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Rosemary Gay is a Ph.D. student within the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The department is housed within the College of Arts and Sciences. She has been awarded the James L. Peacock III Summer Research Fellowship as she works to complete her dissertation on the politics of peanut science and how it shapes agricultural development. Prior to attending UNC-Chapel Hill, she attended the University of Georgia, where she studied agroecology and sustainable development.

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Rosemary Gay

I am a sociocultural anthropologist focusing on agricultural science. I’m interested in why we farm the way we do, what science is conducted and implemented to support production, and how that influences what we eat. I’m studying a niche case of peanuts, specifically the peanut scientists working transnationally across the southeastern regions of the U.S. and of Brazil. I’m interested in how the research agenda of peanut science has evolved across time and space to become what it is today. I’m curious about the layers of power dynamics that influence what kinds of research on peanut science is conducted, and who benefits from it. 

Why are you interested in this topic?

I like the peanut because it’s whimsical. Peanut butter is a quintessential American food and a childhood classic, and the political history of how it became a staple food in the U.S. is wild.

Peanut science is a critical and compelling case to understand the history of how U.S. agricultural universities have been involved in regional farming. I find a lot of inspiration in George Washington Carver’s public-serving leadership and vision, designing his science to help make life better for Black sharecroppers in southern Alabama and taking responsibility for applying it with an innovative outreach program called Extension. Though it has changed a lot over time, this is still the outreach model that U.S. agricultural universities use today, and it is now used in a lot of other countries, too – including Brazil.

How are you researching this subject this summer?

In June, I visited a university in Brazil to work with peanut scientists there and connect with the Brazilian peanut industry. I worked with a peanut geneticist to learn about a new variety of peanut that she is breeding, and I look forward to helping her with the greenhouse experiment and maybe some related laboratory work in the future. I’ve also been learning about new machinery in peanut farming. Although I’m in the U.S. South now, I’ll be going back to Brazil to do long-term field research in 2024, so I’ve been preparing for the move, including beginning work on the ethics approval process through my host university in Brazil. In the U.S., I’m setting up a second field site. I’ll also be visiting Tuskegee University in Alabama to learn more about the history that originally got me interested in this topic. I’m excited to focus full time on field work, as well as reading and building my project from a theoretical standpoint to present my dissertation proposal in August.

What is your favorite part of your project?

I love how it challenges my preconceived ideas about what I think I will learn from my work. It’s intriguing and humbling how complicated it is to feed a society, and I enjoy learning about the different motivations people have for working in agriculture. I find the holistic approach that anthropology gives my interest in peanut science to be really engaging on a personal level. I get to spend time participating in the science I study — harvesting peanuts for field trials and experiment in greenhouses, in addition to talking directly to scientists and industry professionals– in their offices and factories, and in the future at their conferences and fairs — to understand why they do what they do. It’s amazing how even a singular conversation can reorient how I think about my research. 

What brought you to Carolina for graduate school?

I wanted a program that focused on the social science of agriculture, and there was a special concentration of professors who teach that here. The Department of Anthropology at Carolina has multiple scholars, including sociocultural anthropologists, who study agri-food systems, which isn’t very common. This has allowed me to work with an incredibly interesting and supportive committee.

I also knew I wanted to work in Latin America, and I heard fabulous things about the UNC Institute for the Study of the Americas. ISA’s support of my studies and research has gone way above and beyond my expectations. I am so grateful to them! Although at the time I didn’t know I would conduct research in the U.S. South, Carolina’s Center for the Study of the American South also really stood out to me as a unique space fostering critical thinking about what it means to be from the South, to live and work here, and to imagine and work towards making it better for the future.

How have you built community since you’ve gotten here?

I’m lucky that my department has a graduate student organization that hosts social and professional development events. That’s been a great way to make friends and find support.

I also love the Graduate Certificate in Participatory Research. The program offers training in working in equitable partnership with communities to develop impactful and meaningful research. It’s a vibrant interdisciplinary group that introduced me to warm and caring graduate students from across campus, all of whom have a passion for ethical research. This past year I worked part-time as the program’s graduate coordinator, which has allowed me to form relationships with the impressive community experts and faculty that lead the program as well.

What do you hope comes of your research?

I hope the processes of reflection that unfold through interviews and participant observation with peanut researchers, will open spaces to consider new ways of studying and growing food. In the future, I also hope to co-develop a lesson plan with middle or high school students here in the U.S. South, that centers the expertise of Black Americans in inventing, studying, growing, and preparing peanuts, and how this has shaped diets and food cultures in the U.S.  

What do you hope to do after graduate school?

I would love to teach anthropology classes to agricultural science students, maybe at a land grant university. I would like to focus on issues of oppression and exploitation in agriculture — and ways these are challenged — because that’s what I wanted and needed more of in my undergraduate education in agricultural science.

What does this funding mean to you?

This funding means so much, and I’m extremely grateful. This is not a position graduate students are usually in. During the summer, I would normally be helping as a research assistant on a faculty project or searching for other sources of funding. Knowing I have the ability to do fieldwork and to maintain my basic needs also makes it easier to dedicate brain space to pursuing my project. 

What does it mean to have generous donors who support your research?

It is validating and encouraging that donors are putting trust in me as a very young and budding scholar, who is still figuring things out, to do research that produces new insight. Fellowships like these are generous leaps of faith that donors make to invest in graduate students.

Payton Wilkins




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