Ag graduate studies a multicultural endeavour

Fifty-five to 60 percent of graduate students in the University of Saskatchewan’s faculty of agriculture come from another country

Tagalog, Bengali, Arabic, Mandarin and Portuguese — in Saskatoon and in most Canadian cities, it’s possible to hear those languages, and many others, spoken on any given day.

That’s one of the reasons why Patricia Tozatti loves Saskatoon and Canada.

“I think the life quality here is pretty amazing. You have this mixture of cultures, people from everywhere … people from India, Iraq, Europe, United States. It’s a very rich culture,” said Tozatti, who is Brazilian and is studying to earn a PhD in food science at the University of Saskatchewan.

“The cold part is not very attractive … especially (for) someone who comes from Brazil. But the other parts really make up for it.”

Related: The knowledge worker quandary

Tozatti is just one of dozens of international students pursuing masters degrees or PhDs in agricultural sciences at the U of S.

Up to 60 percent of the graduate students in the faculty of agriculture are from another country. For her PhD in food science, Tozatti is studying wheat and baking quality.

“The main goal of my project would be clean label,” she said.

“That’s a huge trend coming into the industry. People want less additives, less chemicals, less everything. But in order to get that, we need to do some testing with (alternatives), for example enzymes, that are accepted by consumers.”

Tozatti is from a farm family in Brazil. Her dad grows soybeans and raises cattle in the southern part of the country. She studied food engineering in Brazil and spent a year in Prince Edward Island, where she did part of her bachelor’s degree at the University of P.E.I.

After earning a masters, she saw a scholarship opportunity to pursue a PhD in food science. Tozatti took the opportunity and was accepted at Ohio State, the University of Alberta and the U of S. She chose Saskatchewan

“The University of Saskatchewan stands for agriculture. (It) is very well known,” said Tozatti, who competes in triathlons when she isn’t working on her PhD.

Her scholarship requires that she return to work in Brazil for four years, but Tozatti would like to stay in Canada after finishing her PhD.

Keeping Tozatti and her skills in Canada might be beneficial for the country because science and innovation are a critical part of the agri-food sector.

Plus, her English is excellent and she speaks in the tone of a positive person who likes to solve problems.

The proportion of international students in graduate programs at other ag universities in Canada is similar to the U of S.

However, it doesn’t seem like Canada’s agriculture industry has a strategy to keep international students and potential star scientists in the country.

Some of those students remain in Canada after earning a masters or PhD but a percentage take their expertise and go home to Shanghai or Bangalore. The U of S doesn’t know the percentages because it doesn’t keep tabs on students after graduation.

“We don’t track them as well as we should,” said Bob Tyler, associate dean for agriculture and bioresources at the U of S.

Tracking and retaining more international students may be necessary because innovation involves three basic ingredients: skilled people, investment and a plan to commercialize Canadian discoveries.

Talented scientists are just a piece of the puzzle, but they’re an important piece.

“The word I think is … ‘disruptor,’” said Don Buckingham, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Agri-food Policy Institute. “They (young scientists) see the world differently because they’re from another generation…. They might be able to connect the dots in ways that we’ve never connected them before.”

As well, scientists from another country can offer another perspective.

“Maybe the knowledge we get in Brazil (or elsewhere), we can apply some of that here,” Tozatti said. “And we’re willing to do everything it takes to work and stay here.”

Of course, there’s nothing stopping Canadian students from being ag industry disruptors, except only a small number go on to earn a masters or PhD in agricultural sciences.

There’s a simple explanation for that: money.

“Most of the friends I have here in Canada, they don’t want to do masters or PhD,” Tozatti said. “I think it doesn’t pay well because the scholarships are not as high.”

If someone with a bachelor’s in plant science can get a $65,000 a year job as an agronomist, why stay in school?

The demand for agricultural graduates is greater than the supply at the moment, encouraging students to leave after their bachelor’s degrees. In Ontario, a survey of agri-food employers in 2017 found that there are four jobs for every graduate of the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College.

Consequently, keeping international students is that much more important, especially since the ag industry and taxpayers help support their research.

Buckingham said Canada shouldn’t “poach” the best scientists from other countries, but we shouldn’t be naive either.

“We’ve invested in that educational process and it’s certainly in our interest to capture that intellectual capital and use it for Canadian innovation.”

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