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Entomologist Esther Ngumbi Receives 2021 AAAS Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science

Esther Ngumbi's prolific engagement efforts have impacted the lives of farmers, students, and others. | Neil Orman/AAAS

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.


Ngumbi applies her research on the interactions between insects, plants, and soil microbes to benefit farmers and their communities. | Fred Zwicky/UI News Bureau

In both the U.S. and Kenya, Ngumbi speaks to students at elementary schools, high schools, and universities, encouraging particularly those from underrepresented minorities to pursue STEM careers. In 2012, she launched Spring Break Kenya, a project that has provided more than 5,000 university students with opportunities to fight hunger in the country’s rural areas. That same year, Ngumbi and her parents founded the Dr. Ndumi Faulu Academy, which supports the education of children in her hometown. She has also mentored students through the Clinton Global Initiative University and President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative.

“The selection committee was impressed with Dr. Ngumbi’s intersectional approach to sustainable agriculture, which weaves together research, practice, and community empowerment,” said Emily Cloyd, director of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. “She demonstrates how public engagement can increase dialogue and benefit science and society more broadly, and she encourages her colleagues to do the same.”


Ngumbi poses with a group of Kenyan university students after giving a talk in 2010. | Joshua Ogendo/Egerton University

As a guest columnist for Wired, Nature, Project Syndicate, and dozens of other high-profile outlets, Ngumbi has called attention to topics including climate change, hunger on university campuses, and the importance of public engagement by scientists. In 2015, she was selected by the Aspen Institute to participate in its New Voices Fellowship, a program that provides media and advocacy training to professionals in international development.

“Across seven fellowship years and 150 fellows, Esther is our most productive writer,” Andrew Quinn, director of New Voices Fellowship, wrote in a letter to AAAS. “Through her writing, she is able to reach millions of people with her ideas and thoughts on science and innovation. She’s not afraid to envision a better world.”

The AAAS Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science, established in 1987 as the AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology, recognizes scientists and engineers who demonstrate excellence in their contribution to public engagement with science. Mani L. Bhaumik, a quantum physicist known for technological advances that led to the development of Lasik eye surgery, endowed the award in 2019.

Ngumbi will receive the award in a virtual ceremony on Feb. 10, during the 187th AAAS Annual Meeting. AAAS will begin accepting nominations for the 2022 award on April 15. More information on eligibility requirements can be found here.