Kate Polakiewicz

A RIFA fellow measuring interactions between soil health and coffee leaf rust disease in Central America.

Kate Polakiewicz, RIFA Fellow and UC Davis IAD graduate student, works with community members in Guatemala.
Kate Polakiewicz, RIFA Fellow and UC Davis IAD graduate student, works with community members in Guatemala.

Kate Polakiewicz, RIFA Fellow and UC Davis IAD graduate student, works with community members in Guatemala.

Kate Polakiewicz, RIFA Fellow and UC Davis IAD graduate student, works with community members in Guatemala.

As a graduate student in International Agricultural Development at UC Davis, Kate Polakiewicz works with Catholic Relief Services’ Agriculture, Soils, Water program team to host her graduate field research – a study measuring interactions between soil health and the coffee leaf rust disease. Coffee rust has had widespread detrimental effects in Central America since 2012 and increasingly in México, where producers’ yields and incomes have been significantly reduced. Within a relatively recent timespan, complex races of rust have been shown to break down resistance genes used in C. arabica breeding. As a result, resistant varieties alone cannot be considered the only way to control rust – they should be combined with holistic management strategies, starting with soil.

With support from RIFA, Polakiewicz has been conducting this research with CRS in collaboration with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) at ~300 field plots in Honduras, Guatemala, and México. The objective of the research is to understand a range of soil management applications and provide recommendations for Best Management Practices and new training programs to be used by technicians and smallholders.

Her day-to-day work involves coordination with CRS teams and implementing partner organizations across three countries. In July 2016, she started her fellowship by designing measurement protocols for the data collection phase. To launch data collection, Polakiewicz developed a training agenda for a series of capacity building workshops and trained 50+ data collectors (technicians and producers) in field settings in each study country. Due to the regional scale of the project, differences in production systems between countries, and the diverse skill levels of data collectors, adapting the research methodology and training protocol while maintaining continuity has been key – and one of the project’s biggest challenges.

Polakiewicz has been stoked to be working with CRS because of their groundbreaking work in coffee as a means for development and her desire to partner with CRS’ various coffee-centered projects at a field level. She is motivated by the need to put research into practice, boiling down the findings of academia into decipherable knowledge and communicating it to those who need it most.

Profile written by Kate Wilkins.