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CALS launches Indian rural development project under the Khorana Program

The Khorana Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) will partner with a leading global agricultural implement producer, Mahindra and Mahindra, and the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust to promote rural development in India. The Khorana Program has just received a grant of $950,000 from the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the two partners will provide over three million dollars for their parts of the program.

“This represents the latest approach to development, linking university expertise with the private sector’s financial power and on-the-ground experience,” says project leader Kenneth Shapiro, associate dean in the UW College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and professor of agricultural and applied economics. “This approach is especially appropriate for India, where rapid economic growth has benefited 300 million, but 800 million, mostly rural residents, are left behind, and over 25% of children are malnourished, leading to tragically high rates of infant mortality and mental and physical stunting.”

The Khorana Program, jointly directed by Shapiro and Professor Aseem Ansari, honors Har Gobind Khorana, the Indian-born scientist who won the Nobel Prize in 1968 while a member of the UW Biochemistry faculty. In addition to rural development, the Khorana Program also promotes scholarly exchange and industry-academia links with India. Last summer, the Khorana Program placed 14 Indian students with leading UW research mentors in six departments. Ansari points out that “These were top students who worked with top researchers, and after just ten weeks, half of them have papers pending publication.” Next summer UW students will be placed in Indian research institutes and pharmaceutical companies. These exchanges are expected to continue and grow in the future to build seamless scientific communities between the two nation.

Under the new rural development program, UW soil scientist John Peters will be stationed in India for 21 months starting this January, working with Mahindra and Mahindra to establish a nationwide network of 200 soil testing laboratories with associated demonstration farms and extension staff. UW dairy scientist Robert Kaiser and others will work with the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust during short-term visits aimed at improving dairy productivity among 9,000 women’s self help groups in the northeastern state of Uttar Pradesh. Two UW researchers – Susana Lastarri and Michael Carter – are already studying women’s self help groups under a different project supported by the World Bank in another Indian state. Horticulture professor Phillip Simon and others will provide their expertise to assist vegetable and potato production among women’s self help groups in Uttar Pradesh, and they will also work near Pune with Tasty Bite, India’s largest exporter of processed food, and with the Agricultural Consultancy Management Foundation near Chennai.

The Khorana Program was launched last year with seed money from the UW Chancellor’s Office, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum, and private donors. “UW’s Indian alumni in the U.S. and India and Khorana’s former students and postdoctoral scholars have expressed keen interest in the program,” according to UW’s Asian Representative, Kimberly Santiago. Santiago organized alumni meetings in India this past January and September, aiming toward possibly creating a new chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. “New opportunities appear at each gathering,” she notes. “For example, in September UW grad Krishna Ella, founder of Bharat Biotech, which recently received a Gates Foundation grant for research on malaria, expressed interest in working with the UW Research Park to develop a similar park in India. Another alum, Dr. V. Balasubramanian, Director of Anti-infective Pharmacology at AstraZeneca in Bangalore, invited UW students to spend the summer investigating tuberculosis with his research group.”

Development of the Khorana Program has benefited from advice received in meetings with such Indian leaders as Minister of Science and Technology Kapil Sibal, Minister of Agriculture Pawar, former Prime Minsister I.K. Gujral, and Chairman of the National Knowledge Commission Sam Pitroda.

Mahindra and Mahindra’s vision is to aid rural development and poverty alleviation by becoming a comprehensive provider of agricultural inputs, services and advice. As the rural economy prospers, so will the company. Fiscal year 2009 data are expected to show Mahindra and Mahindra as the world’s leading tractor producer, with operations in India, the U.S., China, and elsewhere. The Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust, named for the former Indian Prime Minister (1984-1989), has a broad program to aid women and their families in one of India’s poorest states. Women’s self help groups have proven very effective in empowering women and creating income opportunities. The Trust’s programs reach well over 100,000 families in Uttar Pradesh.

In August, 2009, the University of Wisconsin Biochemistry Department will host an international Steenbock symposium entitled, “From Synthetic Biology to Synthetic Life,” which builds on Khorana’s pathbreaking work on the genetic code and DNA synthesis. This work is the foundation for much of the modern biotechnology industry.

Contact: Kenneth Shapiro, 608-262-1271; kshapiro@cals.wisc.edu.

For further information, please see the Khorana Program website at http://www.biochem.wisc.edu/faculty/ansari/khorana_program/ or just Google Khorana Program

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