Will Masters

Will Masters is Professor and former Chair for the Department of Food and Nutrition Policy at The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University based in Boston, United States.

*This series of ANH Academy career journeys were taken from real interviews, carried out by Lauren McIntyre, IMMANA Research Uptake Manager.

Tell us about your background. Where, when, and what did you study at university for your undergraduate and graduate studies?

For undergraduate study I went to a tiny college called Deep Springs for the first two years, then transferred to Yale University. In the U.S. system we can take a lot of diverse classes, so I studied mostly politics, literature, and just enough economics to quality for a degree program called Economics and Political Science. Later I learned that the economics professors called that program “Easy and Pretty Silly” because it did not have many quantitative requirements. In retrospect I should have taken harder classes, but mostly I wanted to travel. I took time out of school, one semester in Haiti volunteering for an urban NGO, and another in Colombia working for a dairy cooperative, and after graduation I went to teach English in Zimbabwe. From what I could see of the world it seemed clear that improving agriculture was the thing for poverty reduction. I also discovered how economics was the queen of the disciplines in terms of figuring out why people are poor or rich, so I wanted to study economics about agriculture. I looked for the best way to do that and ended up going to grad school at Stanford University, in a department called the Food Research Institute which unfortunately is now closed. To do the economics part I had to learn a lot of math very quickly, but I loved that way of thinking and was able to go back to Zimbabwe for my dissertation research, and also to teach a bit at the University of Zimbabwe before finishing my PhD.

One important thing to say is that I come from a very academic family. My father was a college professor, teaching political philosophy and the history of democratic thought. My mother had two graduate degrees, one in French literature and then one in social work which she used for a career in child and family services. We didn’t have a lot of money but I was a very fortunate childhood, growing up in a small college town with three years in rural France and two years in Paris. Also about the timing of my background, I finished secondary school in 1979. People forget how terrible the 1970s and 80s were for the United States. There had been a big expansion of civil rights, voting rights and immigration rights in the early 1960s, and then a fierce conservative backlash against that with the election of Richard Nixon, then Ronald Reagan and the Bush years. There was a lot of violence in the cities, America was just a really scary place and progressive politics was stalled. Meanwhile, internationally there was the world food crisis of 1973-74 when I was 12 or 13 years old, a very impressionable age, there was famine in Bangladesh and then soon after that in Ethiopia. These were massive famines of a scale that we don't experience today. They were very vivid in my mind and there was a huge global effort to do something about it, using science to grow more food in the places where people needed it most. Compared to the political situation inside the U.S., global poverty and hunger seemed like something where a young American could actually do some good in the world. 

Did you move straight into your field of work?

I finished my PhD in 1991, which turned out to be the year of peak agricultural aid to Africa. Terrible timing for me. I graduated into 15 years of declining funding for what I wanted to do. In the 1990s there were almost no new jobs for field research in agricultural development. The success of the green revolution had made world food prices low and stable, so everyone was saying there's enough food in the world. The Food Research Institute was closed in the mid-1990s. But I was lucky and got hired to teach about agricultural development and trade at Purdue University, a public university that had funding for the position because U.S. politicians cared about farm exports. For me it was a great place to work because everyone cared so much and knew so much about agriculture as an industry, as a source of wealth and good jobs. I had done a lot on small farms in the U.S. and France, but never lived in the Midwest or known a lot of people involved in mainstream commercial agriculture. I worked at Purdue for 17 years and learned so much from colleagues there. 

What have you learned from role models in your life?

Everything! Beyond what my own parents taught me, when I was a child in rural France I spent a lot of time on a neighbour’s farm. Their kids were grown, and they were happy to have me around all the time. That taught me something about what it feels like to be a farm kid, how hard and unpredictable and boring farm work can be until the superfun day when we brought the melons to market or whatever. In college I had great teachers like Brian Wright and Bob Evenson, and I read a lot. Papers from Hans Binswanger made him a personal hero of mine but I didn’t meet him in person until much later. In Zimbabwe, it was Tobias Takavarasha who in the late 1980s was chief economist in the Ministry of Agriculture, and he invited me in to work on the country’s first nationwide smallholder survey that I did for two years of dissertation fieldwork. I owe a huge debt to him, teaching me how to work as a foreign researcher in a government setting, how to communicate and get things done. An earlier person like that for me was Genaro Perez Gutierrez, the leader of the dairy cooperative in Colombia where I’d worked for a semester off from college in 1983. He allowed me into his organization, let me hang out and learn, and he was a very inspiring person – he ran the cooperative as a business, but also as a political organization through which farmers could have a voice. Then, I would say, the most important person after that would be Wally Tyner, the department head who hired me at Purdue. He was a great academic administrator, very good at discovering what people needed and how to help each faculty member reach their full potential. I hope I can do that for others, to help people become who they want to be.

