Science & Research

Blum ’16 wins regional Undergraduate Award

Award-winning paper proposes effective use of agricultural biotechnologies

Contributing Writer
Thursday, October 6, 2016

Alexander Blum ’16 was awarded regional honors from the prestigious Undergraduate Awards for a paper he wrote on agricultural biotechnology.

Alexander Blum ’16, a former Herald metro editor, became the first Brown student to be recognized by  the international academic program the Undergraduate Awards, winning honors in the United States and Canada region. Blum won in the earth and environmental sciences category for his paper “Rational Misconception: Agricultural Biotechnology,” which argues that the optimal use of agricultural technologies requires input from all relevant parties.

The award-winning paper was originally written as a final assignment for an international relations class, INTL 1803I: “Richard Holbrooke (’62, a former Herald editor-in-chief) and the Rise and Fall of American Power.” The course was taught by David Rohde ’90, national security investigations editor at Reuters and then-senior fellow in international and public affairs. The paper prompt was to write a guide to a major foreign policy challenge the United States faces. Blum, a biochemistry concentrator, used his prior scientific knowledge to write a white paper on the appropriate usages of agricultural biotechnology.

One of Holbrooke’s guiding principles taught in the class was that all people are rational actors and should be treated as such even when their perceptions and guiding values differ from those of other individuals. Blum then applied that concept to the field of agricultural biotechnology. “One of the paper’s central themes is that a thoughtful, well-informed conversation that respects folks on both sides of the debate is crucial,” he said. Though biotechnology is a hotly debated topic, there are people “on both sides that make valid points and whose opinions need to be respected,” he added.

“As well as being very authoritative on science,” Rohde said, Blum “did a great job of digging out facts and also airing the criticisms.” Blum’s paper incorporated his existing knowledge to make his argument, and the white paper was “just a slam dunk in terms of how clearly and cogently it was written,” Rohde added.

After he turned the assignment in for the course, Blum was encouraged to submit his paper to the Undergraduate Awards when he attended an informational session with Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Inclusive Science Oludurotimi Adetunji in February. “It was not written with the awards in mind. In terms of the writing process, it was a standard research paper,” Blum said.

Blum’s research continues to affect his current work at Gandhiji Prem Nivas, a Hansen’s disease center.

“Living here has confirmed my argument in the sense that I still believe and really do feel that these technologies can do a lot of good, especially for the poor,” Blum said, adding that it is “not a black-and-white issue, either.”

Rohde was “thrilled” that Blum was able to apply his research because “there are huge advances occurring in science and technology, and we should be applying them to the great challenges of our time,” he said.

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