Huck Chair in Global Food Security; Professor of Entomology and Biology
Cole Hons: Greetings fellow Homo sapiens, and welcome to the third season of The Symbiotic Podcast. I'm your host Cole Hons from The Huck institutes of the Life Sciences, and it gives me great pleasure today to introduce you to our first guest of our livestream season, season three. We're back after a year off, a year's hiatus working on a lot of COVID things. Now, we're back live once a month kicking off our new season where we'll be talking to individual scientists, which is a big change for us. In the past, we've always talked to groups of scientists collaborating.
This year, we're breaking our own rules, which makes a lot of sense because this third season is about "Risk Takers and Game Changers" – people who aren't afraid to take risks and try to do things a little differently. Our first guest for this season is Dr. David Hughes, the Huck Chair of Global Food Security. Hello, David.
David Hughes: Hi. How are you doing, Cole?
Cole: I'm doing well. How are you today?
Cole: So you rode your bike up here in zero degree weather, didn't you?
David: Yeah, I did. Yeah.
Cole: I just want to point that out. I'll just introduce you to the world that way because hats off to you, sir! That's probably how you've made it through these few years of the pandemic still trim and fit like you are.
David: Yeah. Well, it's a good way to do things. It keeps me warmer and the planet less warm.
Cole: Yeah. Well done. Yeah. I put on about a pandemic 25, I think. Are you still working out? I used to see you at the YMCA lifting weights. You're lifting at home now?
David: I still do. Yeah.
Cole: You still go to the Y?
David: No. I still do it at home.
Cole: Do it at home. Pandemic times.
David: Yeah, exactly. Stay away from the Y.
Cole: Yeah. Well, well done, sir. Appreciate that a lot. So how do you like our new set, David?
David: I think it's fantastic. I've liked this podcast a lot. I think what you're doing here is really nice and constantly trying to change it up and perhaps also having a nicer space. We've gone in and occupied your old space.
Cole: You did. Well, we used to battle about that day back in the day.
David: We did.
Cole: A friendly competition for space.
David: I think this truce benefits us all.
Cole: Absolutely. Well, if there's anybody I would not worry about handing space over to you, it would be you my friend, because I think what you're doing over there is fabulous. We shot some video in there recently. We'll be watching that video in a little bit. Let me just let the audience know that we're 100% live here, so anything could happen. If there's any glitches or things, we apologize in advance. Hopefully, we'll get it all out there smoothly. There's no editing involved. This is happening right here, right now, live. No net.
I do want to point out that there is a chat. It's going to be to the right of the video stream. You can just accept the terms there. You can chat in. You can use your real name or be anonymous. Anything you want to do. We're also going to have a live Q&A once you're in there. If you have a question for Dr. Hughes that you would like to ask, you can put that question in at any time, and you can also vote up other people's questions. Towards the end of our 45-minute conversation, we're going to look at those questions, and we're going to see which ones are the most popular. Dr. Hughes will answer those live right here for you, which will be interesting to see what kind of questions we have.
David: Great. Excellent.
Cole: With that said, David, this is all about risk taking and game changing. Game changing, you hear that a lot out there in the public sphere. People throw that term around a lot, but what we're interested in at the Huck is what does it really mean to change the game? On the risk taking side, what's an acceptable level of risk? What is a healthy kind of risk? What are the dangers of not taking risks? And then conversely, what are the dangers of taking irresponsible, dangerous risks? In science, these are huge, huge topics. Just looking at you, first thing I wonder is, were you a risk taker as a kid when you grew up? Can you talk about your background a little bit? You consider yourself a risk taker?
David: Yes. I'm the fifth of six children. Grew up in Dublin in the 1980s, a poor household. Nobody in my family ever went past high school at 11 years old. I got kicked out of high school at the age of 15 for constantly fighting with the teachers and the system. Ever since then, that's the perspective I'm coming at things from. We often talk in PlantVillage of who's not in the room, and the people in my community in Dublin in the 1980s were certainly not in the room. These were individuals who were excluded from the benefits the society brings, meaning jobs and education and so on.
I've always railed against that. If we think of Dublin in the eighties or Africa today, there's just a large group of people who know how to game the system, know how to do better in the system, and they purposely or without purpose exclude others. That's the perspective I'm coming at things at. I'm best described as an angry Irishman. I'm angry at the system, the historic system, the current system, and the future system. I think we need to be more inclusive, not in a very easy-going woke language, which tends to try to bring people in, but in a purposeful language which has a bias to action. If you really mean what you say, bring people into the room.
