Patrick Cortbaoui, Managing Director, Margaret A. Gilliam Institute for Global Food Security

Patrick Cortbaoui completed his PhD in 2015 in bioresource engineering, focusing on post-harvest quality management of fruits and vegetables. He is currently the Managing Director of the Margaret A. Gilliam Institute for Global Food Security at McGill and an Academic Associate in the School of Human Nutrition.

Q: What made you interested in starting a PhD in bioresource engineering at McGill? You did your Master’s in the same department, right?

I started at McGill in 2001, in food science, along with a bachelor’s in engineering from a university in Lebanon. I graduated with both degrees in 2003, and then I started my Master’s in bioengineering at McGill in 2003. When I got it in 2005, I started working outside of universities, whatever I could find.

I worked as a consultant for the United Nations in western Asia on security related topics, and I found it very interesting how my knowledge could help change the lives of communities there. It made me want to develop my knowledge more and to focus on applied research, where we’re not just publishing, but changing lives.

So I came back to the PhD program in 2012 and focused on topics related to food security. I finished my PhD in record time, because I was very passionate about it. The subject of my PhD was a continuation of my Master’s, on post-harvest quality management of fruits and vegetables. I joined a project that had launched a year before I started, the CARICOM program, which was focused on the Caribbean.

Q: Were you able to get financial support right away? Was it continuous?

I had a stipend, some other graduate awards, and funding through CARICOM, which covered me the whole time. It covered my travel for fieldwork and for knowledge dissemination workshops, so everything was covered.

Q: Were there any other supports from the lab or department?

Absolutely. There was always support from my supervisor and from the principal investigator of the project. I also needed a lot of moral support during this time, because I had some unfortunate facts in my family. My dad passed away, halfway through my second year. So I interrupted my studies for two months to go back to Lebanon. So, I had to get some of my work through my labmates, collecting and helping to analyze some of the data that I had to have fresh—I was working with fruits and vegetables. They were very helpful.

Q: Is there any mentorship that you wish you’d had during your PhD?

Yes: I would have loved mentorship related to field data collection. I’m facing this challenge with my students now too; when they go to the field, it’s not a vacation. There is culture shock, and also, sometimes, safety or security problems, because we are collecting data in remote areas, and some are not that safe. We should be very careful in how we equip students before they travel, before they leave McGill, giving special skills in terms of safety and how to do the data collection.

Q: Are there any experiences during your PhD, but not directly your own research, that were valuable?

As I mentioned, I was very focused on my work, not because I wanted to finish early, but because I was so passionate to find solutions and start my career in this subject. But related to my work, I am grateful for learning how to translate science into policy, such as writing policy briefings and developing success stories and lessons learned from the field. I had the opportunity to do “writeshops” funded by the International Development Research Centre, where we drafted policy briefings. This is important, because at the end of the day it is the only way of coming back with donors. They’re not interested in published papers: they want to see how their investments are helping to change the lives of the most vulnerable communities.

Q: Let’s talk about your challenges now: what were the biggest challenges during your PhD? What helped you overcome them?

I had two different challenges. First, the data collection, since my project required freshly harvested crops, and at minus 20°C, you can’t have that. We ended up finding Lufa Farms, a green house which grows produce in winter. They were expensive, but I was fortunate to have my funding. The second is the statistical work for my PhD; my previous classes were not applicable to much of my research. However, I was lucky enough to find a colleague who helped me a lot.

Q: If we shift to your current position, can you explain what you do? And how you got there?

Currently, I’m serving as the managing director of the McGill Margaret A. Gilliam Institute for Global Food Security. My main role is to strengthen the links between academia, the private sector, NGOs, and governments working towards eradication of hunger, reduction of poverty.

I had deposited my thesis in April 2015, and I asked the then-director if I could help on a volunteer basis. After volunteering for 8 months, I got a contract to work for a year, and then, after being the project manager for a year, they had to renegotiate the position for the program director. So I got this promotion from the dean of faculty to be the managing director of the institute. This happened after we received a large donation from Margaret Gilliam, so we had to plan how to expand the scope and work of the Institute over the next several years.

Q: So it seems like it’s all connected from your original motivations, starting the PhD?

You know, I never worked just for the salary. I have to have a vocation in life. Yes, I’m an agriculture engineer, but I need something else besides engineering. So doing the PhD was the master key for me, to open doors to see if I can do something to change the lives of the most vulnerable. 

Food security is more complex than just reducing it to independent lab work; different stakeholders like government, academia, private sectors, NGOs, have to work together on this global issue. And also locally—now as director of the Institute, I’m shifting our perspective, considering Canadian food insecurity. For example, we’re examining food insecurity for First Nations populations and working with local NGOs in Quebec. And this will be even more important with this covid-19 pandemic.

Q: Our last question is open-ended: if you could go back and give advice to yourself, at the beginning of the PhD, what would it be?

I think a strong key for students is to not think of yourself as a student. Your supervisor doesn’t need another PhD; he has one already. So do it for yourself. I met with my supervisor maybe five times during my entire thesis, not because I didn’t need him, but because I was relying on myself to do it. The PhD is not an assignment to fill out and answer.

Many thanks to Patrick for sharing his narrative!

This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.