As an Indiana high-school delegate to the 2009 Global Youth Institute , Molly McKneight made a promise to herself to live up to the inscription “Hunger Fighter” on a small button she wore. Sponsored by the World Food Prize Foundation, the institute runs concurrently with an international conference on food security and nutrition.
“I was exposed to a world that was completely foreign to me,” says McKneight, who was in the audience when Purdue Universityagronomy ProfessorGebisa Ejeta received the 2009 World Food Prize.
The experience changed her life in ways the then Carmel High School senior could not imagine. “Through the World Food Prize I learned about global food insecurity, and I became determined to be part of the solution,” says t, who is currently studying abroad in Scotland at the University of St Andrews.
Her next step was applying for a Borlaug-n International Internship to work with a scientist at an international research center. She was selected and, four days after graduating from high school, departed for Ankara, Turkey, to spend the summer with a regional office of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
It was quite a leap for a student who barely a year before had only what she describes as “a vague idea” of food science. She and her mother, a Purdue alumna, attended a campus visit day in spring 2009 and met withDonna Keener, academic coordinator for the Department of Food Science. “I didn’t know what to expect going in to the meeting, but I remember walking out and telling my mom, ‘This is what I want to do; this is where I want to be,’” she says.
“Food science wasn’t what Molly was thinking coming in, but she was open to listening,” Keener recalls. “I handed her a flier (on the youth institute). It was a great opportunity, and she grabbed on to that. Molly’s is the type of person who will be successful in whatever she chooses.”
As a sophomore, McKneight was approached about a food-technology opportunity in Africa. She spent the summer in Dakar, Senegal, developing an instant, fortified cereal product for the Senegalese food market.
In spring 2012, she reunited with a as an intern with Purdue’s Center for Global Food Security, which Ejeta directs. “I’d go home and tell my roommates, ‘I can’t believe what we talked about today. These great minds I get to work with—I pick their brains all the time.’”
McKneight also enrolled in Ejeta’s graduate-level class in plant breeding, a field she will begin research in later this year. “I’m more and more interested in plant sciences, genetics and breeding,” she says. “There’s so much left to discover. If you want to solve these big global challenges, you often have to study something that is ridiculously small.”
McKneight was a finalist for a Harry S. Truman Scholarship. Each year, hundreds of college juniors compete for the national award that recognizes students committed to careers in public service. The first Purdue student to make it to the final round, McKneight made a quick return trip to the U.S. in late March for a final interview—taking one more step in keeping her promise to become a hunger fighter.