Cole: Yeah. You're reminding me of grandmother Agnes Baker Pilgrim. I used to be involved with the The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, and grandma Aggie used to say, "You can't just talk to talk. You got to walk the walk." She talked about being a voice for the voiceless. I absolutely hear what you're saying. I think it's very valid and I think that's the kind of thing we need more of. I think about you at 15 getting kicked out of high school. What were you fighting with people about in high school?
David: Ireland's a very religious country. We tend to be educated by priests and what are called brothers or the Christian brothers. I fought with them over religion. I'm an atheist and so I questioned some of their doctrines and issues. That should be good. You would imagine a school would be a place for questioning, as we would imagine university would be, but consistently we see that's not the case. So they kicked me out.
Cole: Wow. Wow. They kicked you out of there.
David: I was very annoying.
Cole: Yeah. I can believe it. You do have a reputation and I'm sure you're self-aware enough to know.
Cole: How long have you been at Penn State, actually? I don't think I ever asked you that.
David: I came in 2011, so I came to the United States in 2008. I had a fellowship at Harvard, and I just wanted to see the U.S. and intended to go back. Fell in love with the country, myself, my wife, she's Italian, Alba, fell in love with the country in a few weeks. We had two kids in Boston. It was great. I'm Irish, she's Italian. We hit a quarter of the population, but of course subsequently fell out of love with the country and back in love on various stages. It is an extraordinary country to be in.
Once I was in Boston, I came down to Pennsylvania to visit Penn State. Really had not understood the land grant system or been exposed to it. We're just blown away by its potential. It is an extraordinary system. Andrew Read brought me down to give a talk with the idea of looking into joining the faculty here, which I did. It was excellent. It's a phenomenal place with extraordinary history and potential, and CIDD and Huck are just wonderful. I came to Penn State with my ants, my rainforest work on the ecology of ants being manipulated by parasites, and I in my job talk I showed a picture of Old Main and the beautiful mural on the wall and said, "I want to do something that's useful." And here we are.
Cole: Terrific. Yeah. I remember Alba worked at the Huck for a little while.
David: She did.
Cole: It is kind of a fun, odd couple. She's so Italian and you're so Irish, and in Boston I'm sure you're surrounded by some Irish. I don't know how much you get that in Central PA here. It's a little more dramatic, I guess.
David: Not, not many. Yeah, for sure.
Cole: We're very international now. I came here in 1987 for school and never managed to leave. I'm one of those guys, like a lifer at Penn State. I've seen it get more and more international as each year go goes by.
Cole: Certainly, your team is incredibly international in the work that you're doing. Was this the place that you really were able to tap into an international community? Can you talk a little bit about that journey?
David: Yeah. I came here and I came up with this idea of PlantVillage, which is now what I work on. I no longer work on the ants system. The Huck have supported that through their innovative system, the transformative science approach HITS, which is great. They really made a big bet on me, and I've slowly grown it upwards. We have benefited from the diverse students here. Right early on in 2013, 2014, we'd have students from Ethiopia or Bangladesh translating content for us. We've had over 230 undergraduate students in our lab since we've come here.
David: And then of course, the staff members and the postdocs are coming from a wide range of countries, but PlantVillage is not Penn State. PlantVillage is a global movement. There's over 120 people who are just what are called Dream Team Members in eight countries. In addition, there's lots of staff members to help us with developing the engineering solutions, and they're spread across four or five countries at this stage. So really it takes a village, as we say, and that village should be diverse. We often say that if you had a village and everybody was a blacksmith, it wouldn't be a good village.
Cole: That's right.
David: So we need lots of diversity.
Cole: Absolutely. That's what this podcast is supposed to be about, is people with different skills coming together for a common purpose and helping one another to achieve something bigger. Maybe I'll back up a second and we'll talk about PlantVillage. We did it in the marketing and I think most of the people watching know that you're the founder of PlantVillage, hopefully. We just came in conversationally. Maybe we could back up a little bit and I could ask you about what were the origins of PlantVillage? When did that idea first hit you? Was it a response to the HITS call? That was the Huck Innovative and Transformational Seed grant in 2012, I believe. Was it the call that got you thinking, or were you already looking and envisioning something like that?
