Retriever Essentials student team is runner-up in a nationwide competition to address world hunger

Published: Oct 6, 2023

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Retriever Essentials, represented by student volunteers Nhi Nguyen ’25, biochemistry and bioinformatics, and Ben Bhattarai ’23, biology and psychology, is a second place finalist in the 2023 Wilbur Ellis Innovation Award. Announced at the end of September, the honorable mention award—given to only four schools—recognizes the student teams with the most innovative strategies for providing food for a growing world population.

A photo collage of three students
From left to right: Ben Bhattarai, Nhi Nguyen, and Ariel Barbosa.

Nguyen and Bhattarai’s proposal aimed to address the water scarcity in agriculture which affects the ability to feed a growing world population sustainably. Their project proposed the use of halophytic (salt-tolerant) algae to desalinate saltwater in order to increase freshwater availability to enhance agricultural yields and to create highly nutritious food products. Nguyen and Bhattarai believe their project also may help resolve some of the impacts of global warming on food production and transportation, including the growth of algae; limited fossil fuels; and ocean acidification due to high carbon dioxide. Both hope to continue their research into ways to eliminate food insecurity.

The $5,000 award for second place will be used to help buy food for the Retriever Essentials pantry, and help kickstart research on the algae, says Ariel Barbosa, program coordinator and a master’s student in community leadership.

The students’ work was a collaborative endeavor during the spring 2023 semester, with input from UMBC faculty in the sciences and public health: Lauren Clay, associate professor and chair, emergency health services; Erle Ellis, professor, geography and environmental systems; Andrea Kalfoglou, associate professor, sociology, anthropology, and public health; and Stephen Miller, associate professor, biological sciences. 

Students in face masks stand stocking shelves in a pantry
Student staff work to stock the shelves in Retriever Essentials. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

“We worked so hard on this proposal,” says Nguyen. “The contest was a chance to share my knowledge and creativity…to go out of our own bubbles and be confident with whatever we have to offer to help the community.” 

“Retriever Essentials is one of the most welcoming, friendly, hospitable places at UMBC, where I profoundly enlarge my connection to students, staff, and faculty,” Nguyen adds. “I feel thankful for being a part of UMBC, where I am surrounded by many brilliant and cool people, who always offer me not only academic help but also emotional support. Thus, I would recommend to UMBC students one thing: ASK.”

Bhattarai shares, “It is an exciting feeling to know that our project is being recognized for its potential in revolutionizing agriculture and in solving food insecurity. This experience also motivates us to continue our research in innovative ways. Volunteering with Retriever Essentials has been a great learning experience, to see the impact of food insecurity on campus and how a motivated teamwork and collaboration can make a difference in the community.”

students work in a garden bed
Ariel Barbosa, left, helps get a Retriever Essentials garden plot cleared for the growing season. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

 “I am so proud of our students and their commitment to Retriever Essentials—and to global food insecurity and injustice,” says Barbosa. “This award could not have come at a better time, as we see increased numbers of students and inflation increases the cost of food. Hundreds of students visit Retriever Essentials spaces each week, and we are often low in food.” 

Lacking a steady source of nutritious meals can affect students’ physical and mental health, grades, and ability to engage in campus life. Barbosa adds, “As more members of our community in need learn about us, we need increased financial support as well as donations of food and supplies. It is because of our university community and leadership that we have come this far to support so many students.”
Retriever Essentials is a faculty, staff, and student partnership to tackle food insecurity in our UMBC community. Learn how to make a financial donation or via the Amazon wish list, as well as volunteer opportunities.

-Eleanor Lewis, communications manager, Student Affairs

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