Interdisciplinary NSF Research Traineeship:

AgBioFEWS | Agricultural Biotechnology in Our Evolving Food, Energy, and Water Systems


AgBioFEWS offers two-year fellowships with generous stipends for students joining a cohort focused on the impacts of biotechnology on food, energy, and water systems. The cohort will spend time in Eastern North Carolina working with a variety of community partners, in addition to on-campus coursework in the science, policy, and public engagement aspects of new technologies.

About AgBioFEWS

The challenges of feeding the world while protecting ecosystems are not only technological, but convergent in spanning technical, social, political, and ethical issues. Our students cross disciplines to address these complex challenges.

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AgBioFEWS is built on a foundation of interdisciplinarity, spanning fields in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Our program offers PhD and Masters students in a diversity of fields the chance to research, develop, utilize, and manage agricultural biotechnology in ways that improve FEW systems. Our students:

  • Integrate knowledge and uncertainties from diverse, sophisticated fields of study,
  • Understand how both facts and values influence decision-making, and
  • Establish their trustworthiness through open and creative engagement with diverse communities.

Agriculture constitutes the largest use of land on the planet and as currently practiced could threaten the sustainability of FEW systems. In AgBioFEWS students graduate prepared to meet the challenges of our agricultural future.


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Convergent Knowledge

AgBioFEWS students build convergent knowledge and conduct research in the natural and social sciences in order to help forge futures where agricultural biotechnology applications enhance FEW systems while minimizing unintended consequences.

AgBioFEWS scholars not only think broadly, they use evidence-based approaches to elevate the level of public discourse on agricultural biotechnology.

Interactions of biotechnology with FEWS Click to expand

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The AgBioFEWS application is coming soon! Please submit your contact information and we will reach out to you as soon as it is posted.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NRT award #1828820), our program offers students the opportunity to join us as PhD Cohort Fellows, or as students in a Graduate Minor. Opportunities for undergraduates to participate in AgBioFEWS are also being developed.

Applicants to AgBioFEWS PhD Cohort Fellows must also apply to one of NC State’s 58 PhD-granting programs for the upcoming 2019-2020 academic year.

Explore PhD Options

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Program Details

There are multiple levels at which students can participate in AgBioFEWS.

Photograph of IGERT PhD Students

The Genetic Engineering and Society Center’s previous research training grant (IGERT) ran from 2012-2018 and focused on Genetic Pest Management. Learn more about the IGERT >

We welcome students into the AgBioFEWS program as Cohort Fellows or students in a Graduate Minor, as well as opportunities for undergraduate participation. Students across all groups are eligible to apply for funds to support research and public engagement.

PhD Cohort Fellows

The most involved and advanced level, PhD Cohort Fellows receive two years of fellowship support ($34,000 per year with tuition and fees paid) and then move on to research and/or teaching assistantships in their PhD programs.

Graduate Minor

Masters and PhD students working towards established graduate minor in Genetic Engineering and Society (GES), or in the emerging minor in Public Science (PS), may use 1-3 AgBioFEWS courses to fulfill requirements toward those minors.

Partnerships and Opportunities

We will partner with historically black universities, including North Carolina A&T State University, offering internships to their undergraduate and masters students, and we will establish a path for these students to join our NRT program. Continuous interaction with experts from industry, government, and NGOs will enable students to have access to a diversity of careers.

PhD Fellows accepted into AgBioFEWS will:

  • Receive two years of fellowship funding
  • Take four core courses
  • Collaborate on a cohort project
  • Incorporate AgBioFEWS into their PhD thesis, and
  • Participate in professional development opportunities

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Core Activities

Timeframe: First and second summer, 3 credits
Faculty: Core and contributing faculty

Description: Students will spend much of their first course in rural agricultural communities. Following an intensive 5-day overview of the agricultural systems in the region (on campus at NC State), students will travel to a small Coastal Plain community where they and faculty will spend a week visiting with farmers, hearing about how they are impacted by genetic engineering, and laboring in the fields at the Vernon James experiment station. They will also meet with environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy, Toxic Free NC, and Sound Rivers, learning why and how they monitor water quality, and their concerns about how biotech crops affect fragile nature lands. The following spring, they will return for two more weeks to see cropping operations and decision-making done during that season.

After taking this course, students will have a basic understanding of:

  1. local farmer practices, decision-making, and concerns
  2. positive and negative impacts of engineered crops on FEW systems
  3. concerns of environmental groups and local citizens
  4. responsible and effective engagement with diverse publics

Timeframe: Fall of first year, 3 credits
Faculty: Jason Delborne and Jean Goodwin

Description:This course will address the challenge of designing meaningful engagement among experts, stakeholders, and broader publics in the development and governance of emerging technologies. Students will integrate conceptual foundations from science communication, science and technology studies (STS), environmental policy, and science ethics, and will use this knowledge to develop practical program designs for students’ future public engagement activities on issues related to biotechnology innovations.