David: It was in the rainforest of West Africa in Ghana in 2010 when I was traveling around the world with my colleague, Harry Evans, who's an expert on fungi affecting plant diseases. As a side thing, he looks at fungi affecting ants, so we had traveled over 110 days on three continents going at the rainforest and coming out of rainforest. Every time you come out of a rainforest in South America, Africa, Asia, you walk into a farm decimated by diseases, but we actually know what the answers to those diseases are. The birth of plant pathology was 1846 with the Irish potato famine, the birth of extension, which is the cornerstone of Penn State, was 1846, also in Dublin. It's really, really bad that the knowledge that we should use and could use to help people control problems is not accessible.
It's not accessible by design. We decide who's in the room, who's not in the room. We're at Penn State and we spend three million dollars a year in our library, seventh best library in the country, but that's not accessible if you go five miles off campus, for example, and it's certainly not accessible in Ghana. In Ghana, I was looking at a publication on cocoa diseases, which I was looking at, at the time. It might cost you $45 to buy a paper, a journal article from the 1980s that was paid for by the taxpayer in the 1980s. That is just absolutely immoral in my mind.
If I look at the land grant universities, as I had, as I said I didn't know much about them, and I look at technology and Moore's law and computing, I put those two things together and saying, "We can have a land grant and a phone." Phones are going to get better and better and better. My colleague, Harry Evans, a global expert, we could put Harry in a phone. This is the vision. Not just Harry, but thousands of scientists like him. That's what we're doing. We knew we could benefit from scalability and computing, better and better AI and so on and so forth. We began that journey in 2012.
Cole: Wow. Harry was an entomologist?
David: He's a plant pathologist working for the British government for 35, 40 years. Just a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. Unfortunately, we're not making people like him anymore because we don't value that. Despite our land grant heritage, what we do value are people bringing in NIH R01 grants with large amounts of overhead publishing in Nature of Science and so on and gaming the system for some arbitrary set of metrics that we've judged to be important for the tenure and promotion package. We have a different approach, which is to solve the problems, in the case of Penn State, for the Commonwealth. If you buy into what we say in Old Main, for the mission to solve the problems for the world, you want to be a global land grant. If that's true, first principles, then live a up to that mission and actually work for the problems which we can solve today.
Cole: Right. To be that one community that is impacting many, as we say, around the world.
Cole: Well, I salute you for having that vision. I'm also curious as we look at the history of PlantVillage, did you have sort of a technical guru? Because it's so technical. I'm going to say something different about the mic than I did before. I think if I get you a little closer on the mic, we'll be able to hear you a little.
David: Yeah. Sure.
Cole: There. That's terrific. Sorry. It's our first go here. Did you have a technical guru on the AI side, or did you just see it? Did you just look at your phone and see, "I know this could be in a phone?" Was there somebody guiding you there?
David: Yeah. Well, initially I worked with Marcel Salathé who was also a faculty member here. Marcel and a chap called Mohanty, who was with him, we worked on a very old system called Café, which is a bit of a clunky system. And then we reached out to Google. If I'm good at anything, I'm good at mooching, meaning I find people, so I found Vint Cerf. I found him through the Huck actually, through Nina Jablonski here. Vint Cerf is such a grandfather of the internet. He invented some really critical parts of the internet structure. He put me in contact with people at Google, Kevin McCloskey was one, and we began to start working on some of these datasets we had. We worked with domain experts in Africa at IITA, James Legg, and we put those together. And then, the real opening was Pete McCloskey, Kevin McCloskey's brother. He was an undergraduate at PIT and came to Penn State and hasn't left, thankfully. He's really combining the approach and driving forward our AI. He's the critical person in this conversation.
Cole: Cool. Thank you. I was just curious. I do want to make sure we stick to our theme which is that risk taking, because I'll have a little fun with you here. You're not unlike me, I think your reputation sometimes precedes you and you can be maybe a thorn in the side of folks who want to do things in a very traditional manner and stay in their lane. The marketing world that I'm in, it makes me think of the Apple commercial. Did you ever hear of the Apple commercial in 1984?
Cole: Where there's all the brain-dead drone, zombie people, and the woman comes in with a big hammer and smashes it. When they went in front of their board to do that for the Super Bowl and no one had seen it, and people were just losing it. They were ready to walk out the door tearing their hair out and having a real meltdown, but Steve Jobs was right. That was exactly the right message to give to the world. I think that that battle still goes on. Do you feel like we're starting to win a little more in terms of loosening things up and being creative and dynamic and breaking away from that stale, static mind thinking? How hard is it as an academic to do that? How risky is it? How risky has it been for you?
