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Aggie Fulbright Scholar explores the world

Whether it is helping with research in Rwanda or teaching English in Malaysia, Owen Cortner is ready to make the world his home.

Two men: one with orange shirt, other with blue shirt and hat
Owen Cortner, left, takes notes during the assessment of the Rwanda rainwater harvesting project. Cortner spent nine weeks in 2010 helping the World Argoforestry Centre evaluate catchment ponds for irrigation systems designed to provide water for small farms during the dry season. (Submitted photo)

With a freshly obtained bachelor's degree in environmental science from New Mexico State University, Cortner has set his career sights toward working internationally. And he is well on his way.

The recently named Fulbright Scholar's passport has already been stamped in Namibia, Brazil, China, Kenya and Rwanda, and will soon be stamped in Malaysia.

"My dad took me on my first trip out of the country when I was 16," said the 24-year-old son of Mark and Nancy Cortner of Socorro. "We went to Namibia. That trip sparked my interest in learning about other countries and their cultures."

Through the Aggies Go Global (aggiesgoglobal.nmsu.edu) program in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Cortner got his first taste of working abroad when he assisted with watershed research in Rwanda during the summer of 2010.

Aggies Go Global gives NMSU students opportunities outside the classroom by helping them conduct research for an undergraduate project, complete internships in their desired career field or create independent projects that defy traditional boundaries or classifications.

While in Rwanda, Cortner was with the World Argoforestry Centre (ICRAF). The agricultural research institute, based in Nairobi, Kenya, was collaborating with the Rwandan government to assess a project that had installed several hundred green water runoff harvesting ponds to help farmers.

"Rwanda is very hilly, so the rainwater just runs off the slope and does not have a chance to be used for agricultural production," Cortner said. "Catchment ponds were built to collect the runoff water for irrigation of small, one- to two-acre fields during the dry seasons, thus extending the growing season."

Under the supervision of Maimbo Malesu, coordinator of watershed research at ICRAF, the project took Cortner to every corner of Rwanda.

"I interviewed farmers to learn how the ponds were working for them. We were seeing if their production had gone up and if they were able to expand the varieties of crops they were planting," he said.

He also learned what type of assistance the farmers were getting from the Rwanda Extension agents.

"Even though there were several hundred ponds installed in the country, no one had conducted an assessment of the systems since they were installed in 2009," he said.

Overall, the project was successful but some adjustments were needed.

"We learned that the volume capacity of the initial designed ponds was too small," Cortner said. "The holding capacity was smaller than the amount of water run-off during the rainy season and that additional water was needed for crops to produce through the dry season."

Resolution of this problem began while Cortner was in Rwanda, when the government began transitioning to larger ponds.

By using the water that was now available, farmers realized they had the potential to enlarge their farms and increase the acreage of vegetable crops which they were raising for their families' consumption and for sale in the village market.

"Wise management of water resources can lead to better agricultural production, which can lead to better livelihoods," he said.

With his goal set on an international career, but wanting a break from academia before he pursues his master's degree, Cortner is diverging from the area of research in his next adventure.

He will be teaching English for 10 months in the Malaysian state of Pahang. He will be among 50 Americans teaching in the country's east coast region through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.