After taking this course students will:

  1. recognize the relationships among expertise, public trust, and adoption of emerging biotechnologies in agriculture
  2. understand science as a social process situated within ethical, cultural and policy contexts
  3. have developed a personal ethical framework for evaluating appropriate public roles and responsibilities as a researcher
  4. have a feasible, research-based plan for effective and appropriate public engagement activities

Timeframe: Spring of first year, 3 credits
Faculty: Heike Sederoff, Bob Kelly, and Fred Gould

Description: This course will provide students with an understanding of the genetic and molecular basis of plant physiology and the different technologies of genetic crop improvement. The students will learn the physiological effects of select genetic targets, synthetic modules, and interactive engineering. These concepts will then be analyzed for their utility, efficiency, and limitations in engineering plants with properties that could improve FEW systems. Case studies will be presented as examples of how current crops with engineered traits have affected FEW systems in the US and globally.

The students will critically evaluate new discoveries in the natural sciences for their potential application in biotechnology. Students will learn basic molecular techniques (e.g. DNA/RNA extraction and purification, PCR) and biosafety protocols in a teaching lab. They will use bioinformatics to compare gene origins and compare gene structures. Multiple visits to active genetic engineering labs, greenhouses, and the NC State sequencing facility (Genomic Sciences Lab – GSL) will provide practical insight into the generation and analysis of engineered plants and associated microbes. Students will participate in demonstrations of cloning and transformation techniques. (Students lacking knowledge of genetics will take an introductory genetics course the semester prior to this course. Peer mentoring during the course by students in molecular genetics PhD programs will be encouraged as part of the team experience.)

After taking this course students will be able to:

  1. explain basic concepts of genetics, genomics and plant physiology
  2. understand how bioinformatics is used to analyze sequence data
  3. extract and quantify DNA/RNA, run PCR reactions, and compare sequences on databases
  4. describe characteristics of current, and potential future strategies for modifying plant genomes
  5. examine the FEW impacts of current commercial GE crops—as well as what is in the pipeline
  6. understand novel genetic approaches for improving FEW systems in the near and far future

Timeframe: Fall of second year, 3 credits
Faculty: Zack Brown, Jennifer Kuzma and Kelly Zering

Description: The complex feedbacks between agricultural biotechnology and FEW systems preclude the sole reliance on controlled experimentation or observational study to assess causal relationships across diverse systems. Assessing the possible futures implicated by these emerging technologies requires integrating modeling approaches. When strictly disciplinary models are applied to inherently interdisciplinary questions, the processes outside the modelers’ expertise are usually represented (if at all) in a highly abstract fashion, often with unjustified assumptions. For example, natural scientists and engineers assuming away behavioral responses to a new technology is a classic case of an unjustified assumption in an ‘outside process’ that can have tangible consequences (Mobarak et al. 2012).

This course will engage students from multiple disciplines to combine their complementary expertise and interests to work together with instructors (either in small groups or as a class) on a single final project. With this group-based practicum format establishing the orientation of this course, we will interweave a limited number of discrete lectures by the instructors that provide self-contained primers of the types of models used in specific disciplines, including agronomy, population biology and ecology, economics, decision and risk analysis, and life-cycle assessment.

After taking this course students will know:

  1. the basics of common modeling techniques used across the biological, economic and social sciences (e.g. systems mapping, systems dynamics, agent-based modeling, optimization, risk analysis, and mind-mapping)
  2. how to assess the validity of different modeling techniques across disciplines
  3. how to identify suitable modeling techniques for different research questions, and based on different types of available data
  4. how to simplify complex systems to the key processes and feedbacks admitting analysis of a specific, interdisciplinary question
  5. how to analyze and account for uncertainty in model structure, parameters or assumptions (e.g. through Monte Carlo simulation, Bayesian approaches and expert elicitation, etc.), as well as the connections from natural-world “unknowns” to social-world forces that can address the uncertainties (e.g. funding policy, risk management, or changes in economic conditions)
  6. how to integrate and apply modeling techniques to analyze food, energy and water interactions with humans’ choices regarding emerging agricultural biotechnologies

From the first day that the Cohort Students join our program they will be made aware that a major goal in their convergent training will be for them to use the background gained from disciplinary and AgBioFEWS coursework, as well as other sources in order to work together on a project involving multiple disciplines. While we recognize that students in the cohorts will have disciplinary emphases, this will not be simply a multidisciplinary project where each student does work in his/her discipline. The goal is for all students to contribute to and understand all of the methods and outcomes of the project.

