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Interview with Megan Wilkerson

Ph.D. candidate in entomology/international agriculture and development.

Megan Wilkerson

Why did you choose to study entomology?

MW: My family owns the oldest, black-owned-and-operated funeral home in the south. They wanted me to work in the funeral home, but I wanted to work with the living. I was always interested in catching and pinning different types of bugs. When I decided to major in entomology, my family thought it was creepy, as if working in a funeral home isn’t creepy! But since my family believes in education, they supported me

Why did you decide to attend Penn State?

MW: Penn State is one of the only universities with a dual-title degree in entomology and international agriculture and development. The University also has a lot of resources. It’s like the land of milk and honey; there are so many opportunities, such as conferences, workshops, and fellowships. You have to be decisive in selecting what to do. In addition, the faculty here has been willing to go above and beyond to make sure I have everything I need

What are you studying?

MW: I am working with cocoa farmers in Ghana, which is the second largest exporter of cocoa in the world. Recently, Ghana lost 60 percent of its cocoa yields due to insect pests and disease. However, a lot of that loss can be recovered by using integrated pest management techniques, whether that’s good sanitation, getting rid of disease, or getting rid of the insects that spread disease. I am introducing these techniques—specifically the use of high-pressure water to remove insects, soapy water rinses, and cleaning and burning of diseased material, among other techniques—so farmers can keep insect levels down and protect their crops. The work is important because cocoa affects many facets of Ghanaian life and future development. Like my adviser [David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology] says, “Having a healthy cocoa farm is the difference between sending your child to the field or to school.”

Why is it important to train farmers in integrated pest management techniques?

MW: Training ensures that there is a link between past generations and future generations. But to be successful in training, you must do it in person. In a laboratory some 3,000 miles away from the home country, you may think you have it figured out in your head, but that doesn’t mean that once you go there the technology is going to be adopted or it will work. You have to travel to an area to understand what the problem is from the people who experience the problem. Integrated pest management techniques are important because they keep pest levels down in a sustainable fashion, with only minimal or no use of chemical applications. Everybody’s always quick to spray, but when you use a chemical application, you may also be getting rid of the beneficial insects. So as much as I can deter people from spray, spray, spray, the better.

Why is the international aspect of your work so important to you?

MW: During my master’s program, I had an opportunity to study abroad in South Africa, and I fell in love with international agriculture, with the idea that small-scale farmers in Africa often still use resources respectfully and live sustainable lives. I think it’s important to help these farmers continue to find sustainable ways to deal with the problems they face.

What is your hope for the future?

MW: I want to reverse the negative association with insects because insects are involved with health and food; they’re involved with nearly every aspect of human life. I also want to see young people become more interested in agriculture. Much of our food comes from small farms. We need to make agriculture more appealing to youth so we can have enough farmers to run these important small farms.

—Sara LaJeunesse
Photo credit: Michael Houtz