Supporting Undergraduate Research: Interdisciplinary Team Tackles Food Waste This Summer

University of Maine faculty mentors are supporting a team of undergraduate student researchers from five key disciplines as they collect and analyze data to better understand food and waste systems and identify opportunities for improvement.

Deborah Saber is the principal investigator for the project, “Making Maine’s local food system sustainable: Opportunities to address hunger and reduce waste.” With her background in nursing, she may seem like an unlikely candidate to be exploring the field of food waste; but it is this concept of using interdisciplinary approaches to performing research that contributes to the success and impressive breadth of knowledge gained from projects like this. The team is comprised of mentors and students from a diverse pool of fields: nursing, civil and environmental engineering, anthropology, food and agriculture, and economics. They collaborate to bring multi-dimensional solutions to a common problem: food waste and hunger.

Support for Undergraduate, Interdisciplinary Research from Many Sources

Saber is passionate about giving undergraduate students the chance to perform research. She enthusiastically promotes interdisciplinary projects for the betterment of the students and the collective results achieved by breaking down the “silo” structures in learning environments, where students only work with others in their related fields.

The Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Collaborative (IURC) recently awarded this project $25,000 for one year. The team also receives support from the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and funding from the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation.

“This project is an excellent example of how UMaine faculty members from diverse disciplines join forces in finding innovative solutions addressing major societal problems, and in doing so we also provide the opportunity to our undergraduate students to participate in these efforts, who gain invaluable learning experience by contributing to the solutions that are developed.”

Dr. Kody Varahramyan, Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School

“The whole interdisciplinary team working together is really critical in today’s environment,” said Saber. “This IURC program is intended to teach students how to work towards a common research goal as a collaborative team.”

The five undergraduate students meet weekly to discuss their research work and gain insight on one another’s perspectives on solving food waste issues. According to Saber, the team thrives on learning how another discipline focuses on the same problem and learning how to explain their work in ways they can all understand.

IURC food waste team discusses research
The team meets weekly to collaborate and discuss their individual research.

“This project also aligns with the goals of the Diana Davis Spencer Partnership for a Sustainable Maine, in which student teams working with the Mitchell Center are developing skills in entrepreneurship, collaboration, leadership and problem-solving,” Saber said.

“It has been exciting to watch how quickly this team is growing their collaborative capacity,” said David Hart, Director of the Mitchell Center.  “As they learn with their stakeholder partners about the complexity of real-world problems, they are uniquely positioned to integrate expertise from diverse academic disciplines in their solutions-development process.”

Learning the Language of Sustainability

Saber’s focus is on food waste in the healthcare industry. She has a direct working relationship with Eastern Maine Medical Center and sees first-hand how healthcare facilities could benefit from learning more about food waste and sustainability. According to Saber, there is a void in industry-specific information reporting. Studies show food waste as an issue overall but does not address how individual industries compare.

“You need specific data in order to pinpoint how to help an industry reduce waste,” said Saber. “That is how we can contribute; in just one part of this project.”

This project has been eye-opening for Saber. She described having to “learn the language of sustainability” in order to begin the research for her contribution to solving this important issue.

“To solve a problem, we all have to listen to each other,” said Saber. “To change the world, you have to understand where everyone is coming from and how to communicate in a language we can all understand.”

Team Member chart

Food Compost

Media Contact: Christel Peters