As students in a cohort move through hands-on and more conceptual courses, they will be expected to keep their eyes out for interesting problems where solutions will require input from multiple disciplines. They will be encouraged to discuss their ideas with AgBioFEWS faculty. At the end of their second Fall semester, the cohort will choose 2-3 faculty members to formally mentor them on their project.

The final project will be determined by the students. Given the emphasis of our AgBioFEWS on communication and engagement, examples of outcomes could be an innovative approach to engagement tested to determine if it elevates the level of public discussions about biotechnology and FEW systems, or an interactive systems model of an agricultural FEW system that is accurate, accessible, and informative to farmers and conservationists. A student cohort could also choose to work on more experimental or analytical work on farms and/or adjoining natural habitats.

  • Timeframe: Spring semester after last AgBioFEWS course

Although the AgBioFEWS Cohort Students will be receiving a PhD in an already established program with its own requirements, each Cohort Student (and PhD program DGP) will sign a contract in joining the AgBioFEWS program indicating that at least one chapter from her/his thesis will address an interdisciplinary issue related to agricultural biotechnology and FEW systems.

We will provide students with additional exposure to diverse perspectives on biotechnology in our ongoing, weekly colloquium series on Genetic Engineering and Society.

Presentations are kept to 30 minutes to allow for plenty of time for discussion. Many of the presenters are drawn from multinational corporations, governments, NGOs, and startup companies. These presenters are chosen to provide divergent viewpoints on a broad array of genetic engineering issues (from bacteria to humans) in order to challenge our students to think deeply for themselves. We are fortunate to have collaborations with many small and large biotechnology companies close to NC State (e.g. Syngenta, BASF, AgBiome). Nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy and RTI International are also nearby and will collaborate.

Collaborations between the NC State Graduate School, Libraries, and the Leadership in Public Science cluster will create numerous opportunities for our AgBioFEWS students to further develop their academic and public communication skills—these range from short workshops on science communication to full credit courses on grant-writing. In addition, NC State has a “Preparing the Professoriate” program for students aiming at academic careers. Traditional courses on research ethics are required in most of our associated graduate programs.


Study area in Eastern North Carolina


Why NC State?

NC State is North Carolina’s flagship school, bringing together some of the world’s top agricultural and social scientists.

FEW & Biotech Clusters: Genetic Engineering and Society; Global Environmental Change; Emerging Plant Diseases & Global Food Security; Water Sanitation & Hygiene; Public Science; and Systems & Synthetic Biology

NC State Research Clusters contributing to AgBioFEWS Click to expand

The Land Grant mission of NC State has always valued interdisciplinary interactions among agricultural scientists. Now, we are positioned to become a leader in moving from a technological/economic/commercialization model centered in the natural sciences and engineering to one that both embraces social sciences as an equal contributing partner and reaches out to engage the broader public.

NC State has institutionalized interdisciplinary research through the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program, an initiative to create interdisciplinary clusters of faculty focused on addressing the world’s most pressing challenges.

The AgBioFEWS Program will engage with at least six of these faculty clusters: Genetic Engineering and SocietyGlobal Environmental Change, Emerging Plant Diseases & Global Food Security, Water Sanitation & Hygiene, Public Science, and Systems & Synthetic Biology.

Meet Our Faculty

The faculty leadership team brings expertise spanning genetic engineering, ecology, plant systems, synthetic biology, disease epidemiology, public engagement, risk analysis, bioeconomics, and more. This means that students from any of these disciplines will become T-shaped, adept at working with colleagues from any background.

Students can choose a major advisor and committee members from any participating programs. Our core faculty are:

