Esther Ngumbi, an entomologist whose prolific engagement efforts have impacted the lives of farmers, students, and others, will receive the 2021 Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Over the first decade of her career, Ngumbi has applied her research on crops’ pest resistance and drought tolerance to benefit farmers in her home country of Kenya and across sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, she has published more than 100 opinion pieces in mainstream news outlets, mentored students from groups underrepresented in STEM fields, and taught classes on science communication at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she serves as an assistant professor of entomology and African American studies.
“I’ve been involved in public engagement in science for more than 40 years,” Ngumbi’s colleague May Berenbaum, who won the same award from AAAS in 2010, wrote in a nomination letter. “I can honestly say that I’ve never encountered a more prolific, effective, and productive science communicator than Dr. Ngumbi.”
As a child in Kwale County in Kenya’s South Coast, Ngumbi grew crops on her family’s land. She noticed that each year, insects and drought claimed a portion of the harvest. Motivated to learn why, she set out to study biochemistry and zoology as an undergraduate in Kenya.
In 2011, Ngumbi became the first person from her village to earn a Ph.D., receiving her doctorate in entomology from Auburn University. She remained at Auburn as a postdoctoral researcher until moving to her current position at the University of Illinois in 2018.
Ngumbi studies the chemically mediated interactions between insects, plants, and beneficial soil microbes, and she uses the insights gleaned from her research to benefit farmers and the communities they support. As a consultant for Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global food security initiative, she helped strengthen regulations to protect crops in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2014, she founded Oyeska Greens, a start-up that trains Kenyan farmers on new techniques, such as greenhouse agriculture and climate-smart pest management.