Have you ever worked in another field?

Yes, I work in another field now! In 2010, I moved from the College of Agriculture at Purdue to the School of Nutrition at Tufts. That is a huge change. Nutrition is part of the health sciences, which is a whole different world from the agricultural sciences at Purdue, or the social science and policy world I’ve known at liberal arts universities. I’m very lucky to have been able to learn and explore, to have a whole second career in a new domain. My research methods are still rooted in economics but applying these ideas to nutrition and health involves very different sensibilities than agriculture and economic development.

If you did not have the job that you have now, what would you do and would it be ANH-related?

I have no idea… I love my job and can’t really imagine switching. If offered a job in the current U.S. government I’d go for sure, but that would be temporary. I hope to keep teaching and doing research for as long as I can.

Was there a time where you had to learn a great deal in a short amount of time (a learning curve)?

Often! I am a very curious person, so I often go into new fields and have to learn how things are done in that domain. I’ve published in many different kinds of journals, from political science and sociology to agronomy and medicine. I think the most important thing is just to read a lot, to listen really carefully, and to imitate what other people do.

Do you recommend that people specialize in one discipline?

Yes. Disciplines are needed because the world is really complicated, and other people discovered a lot of things before we got here. It takes years of study, skill and attention to master any one field deeply enough to extend that frontier of knowledge. But each person is just themselves, building a particular skillset to do what they can. Research is like building houses or cars. I had a distant relative who was an automotive engineer. He ended up designing dashboards. He knew everything about how people interact with dashboards, and how the dashboard signals the rest of the car but said he really didn’t know anything about the engine or whatever. In ANH we’re often like that. We’re at the boundaries between fields so each of us needs to choose what we care about, know our limits, and rely on other people to bring the other skills and knowledge needed for success.

Did you have any experience of rejection or failure in your career path?

Of course! I think failure is a prerequisite for success. I experience this most frequently in journal publications and grant proposals, but the same lessons apply to other things. If my work doesn’t get rejected occasionally, I know I should aim higher. And if something gets rejected repeatedly, that says I should choose more feasible targets. None of us can know our true potential ahead of time. We just have to try and see how far we get, towards what aims. Every day we show up with a given set of abilities and choose what to do. If we’re lucky, we succeed at something that opens doors to further success. If we’re unlucky, we fail and have to look elsewhere for opportunities. For me, the big question is how we experience failure. It’s usually impossible to distinguish between skill and luck, and hard to know what additional efforts might have been worthwhile. My goal is just to catch and fix mistakes as quickly as possible, to be self-critical enough to improve and also self-confident enough to try new things and accomplish as much as possible. So yes, I’ve had plenty of rejection and failure – but also lots of good luck and success. Much of that is not from my own efforts, it’s just an accident of birth. My great-grandparents escaped pogroms against Jews in Russia during the 1880s and landed in Boston. My wife’s ancestors escaped the genocide against Armenians in the 1910s and ended up in New York. That makes us very lucky to have been born where and when we were. I have experienced anti-Semitic hostility a few times in my life, but most people seem to expect good things from me and don’t think I’m a threat which paves the way for success. Other kinds of people face terrible discrimination and ongoing violence, or structural disadvantages that affect what each person can accomplish now. I don’t want to make things sound simple. It’s hard for everyone to keep a balance, to choose their battles and make progress. At one point in the 1990s I experienced a long episode of depression from which I was saved by medication and a lot of therapy. That’s yet another way in which I’ve been very lucky in the end – at least so far.  I hope I can stay healthy enough to use the opportunities I’ve been given as best I can. 

Can you recommend something for people who need inspiration or information about a career in your field?

There are so many sources of inspiration! Look around you. Find people or things you admire and try to imitate them. Follow the good stuff on social media and be sure to mute or block out everything that’s discouraging or a waste of your valuable time. And always read! One particular kind of book that’s underrated is textbooks. We often think of reading them only when assigned for a course, but if you’re curious about a topic you’ll find that used copies are often very cheap or free, so just ask somebody in that field which textbook to read. Above all, try new things and persist with what works for you. Each of us has something distinctive to offer, to support each other and solve the big programs we all face.


If you have any questions or feedback about this career journey, please contact l[email protected].