AgBioFEWS FacultyField of Expertise
Dr. Fred GouldDr. Fred Gould (PI)
GES Center Co-Director | University Distinguished Professor, Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology | College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Genetic Engineering and Ecology
Tagged: Fred Gould
Dr. Jennifer KuzmaDr. Jennifer Kuzma (Co-PI)
GES Center Co-Director | Goodnight-NC GSK Foundation Distinguished Professor, Public & International Affairs | College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Risk Analysis & Governance Systems
Tagged: Jennifer Kuzma
Dr. Jason DelborneDr. Jason A. Delborne (Co-PI)
Associate Professor of Science, Policy, and Society, Forestry & Environmental Resources | College of Natural Resources
Biotechnology & Public Engagement
Tagged: Jason Delborne
Dr. Zachary BrownDr. Zachary S. Brown (Co-PI)
Assistant Professor, Agricultural & Resource Economics | College of Agriculture & Life Sciences
Tagged: Zachary Brown
Heike SederoffDr. Heike Sederoff (Co-PI)
Chair, Systems and Synthetic Biology Cluster, Professor, Department of Plant and Microbial Biology | College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Plant Systems & Synthetic Biology
Tagged: Heike Sederoff
Dr. Jean RistainoDr. Jean Ristaino (Executive Committee)
Director, Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security Cluster, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor, Department of Plant Pathology | College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Disease Epidemiology & Population Genetics
Tagged: Jean Ristaino
Dr. Robert KellyDr. Robert (Bob) Kelly (Executive Committee)
Director of NCSU Biotechnology Program, Alcoa Professor, Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering | College of Engineering
Biotechnology Research & Education
Tagged: Robert Kelly
Dr. Jean GoodwinDr. Jean Goodwin (Executive Committee)
Leadership in Public Science Cluster, SAS Institute Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Technical Communication | College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Public Science
Tagged: Jean Goodwin
Kelly ZeringDr. Kelly Zering (Executive Committee)
Professor and Extension Specialist, Agricultural & Resource Economics | College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Agricultural Systems Analysis
Tagged: Kelly Zering
Dr. Rodolphe BarrangouDr. Rodolphe Barrangou
Editor-in-Chief, The CRISPR Journal, Associate Professor, Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences | College of Agriculture and Life Science
Gene Editing, CRISPR Biochemistry & Genetic Engineering
Tagged: Rodolphe Barrangou
Rajade M. Berry JamesDr. Jade Berry-James
Associate Professor, Public and International Affairs | College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Public Administration and Social Equity
Tagged: Jade Berry-James
Dr. Andrew BinderDr. Andrew Binder
Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Programs, Department of Communication | College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Public Administration and Social Equity
Tagged: Andrew Binder
Dr. Carl Crozier
Professor, Soil Science Extension Specialist, Vernon James Center, NC Cooperative Extension
Agriculture Nitrogen Dynamics
Tagged: Carl Crozier
Dr. Rebecca DunningDr. Rebecca Dunning
Research Asst Professor, Horticultural Science; Director, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Graduate Fellowship Program | College of Agriculture and Life Science
Socioeconomic Aspects of Food Systems and Supply Chains
Tagged: Rebecca Dunning
Dr.  Keith EdmistenDr. Keith Edmisten
Professor of Crop & Soil Sciences & Extension Cotton Specialist, Crop and Soil Sciences | College of Agriculture and Life Science
Weed Management
Keith Edmisten
Dr. Todd KuikenDr. Todd Kuiken
Senior Research Scholar | GES Center
Global/National Policy; DIYbio Community
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Dr. Alun Lloyd
Drexel Professor, Director of Biomathematics Graduate Program, Department of Mathematics | College of Sciences
Mathematical Modeling
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Dr. Nora HaennDr. Nora Haenn
Associate Professor, Anthropology and International Studies, Department of Sociology and Anthropology | College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Sociocultural Analysis
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Dr. Ron HeinigerDr. Ron Heiniger
Professor and Extension Specialist, Corn / Soybeans / Small Grains, Crop and Soil Sciences | NC State Extension
Agricultural Water and Energy Use
Tagged: Ron Heiniger
Dr. James HollandDr. James (Jim) Holland
USDA Professor, Maize Breeding & Genetics, Crop and Soil Sciences | College of Agriculture and Life Science
Plant Breeding
Tagged: James Holland
Dr. Dominic ReisigDr. Dominic Reisig
Associate Professor & Extension Specialist of Entomology, Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology | College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Pest Management
Tagged: Dominic Reisig
Dr. Anna WhitfieldDr. Anna Whitfield
Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security Cluster, Professor, Entomology & Plant Pathology | College of Agriculture and Life Science
Tagged: Anna Whitfield
Dr. David MeyerDr. David Meyer (External Evaluator)
Affiliated Research Professor, Organizational Performance and Human Learning | Boise State University
Transdisciplinary Program Management
Sharon StaufferSharon Stauffer
Program Specialist, GES Center
Phone: 919.515.2596
Center Program Specialist
Patti MulliganPatti Mulligan
Communications Director, GES Center
Science Communication

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Contact Us

We encourage students with any interest in the program to reach out to us. We actively engage in dialogue with prospective students. Today, ongoing breakthroughs in agricultural biotechnology predict a wave of innovations. Will these fulfill biotechnology’s longstanding promise to feed the world’s growing population? Will they preserve ecosystem integrity?

These questions have multiple entry points, and we seek to maximize the number of students working on them. Please contact us, so we can work with you to find the fit that’s best for your career path.

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