Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Christian Peters

by Liana Przygocki

Photo Credit: Mark Krumm

Photo Credit: Mark Krumm

Sprout readers may know Dr. Chris Peters as an assistant professor in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program. Others may recall his memorable performance of a Beastie Boys song, re-interpreted to extol the virtues of vegetables, at the Friedman Fringe last spring. Regardless of the context, Dr. Peters’ enthusiasm for food and food systems is obvious.

Dr. Peters came to Friedman in 2010 after completing a post-doctorate program at Cornell University. His research focuses on the capacity for meeting food needs through local and regional food systems, and his “Foodprints and Foodsheds” project uses a modeling approach to understand the land requirements of various dietary patterns and how they fit into a statewide or national food system.

How did you come to be at Tufts?

The job at Friedman was posted, and I actually interestingly missed the deadline for applying. But it just so happened that they went back to the [applicant] pool after the first round of interviews, and I had met Tim [Griffin] at a meeting. I mentioned that I had applied and was interested in the position, and got the interview to come here. Because it was an interdisciplinary program, that was the major academic thing that drew me here. It was a place where I thought I could see a home for the type of research I do on food systems, and it would be a receptive home because people here are interested not just in human nutrition and what people need but also in the food system that supplies it.

I guess there’s a lesson for us future job seekers in that story, too, right?

That’s right! The door is not closed until you’ve heard somebody’s been appointed. And I’ve heard this is not necessarily an uncommon situation.

What are some of the things that you think are unique about the Friedman community?

The student body is unique in that there is this shared interest, at least within the policy side of the school, in these big-picture interdisciplinary issues. Some people gravitate more towards nutrition, health equity, environmental justice issues; some gravitate towards agricultural, ecological impact-type issues, but there is this shared interest in understanding things in a whole systems way. And to me what’s most unique is the commitment to try and teach that here, within the context of a single program.

You spent time farming before deciding to go back for your PhD. What drew you back in to academia?

Well, I’ll start with what drew me in to farming. What brought me there was a real interest in getting some hands-on experience with agriculture. And I planned to go to Peace Corps at that time. One of the internships I did was spending a spring at the Howell Living History Farm and I learned to work with oxen, for plowing and all kinds of field prep, and using them to mow hay, so it was great. And what drew me back to the academic world was not just farming experience, but I also spent a year in AmeriCorps, and worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service. I worked with the University of Miami and did coral reef research too, and it was that sort of eclectic mix of field experience that made me realize that I was interested in research and I was really quite interested in going into the field. Now, I ended up ditching the Peace Corps after going to Tanzania, but that was the hook that brought me back: an interest in getting more formal training in agriculture.

Why are the Foodprints and Foodsheds concepts compelling?

Foodprints is compelling because this idea of the footprint of our diet is inherently interesting. What does it take to feed someone, in terms of land use, and how does that change depending on how you eat? That brings together how we can eat a diet that is satisfying, nutritionally sound, and also has a lighter impact on the environment, and those key things about sustainability that aren’t easy to tie together, but are critical. It’s also this idea of, how many people could you feed off a land base? That’s a way of tying our consumption patterns directly to the capacity of land to support people. Those questions are fundamental ecological and sustainability questions, and you’re able to look at those with the Foodprint model. And I think that’s totally cool.

With regard to Foodshed, I got interested in this because of local food, but I think it’s bigger than that. The idea of being able to look at the geographic source of where your food comes from is inherently interesting to people because people are just curious about where they get their food. And once it goes beyond that curiosity you realize that it’s somewhat stunning how large a system exists to bring food, particularly to cities. The supply chains that exist to get food from farms through a food-processing infrastructure to two people, that’s fascinating.

What are the challenges around taking a complex research idea and making it user-friendly or available to the public?

There are so many challenges. As a serious researcher, my first responsibility is to come up with a method that I think is defensible. There are always tradeoffs between how simple something is to understand and replicate and trying to capture the greatest accuracy and precision. But having a robust model is really important. Figuring out how all the pieces fit together is the first major challenge because you need to think across disciplines. And how do you engage students in doing work that is interdisciplinary, because it challenges them to learn a lot across many disciplines. And then we haven’t even talked about communicating it to people. How do you communicate it within people’s attention span, and get it across so that it’s clear, but also interesting and engaging? Like anything that’s complex, being able to boil it down so that you don’t cheat people out of understanding the complexity is a work in progress. There are always opportunities to refine that.

 What advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing a career in research?

I think it’s important to understand what questions motivate you. What kinds of questions do you want to answer? With any question, there are multiple methods you might bring to answer it. You can always learn more methods, but understanding what questions motivate you will give you the motivation to pursue the slogging work of doing research. At the end of the day there’s a finite amount of time we have, both in life but also in work, and whenever somebody reads your work, they’re going to be asking, what interesting thing am I going to learn by reading this paper? And if it motivates you, chances are it might also motivate someone else.

What do you like about Friedman?

The thing I like best is working with students on research, because you get a chance to delve into something and really explore and have give and take in working on a piece of research. It’s a lot of fun.

I’ve also learned a lot by teaching the Agriculture, Science, and Policy courses because they cover so many subjects, and teaching across all those topics is really hard to do. I love that the students in those classes ask lots of questions. It makes for a much more interesting classroom environment, to always be asked questions and having to clarify and try to understand things.

Would you like to make a shameless plug for your food systems modeling class that will be offered this spring?

Part of it is based out of my own experience doing modeling over a ten-year period. I’m excited to share that now that I’ve had a chance to do this work as a student and a professional researcher. I’m not aware of another course being taught like this, so this is a bit of an experiment but I think it’s a chance for students to really delve into modeling in some detail, come away with some skills, and delve into topics that we’ve only really touched on in other classes.

You seem to be a coffee enthusiast. Tell us about your coffee-drinking habits.

I never used to drink coffee, but what broke me was writing my dissertation. I drink one, or maybe two cups per day. Sometimes I make it in a French press or drip-style. And I don’t take it with sugar.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

Liana Przygocki is a second-year FPAN student who has been described as having “AFE tendencies.” She is a research assistant in the Foodprints project, working on a model for the state of New Mexico. To learn more about her, please visit our Meet Our Writers page.


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