Out of the lab, into the Rice Paddy

A reflection on engineering principles observed on an adventure in Laos
DECEMBER 2017
Lauren
S.
Biological Engineering

I’ll pose this question to the MIT and scientific community: how would you identify and separate healthy rice grains from empty or insect-damaged grains to feed to the chickens? As MIT graduate students, we’d probably over-engineer this. Is there some protein in the healthy grain I can image for? I’m a mass spectrometrist, so I’d probably find something to mass spec because heck, why not! We could send it out for sequencing, too – isn’t that a thing, to sequence everything these days? (Or to put it colloquially, sequence the shit out of it).  Maybe we should just re-engineer the rice altogether. What other buzzwords can I throw in here to convince you I know what I’m talking about? Scanning electron microscopes. GWAS hits. Machine learning. Expansion microscopy. Self-organizing maps. Microfluidics. Small molecule screening. DNA ORIGAMI. That’s it. DNA origami.

Guess how rural Laotian farmers solve this question? Water, salt, and an egg.

After I proposed my thesis at the end of July, I set off as a new PhD candidate to explore a new part of the world. Of the places I traveled, Laos was by far the least “touristy” country, and also noticeably the poorest. Despite that, Laos lived up to its slogan of being “simply beautiful.” We stayed in a picturesque bungalow in the middle of a rice paddy in Vang Vieng, and when we arrived at the hotel in Luang Prabang, our second stop in Laos, I chatted with the concierge about “must do” activities. A tour of the Living Land Company’s rice farms came highly recommended, but I decided to go because of a photo in their brochure of Susan: Susan the water buffalo.

When we showed up for our half-day adventure, I found out Susan had moved on to greener pastures, and the young Rudolph would be accompanying us in the rice fields today. I spotted him across the patty- he was pink. Are water buffalos usually pink? Susan was not pink. Our guide, Long Li, told me that I’d get to meet him later. I put on the conical straw hat (it’s tradition) and waded into the rice paddy, feet sticking in the mud. Today, I was going to plant some rice, harvest it, maybe eat it? Hopefully eat it.

The Living Land Company was designed in response to the destructive farming methods occurring throughout Laos, methods that result in barren, inarable land. It teaches local farmers organic, sustainable farming techniques, and also provides scholarships and on-site training to college students studying agriculture in Luang Prabang. Long was one of those students. He taught us the thirteen steps of rice farming by hand, no modern machinery needed. We learned about germinating, planting, ploughing, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and processing rice. What struck me most about the experience was the simplicity and elegance of the methods used. Nothing fancy, nothing expensive. All the tools were made from straw, rock, wood, clay, water, and human energy.

My favorite step in the rice farming process was how seeds are selected for germination. Empty and damaged grains weigh less than healthy grains, so salt is added to a bowl of fresh water until a chicken egg floats. Grains that float in the water are damaged, so they are removed and fed to the chickens. Nothing is wasted.   

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A similar technique is used to remove empty grains in the harvesting process. By fanning the grains with a straw paddle, you blow away the chaff and empty grains. A fancy machine isn’t necessary.

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While I appreciated all the ingeniously simple examples of engineering around the farm, the best part of the trip was meeting Rudolph and plowing a rice patty with him. Rudolph trudged through the mud as I tried to steer the plow, without much success. Rudolph was supposed to respond to “stop” and “go” commands in Lao (my Lao was admittedly poor), but he seemed to be doing whatever he pleased (how do you say, “Rudolph, please give me three seconds to collect my balance” in Lao?). Sweating and caked in mud, I hopped out of the paddy. Susan probably would’ve been a better listener.

 

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My morning at the Living Life Company left me reflecting on the differences between the simple tools used for the involved task of farming rice, and the expensive, top-of-the-line gadgets I have access to at MIT. When I first arrived at MIT, I was in awe of the resources at MIT compared to my undergraduate institution. I remember being dumbfounded that you could simply buy cell culture media. In my prior lab, we made it by combining several powders, adjusting the pH, and filtering it. Now, I just run into the cold room and grab a bottle. It has become my new normal. This institution provides us with access to unparalleled opportunities, and my day at the farm reminded me of that. While I’m probably not going to start whittling my own pipettes from tree branches (a process that would be both challenging and unsterile), I am aiming, to be more conscious about how I use the tools I have: to be less wasteful, to think my experiments through before haphazardly trying something, but not to beat myself up when something doesn’t work (like when three $1,000 experiments failed in a single day last month). It’s a balance. Long Li and Rudolph reminded me of that.

Oh, and the sticky rice was exceptional.

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Planting the germinated rice stalks, one by one.

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Cutting the rice stalks with a hook welded by farmers. Required far more strength than I had…

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Grinding the rice into rice flour

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Hitting the dried rice stalks against a board to knock the grains off the stalk

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Walking into the Rice Paddy behind our guide, Long 

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Weaving baskets, paddles, strainers, and hats from bamboo grown on the farm 

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Rudolph selfie :)