David: It's extraordinarily risky because if you're pre-tenure and you come in to do one thing, and then you start another thing, then you have a high chance of failure, and the system doesn't reward this. The system rewards the addition of small incremental steps in order to get the next grant, in order to get the next paper, and then to sign off on your dossier. Certainly, as I did at the University, annoy a lot of people, that's not helpful. That doesn't help.
I'm rather stupid and tough skinned, and so I just kind of plow ahead, but nonetheless, I think the University should do a better job of enabling risks because all the people that you see or content that you mention or companies like Apple which are successful, all of those successes are a long history of failures. Success only comes from a long history of failures, and we are now scaring young faculty coming in not to take risks for fear of getting this big ax fall upon them, which is deny tenure.
Cole: I see. Deny tenure. Yeah. Well, we could shift gears a little bit and maybe we could check out one of these videos. Just to let anybody who doesn't know and didn't see the marketing, it's been a very great year for you, David. It's funny because you had said, "Yes, Cole. I'll do this podcast with you. I'll be your first victim for the first podcast." We didn't know at that time that you were going to be named in Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business, which is really interesting for an academic to be a creative person in business when you're solving problems related to global hunger.
Also, the Newsweek named you in their inaugural list of America's Greatest Disruptors, which is no surprise because we all know you're a disruptor. Also, USAID would look at your proposal and award you and your team with up to $39 million to a USAID innovation, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab on current and emerging threats. That's all fabulous. I just wanted to let the audience know if they didn't know that. You know, I didn't go the traditional route, "This was David Hughes and here's his bio and here's all the great things that he's done."
I do want to show this video. We were so excited about what you did during the African locust plague of 2020. It was such an amazing story. My team came to me and were like, "Cole, we want to do a video about this. We want to do a really detailed video to try to tell this story," because we felt more people needed to hear that. You worked with us and we're going to bring that up in just a second so that the folks watching can see it. It's about five minutes long. This is the first time we're showing it to anybody a other than yourself and a small group of folks that signed off. I'm going to get ready now. Dan, or is that all queued up? We're ready to go. We're going to let everybody check this out.
Narrator: This is a grasshopper and these are locusts. When conditions are just so, certain grasshoppers become locusts and that can be really bad for farmers because this is what 15 million locusts can do.
David: When there's abundant rain in the desert, there's abundant vegetation and this leads with increase in the population. All these grasshoppers bump into each other and they go through a dramatic change in their behavior and physiology to become swarming locusts.
Narrator: This is Penn State entomologist, David Hughes, Huck Chair of Global Food Security and founder of the PlantVillage project.
David: The mission of Plant Village is not only to help farmers cope with the stresses of climate change, but actually thrive. We do that through the combination of world-class data in a cloud system, AI working on phones, and a community of youth across Africa called the Dream Team.
Narrator: The story of the 2020 East African locust swarms is a study in the real world impact of climate change. In 2018, an unusually active cyclone season in the Indian Ocean created storms that drenched the Arabian desert. The number of desert locusts exploded, by some estimates increasing to more than 8,000 times the size of their normal population. Over the next year, seasonal winds pushed these insects South and West across the Gulf of Aden where a wet autumn and a December cyclone, this time in Somalia, kicked off a crisis. Nations across the horn of Africa now faced the largest locust threat in 70 years, with swarms as dense as 15 million insects per square mile able to consume as much food in one day as an entire town. And the timing couldn't have been worse. It was early 2020 and the entire world was just beginning to notice the emerging coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China.
David: This was a crisis within a crisis. Actually, I was at the UN on the 29th of January talking to the Secretary of Agriculture at the time. They were really stuck because they weren't able to do surveying across Kenya because everything was shut down and closing. It was really important that we could get those necessary surveys for the necessary control. Because we had worked in building apps for them, they asked, "Could we do this?" Essentially, what we did was we built the airplane as we were learning how to fly.
