Meet the Gender and Youth Equity Specialist: Mary Read-Wahidi

headshot of Mary Read-Wahidi
Provided by the MSU Social Science Research Center

Mary Read-Wahidi
Mississippi State University

Tell us about your background and international/research-for-development interests.
I am a cultural anthropologist by training. My undergraduate was in international business, and I got my master’s in applied anthropology at Mississippi State University. Then, I received my PhD in biocultural medical anthropology at the University of Alabama. My research interests include health and culture and how cultural behavior can influence health outcomes, and as an anthropologist with an international business background, I have always been globally minded.
When I finished my PhD, I joined MSU’s Social Science Research Center as a postdoctoral research associate to work with Kathleen Ragsdale on the Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab, and later, we joined the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish. The two innovation labs bridged my interests by delving into the world of development and how I can apply my anthropological and social science interests to these bigger issues around nutrition, health, access to food, and gender equity.

How does your professional background inform your approach at the Fish Innovation Lab?
Anthropologists—more so than other social scientists—work at the community level, but with innovation labs, you have to think more broadly. For instance, how do men and women fishers in a fishing village in Lake Kariba, Zambia, tie into what is going on with global food insecurity and global hunger? This pushes me to take that community-level insight but extrapolate it to a larger scale. I think there are a lot of issues that have to be understood at the community level because there are different cultural norms and local contexts that tie into food insecurity problems, but they also can contribute to the solutions. By taking those community-level problems and solutions a step further, you start to see common issues across communities around the globe. You need both the local and the global pieces because one approach is not going to work for everyone, but there is a thread of similarity across communities that can help inform a sustainable solution.

In your view, what are the most pressing challenges related to food and nutrition security worldwide, and what are some ways we can overcome these challenges?
The issue oftentimes in developing countries is that they don’t have the infrastructure and the resources in place. If you think about Sub-Saharan Africa, it has the potential to maintain enough food and important crops, but the infrastructure is not in place to grow and sustain small farmers.
Innovation labs work to improve infrastructure and resources through sustainable practices. We are always thinking about how what we are doing within the innovation lab activity can continue even after the activity is closed.

What do you wish other people knew about fish and/or food security?
One thing that I think is surprising—and I always share this with people who aren't in development—is you can have these important and nutritious cash crops, but the people who harvest them or catch them don’t necessarily eat enough of them to get the nutritional benefits. You would assume that the people who are growing and harvesting a crop or fish in aquaculture ponds would also make it a staple of their household diet and thus gain that nutrition from the product, but we know that is not the case in a lot of instances. The reality is that there’s always that tradeoff between selling as much of that valuable catch or harvest or saving some of it for the household, and it can be really problematic to sacrifice income. Even in the fishing villages where we work in Zambia, it is not a regular practice to incorporate fish into the household diets, especially among young children who stand to gain the most from this nutrient-rich food.
That’s why our activity’s efforts to deliver nutritional training to mothers of infants and young children is a vital step towards getting that all-important buy-in from mothers around the practice of incorporating fish household meals.

What other careers might you have pursued if you hadn't pursued a career in academia?
I always thought I would become a professor, but I had a dream at one time of working at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural heritage. I always thought it would be cool to work in a museum, and that was my early idea about going into anthropology. Of course, I took a different direction, and I think that direction has been fruitful for me. Museums are extremely important because they capture our heritage, spark our imagination, and offer really beautiful and enriching spaces; however, I enjoy fieldwork and working with colleagues who are contributing to the solution to big problems like global hunger.

What are your hobbies or activities outside of work?
I love spending time with my family, and we all love animals, the outdoors, and being in nature. We have two horses on a ranch outside of town. I don’t really ride, but my husband is a rider, and our two little girls are learning to ride, so I'm always there to support them.

What is on your bucket list? (What do you hope to do, accomplish, see, experience, etc. in your lifetime that you haven’t yet?)
I would love to go to places I've never been before like Turkey and Egypt. I would also like to go to more places in Europe. I've been to Switzerland and Portugal, but there are so many more places I would love to go to. There are a lot of beautiful places in the U.S. I would like to see too, but I just always feel like for the effort it takes to prepare for a trip, I'd rather leave the country and get to experience completely different foods and cultures and environments and meet people who have a different approach to life. In my heart, I'm a traveler.

If you would like to, tell us about your family, where you are from, and any personal details you would like to share.
I am a seventh-generation Mississippian. My Read ancestors arrived and settled in Jasper County, Mississippi, and we have had a continuous presence there ever since. At the same time, my husband is from the other side of the world—Kuwait, and his family has ancient ties to Arabia. We have two daughters. One was born here in Mississippi, and the other was born in Kuwait, so we're a true Kuwaiti-Mississippi family. We really do live in both worlds, and it's very important for us to have a strong connection to Mississippi and to Kuwait. We visit our family in Jasper County most weekends, and we visit our family in Kuwait every summer.

Published August 30, 2022