaptation of green revolution wheat

I recently co-edited a journal section with a colleague from ASU. The journal alerted me that my article is available for free for one month, so you can download it via this link until May.


Indian wheat cultivation changed radically in the 1960s due to new technologies and policy reforms introduced during the Green Revolution, and farmers' adoption of ‘packages’ of modern seeds, fertilizer, and irrigation. Just prior to the Green Revolution, Indian scientists adopted a new plant breeding philosophy—that varieties should have as wide an adaptation as possible, meaning high and stable yields across different environments. But scientists also argued that wide adaptation could be achieved by selecting only plants that did well in high fertility and irrigated environments. Scientists claimed that widely adapted varieties still produce high yields in marginal areas. Many people have criticized the Green Revolution for its unequal spread of benefits, but none of these critiques address wide adaptation—the core tenant held by Indian agricultural scientists to justify their focus on highly productive land while ignoring marginal or rainfed agriculture. This paper also describes Norman Borlaug's and the Rockefeller Foundation's research program in wide adaptation, Borlaug's involvement in the Indian wheat program, and internal debates about wide adaptation and selection under ideal conditions among Indian scientists. It argues that scientists leveraged the concept of wide adaptation to justify a particular regime of research focused on high production agriculture.

Citation: Baranski, Marci R. "Wide adaptation of Green Revolution wheat: International roots and the Indian context of a new plant breeding ideal, 1960–1970." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 50 (2015): 41-50.

January 30, 2015

Bio-geek science fiction

I wrote this for fun. Hope you enjoy this short piece of science fiction!

Rajiv gently scooped a tiny blob of bacteria from the tube. As he spread the cells into a petri dish, the toothpick point glided across the gelatinous, nutrient-laden agar. He tossed the bacteria-laden toothpick into bio-waste and gingerly placed his petri dishes in the incubator. He hoped the inserted plasmid stuck this time, but he wouldn't know until tomorrow. And even if it worked, he still had to induce them without causing a massive die-off, again. Petro-bugs were tricky: the colony needed to replicate enough before the hydrocarbon chains they produced overwhelmed the sample. According to his advisor, Rajiv was getting closer. He only hoped.

The sky cast grey shadows in his lab, the fourth floor of the Shell-Dannon building, though it was better known as "Bugs and Guts" for their objects of inquiry. Rajiv had come to Iowa State University to study wheat, but all of Iowa's plant breeders were scooped off to the West Coast by CalGreen. He could only find a spot with the microbiologists. They weren't too bad though, and he appreciated the ready-made gels and columns, lack of black-outs, and easily available reagents that their facilities offered. Not like during his masters in Varanasi—that was a different story. He spent half his time there waiting for a shipment of acetate to arrive from Kolkata.

After plating the last transformation, Rajiv grabbed the bus back to his apartment. Other bio-geeks nervously glanced around at each other, uncomfortably surrounded by the blond mops of hair stuffed into down jackets that dominated the campus. Rajiv didn't mind so much, and in fact had met his fiancé on a late night bus back from campus. She was a veterinary post-doc at the sprawling livestock research facilities south of campus.

Finally at his apartment, Rajiv plopped onto the futon as Kaju bunted his side and purred. He scratched her between the ears and she replied with a squinty, feline smile.

"Any luck today?" asked Sandy from their bedroom. She was typing away, probably finishing paperwork from the day's clients.

"Not sure, but I'll know by tomorrow. At least, I'll know if they survived."

"Darn it, I forgot that you bug people have to wait. At least we know right away whether we killed our subject. Text me as soon as you know tomorrow!"

Sandy was sweet, in a way he now recognized as Midwestern, for her interest in his research. She had another reason to love bacteria. Every week she used a wide-gauged syringe to inject a personalized cocktail of Lactobacillus and other bugs into her bio-port. Based on her gut profile, her doctor fine-tuned the cocktail with bugs known to make people happy, healthy, and thin. Sandy had a bio-port from birth, basically, but Rajiv's was just a year old and he hardly used it. It still stung a little around the edges when he laughed too hard, and he figured the various bugs he encountered as a child in the village were enough for a lifetime. That, plus copious amounts of dahi and lassi.

Rajiv peeked into the bedroom. "Beta-taters or rice tonight?" 

"Oh my god, just call them potatoes! Why do you have to be so weird?"

Rajiv smirked, but he loved beta-taters. To date, they were the only biotech crop India had actually developed from scratch. Unlike Golden Rice, which even the poorest villages in Bihar still eschewed, villagers loved the marigold-hued beta-taters, especially once French fries—fried at tea stalls in delicious mustard oil—caught on.

"Alright, rice it is!”

Rajiv wandered into the kitchen, set up the rice cooker, and pulled out their bag of vegetables for the week. He never cooked before coming to the US, but he had to learn when he moved to Iowa. He liked rice, potatoes, and their weekly bag of CalGreen vegetables, and learned to cook with them easily enough. He no longer had to worry about avoiding meat since the last climate agreement sent meat prices spiking out of reach. Meanwhile, Sandy’s colleagues worked on converting the remaining livestock into bio-digesters.

Most of all, Rajiv loved American wheat—though the texture wasn't the same. He hadn't had bread or roti since he was a child, before the godowns of Punjab and Haryana gradually spilled out and emptied over the Indo-Gangetic Plains. In fact he had come to Iowa to research rust resistance in winter wheats, but just missed the exodus of plant breeders. After the World Bank privatized all of India’s agricultural research, Rajiv didn’t want any part in that business. America was the last refuge of public research, so he thought.

January 26, 2015

Passed my dissertation defense!

This blog has been silent for quite some time because I've been working full time on my dissertation. Happily, a few days ago I passed my dissertation defense! I'm still working on my dissertation edits until April, but I hope to post a published article from my dissertation here soon.