Narrator: PlantVillage had already proven its viability to the UN by bringing agricultural knowledge and best practices to massive numbers of small-scale farmers across Africa. Nuru, an AI powered assistant distributed on inexpensive smartphones, was designed by the PlantVillage team to diagnose common crop diseases and pests like cassava mosaic disease and fall armyworm. It only took the PlantVillage team a month to build and deploy a new and effective tracking app, eLocust3m. Before the end of March, their new tech was on the ground in the hands of volunteers and available to anyone with a smartphone. Team members trained locals in hard hit areas to track and report locust sightings. Over the next year, almost a quarter of a million records flooded in. Vulcan, a Seattle-based geographic data company integrated the PlantVillage reports with a custom version of its own software to direct aerial spraying efforts in partnership with the UN and governments.
It worked. The westward movement of the locust was halted. The countries in the Sahel, a semi-arid region South of the Sahara, were spared thanks to the spraying. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that in all these efforts saved more than a billion and a half dollars of agricultural products, the livelihood of 34 million farmers, and the food supply for tens of millions more. The PlantVillage story was covered by the New York Times in April 2021. A few months later, Hughes was hailed as one of the Most Creative People in Business by the magazine Fast Company, and at year's end, Newsweek had added him to their inaugural list of America's Greatest Disruptors. The PlantVillage team was also recognized by USAID, which awarded Hughes a major grant to scale up efforts across the globe.
David: We're lucky to be running a USAID innovation lab on current and emerging threats, and there are 21 Feed the Future countries. So naturally, our objective is to scale up PlantVillage to those 21 countries from Central America to Asia, which of course is over a billion people, and they're predominantly relying on agriculture. The goal is to get there, help over a billion people cope with the stressors of pests, weeds, and diseases, but at the same time, do that in a climate change world.
Narrator: For more information about the PlantVillage project and to find out how you can get involved, visit plantvillage.psu.edu.
Group: Thank you, PlantVillage!
Cole: We had so much fun making that video, honestly. I want to thank you for doing the work because… I'll be real. I haven't always felt great at Penn State. When the Sandusky thing was going on, good Lord. It really just destroyed me. Talk about a low point and a permanent stain on our reputation. The people who don't know Penn State sometimes they'll be like, "Oh." They'll make some crude joke about that as if that's all Penn State is about. We really have a lot to overcome there. When I see somebody like you, David, doing work like that, then I know that there's so much more to us and there's a whole other beautiful, wonderful side of what we really are about and what most of the people here are about. It's that land grant mission, and it's about being of service, and it's about taking that research prowess and putting it to good use.
David: I do need you to point out that it's not me, of course. I'm just one part of it. It's a village. It requires a communication team. The video you made is excellent, and getting that out is critically important. People who are not here but are critically important are people like Frank Doyle, who was the person who made that airplane while it was flying, but then our UN partners, our country partners, our Dream Team, Melodine Jeptoo, was mentioned that New York Times piece we talked about. Yeah. There's a huge number of people involved in this. I'm just the mouthpiece.
Cole: Well, thanks for getting them all together, corralling that energy. Speaking of that, now I'm going to go back to when I was a Penn State student because I'm an alum as well. I had a professor back in the day, her name was Dorothy Blair. I think it was 1987. She was the first person in Pennsylvania, she and her husband, created a community-supported agriculture farm, the first, the first in PA. So she's very innovator, forward-thinking person. She was teaching in the science technology and society program, which no longer exists sadly, but it was the earliest spot at Penn State when really people started thinking about sustainability and a lot of these issues that are so important now.
Dorothy taught me in a global food class. It was a class about global hunger. I took that because I really wanted to learn more about it. She taught us that a lot of times, the rich White Western world will go into another country thinking they have all the answers, and it's almost like a paternal, very negative thing, and it can go really wrong. Maybe they create more problems than they solve, but I don't get the sense that you're about that and you're doing that. I'd like to hear you talk about that a little. How do you avoid that cliché kind of approach?
David: The problems Africa has are problems of colonialism, and now increasingly neocolonialism. It's an incredibly rich continent with resources, natural resources and human resources and mineral resources, but they've been stripped away. People have been stripped away, cobalt is stripped away, and this has happened through the umbrella of colonialization by the Brits and the French and the Belgians, et cetera, but then increasingly now neocolonialism by the large corporations. So of course, I'm approaching this as a person who comes from a colonized nation. Ireland was colonized by the Brits in the same way Kenya was. Our potato famine was compounded by British efforts in order to use an infectious disease as a really good way to reduce the population size. This is the framework that we come at this from.
