November 5, 2020, by Andrew Edwards (Ed)
Modelling ancient Mayan farming – An interview with Rik Rutjens
Rik Rutjens is a PhD candidate with the Palaeobenchmarking Resilient Agricultural Systems (PalaeoRAS) project.
Photo (right) by Karla Hernandez-Aguilar
Why did you decide to do a PhD? What were you doing before?
After completing my undergraduate and masters degrees at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, I could not decide which path to take for my future: research or industry? Eventually, a research internship at San Diego State University nudged me towards research.
I wanted to keep working at the forefront of applied maths. In industry, most mathematicians quickly end up in IT/coding/programming positions or management positions. Most of my old course mates have hardly worked with ‘proper’ mathematics since graduation; I wanted to avoid that fate!
Why did you choose this particular PhD project?
I felt little affinity with the application of the mathematics in both my internship and masters thesis. I decided that I wanted to use my skills for a cause that actually benefits the world and my current project certainly meets this requirement!
Tell us about your research in layman’s terms
I am trying to make a computer simulation model of milpa, an ancient Mayan farming system. This system is still in use today in Central America.; millions of small-scale farmers depend on this system for their livelihoods.
It is a complex system, in which maize and beans are planted on the same field, together with a wide variety of plants – squash, peppers, chillies, watermelon, cucumber and the like. Besides providing a complete meal, milpa (maize in particular) constitutes an essential part of the community’s cultural identity.
Why is your research important?
Climate change already impacts crop yields, endangering the existence of many communities. Modelling their way of farming gives us vital insight into how these farmers may improve their yields in a sustainable manner.
However, the milpa system is not only important for the people who already use it. In the rest of the world, food production levels need to increase dramatically in the near future to be able to feed the population, whilst simultaneously lowering the impact on the environment. In other words, there is a strong need for sustainable intensification. We might learn from the milpa system in this respect, being a system built around low inputs and low environmental impact.
How is your first year going? Any highlights or successes?
The past six months have mainly consisted of reading, reading, and… more reading! However, I am now starting with the first model implementation, which is quite exciting. I was completely new to the field of crop modelling when I started so I try not to worry too much about my progress. I just focus on keeping busy and enjoying what I do.
One highlight was attending a conference in Montpellier on crop modelling. However, I must admit it is upsetting not to be able to visit Mexico and Belize due to Covid 19.
How do you cope with the pressure of doing a PhD?
Our social circle was non-existent when my girlfriend and I moved here but we’ve worked hard to meet new people and find things to do besides work. On a normal, non-coronavirus-affected week, I visit the Boulder Hall, hang out with the Real Ale Society and play board games with colleagues from the school.