What we do at PlantVillage is work so incredibly closely with local communities. We're about 130 people in PlantVillage. Most of them, I'd say about 85% of them, are African. They come from eight different countries and predominantly youth. I'd say about 75, 80% are under the age of 30, and a lot of women, about 60% women. We also work intentionally with women farmers, about 83% farmers. I think it's really brought home to me last week when Annalyse Kehs, who's our director of operations and really runs all of this excellent work through the Dream Team as they're called, she said, "Is there a law against what we're doing? It's not what we do, but is there a law against it?" Because it seems so obvious to us that if you're going to work in Northern Kenya, you'd work with Turkana, Samburu, ane Rendile tribes. That just seems so obvious."
If you're going to work with making change, you'd employ 37 young people for the price of one FAO consultant, which is about $650 a day, gets you 37 young Kenyans, and you would just give them technology and bring them up to the level of the expert from Europe. That just seems really obvious. I was really struck by what she said. The model that we have is insourcing. We always talk about outsourcing being bad, but that's what we've been doing for Africa and development for the last 40 years. We're outsourcing. Only Europeans or Americans can solve the problem when they fly in an airplane and stay in an air conditioned hotel room.
Our model is the young people are already there. Let's insource. Let's just give them the technology and raise them up with technology. One phenomenal example besides the locust crisis is that we've just set up a Dream Team in Ethiopia, and for the listeners who know this, it's currently undergoing a quite severe civil war which has resulted in many aid agencies leaving, staff of the Irish embassy were kicked out, but we're able to set up a Dream Team in that country despite that stress because guess who hasn't been kicked out of Ethiopia – the 76 million Ethiopians. We want to work with local communities. Again, I loved what Annalyse says. "Is there law against it?" And apparently there's not, and there's great success to be had by going that path.
Cole: Right on. Thank you for taking us a little deeper into what you do and how it all works. I know I got to meet one young man from Ghana who was on your team, Edward Amoah. Again, we had an amazing time making a video about what he's doing because he and his team managed to win a student XPRIZE this year. Now, we haven't been able to really release that to Penn State, but I talked to corporate today, and I got permission to share a little of his story because we're still working through the contract, and we could have a whole other podcast about money and the strings that are attached to money and how that works. Go read the book Dark Money by Jane Mayer. Go read the book Dark Money by Jane Mayer everybody, because sometimes something is called philanthropy and it's not.
Not to say that that's the case with the XPRIZE, but it's always complicated. Big money is also really complicated almost all the time. What is less complicated and more exciting and inspirational is what Edward has been doing with the PlantVillage team. We're going to show a two-minute video just to celebrate his winning or his team, the whole collective, as you say. It's a lot of people working together and the vision. Can you talk a little bit about the vision of what they're doing to cue this up of what we're going to show?
David: In Africa, we have a huge problem of climate change and it's very unjust because Africa has contributed about 2% to global warming, but they're overwhelmingly paying the costs. One of the approaches we can take is agroforestry where you plant trees on the borders of the farms, and then you turn those trees through a technique called pyrolysis where you burn the wood at high temperatures and low oxygen and forms biochar. If you put that biochar into the ground, it's very, very useful in combating drought and helping the soil and regenerative agriculture.
We want to take this approach of growing lots of trees, storing biochar. It just so happens that that part which is called climate change adaptation is also as a side effect climate change mitigation. Our vision is to have 200 million farmers raise themselves out of poverty in Africa in a single generation pulling down one billion tons of carbon per year. Even though they didn't create the problem, Africa will help us solve the problem and also end this never ending cycle of philanthropy and charity and donations, and allow them to be profitable.
Cole: Yeah. I love the vision. It's amazing. Dan, he's giving me the thumbs up that we're ready for our audience to take a look. Check this out, people.
Edward Amoah: My name is Edward Amoah and I am doing ecology here at Penn State. I got involved in PlantVillage as an undergrad researcher in 2019. We've been working with small farmers in Africa, from Kenya to Burkina Faso. We have developed a technology that we are using to track and monitor pests in farms. We want to be able to adapt that same technology to help monitor and track tree growth with our farmers.
David: The XPRIZE pitch is remarkably simple. Philanthropy is not going to solve the problems that hundreds of millions of people facing the climate crisis. We believe at PlantVillage that the markets will be able to help, particularly the carbon markets. We're developing this system whereby we can plant and track trees at scale, not only to enable climate change adaptation at the farm level but provide an alternative source of revenue for these farmers.
Edward: So, we can help farmers in Africa be able to move out of poverty while also pulling down carbon at scale. Quite honestly, this is a win-win for the global community. I am an African. I grew up in Ghana. I grew up humble financially. I have seen some of these challenges that I hope to be able to address with the work that I'm doing with PlantVillage and with Penn State.
David: We need young people to be solving the climate crisis. Edward is one of many on our team, the Dream Team we have, the larger group at PlantVillage who are solving these problems every day.
Edward: I'm really excited about this XPRIZE award because we get to show the world what we are doing and the way forward to being able to address climate change and food security together. This issue is not an issue for only ecologists, but it's an issue for everyone. It's an issue that we all have to come together and address. I am grateful that PlantVillage at Penn State and Penn State as a whole provides that environment to help us be able to achieve that goal.
Cole: David, I get goosebumps every time I watch it. Again, thank you because I could show that to my kids and say, "Hey, this is the kind of stuff we're working on." I'm almost choking up. What you're doing there with folks like Edward, it's so inspiring, it's so meaningful.
David: The issue is not that I'm doing it. I hate to harp on this as if I'm trying to say something immodestly, but it's not. It's fundamentally the case that when you let different people into the room, amazing things happen. This story of Edward is one repeated daily across PlantVillage and our huge team. Just bring different people into the room who are not there, and then enable them through education and technology, and then the results are just extraordinary.
Cole: Absolutely. Yeah. It's fabulous. Well, we're not going to have too much ... Officially, maybe five, eight more minutes with you. We started a few minutes late, so I'm going to look at these questions while we still can. Let's see. Recent, popular. What's the most popular question? This was my first time going at this. This one had three likes: How did you switch from working on zombie ants to taking on global hunger? People want to know.
David: With great difficulty. It was extraordinarily hard to switch. Especially, I remember quite clearly the day I stopped, which was with Colleen, my last postdoc working on extremely interesting stuff. I think we were on Zoom, it was COVID, and I was very upset. I cried with her, and I had to stop. In that transition, it was very difficult. This is my life's work.
Cole: Yeah. For people who don't know, David made quite a name for himself working with zombie ant fungus. We made an art exhibit about it and, and I helped Daryl Branford make a thing for kids. It's amazingly cool, sci-fi, fun, and it got a lot of media attention. You were known as zombie ant guy. It was your Twitter handle, Zombie Ant Guy.
David: I grew up in a very chaotic place, and Sunday evenings watching David Attenborough take me through rainforest around the world was such a precious time for me. I had the great fortune after I got back into the educational system to get to places where I could spend my life describing species of fungi with João Araújo, one of our former students and now at the New York Botanical Gardens. It was wonderful. I wanted to do that. I still want to do that, but unfortunately the world has problems. I know I can take the great force of Penn State and I can apply that with the great force of technology to solve those problems. I know I can do that. I am a tenured professor at a university. I can't be fired. It's wonderful. I have freedom.
Cole: Say it as it is. Yeah.
David: No. It's true.
Cole: If I could just be a tenured marketing director, David.
David: Well, just recognize the privilege that you have and with the technology surrounding you to make videos to change the world and then involve other people.
David: How did I transition? It was a hard transition, but I did it.
Cole: Yeah. Well, kudos to you. If we could clone you, then you could still go chase the fungi.
David: Well, João is doing a great job.
Cole: He's doing that. Yeah. You get to do it through him a little bit. That's great. Vicariously. Here's another one. Number two question: Hello, Dr. Hughes. What is the most rewarding part of your work?
David: It's the cloning.
Cole: The cloning.
David: In 2019, we got money from Eric Schmidt and Wendy Schmidt, which really helped us do all that locust work. It was transformative. That's why gifts are important. I know you're going to talk about gifts later on. And then as part of that, I got Annalyse Kehs, who was just one of our undergraduates and she became the director of operations and just phenomenal. Very specifically phenomenal for organizing the large team through what's called our objectives and key results.
What's wonderful is now Annalyse is being cloned as Winnie Onyango in Kenya. Now Annalyse is not needed. We had this rule that what are the three things you're needed for today that other people can't do, because if you're not working on those, you should be, and you shouldn't be in a room somebody else can do it. So empowering other people to do it. James Mugo, another team member who just launched a Dream Team in Uganda, John Mayieka doing agroforestry, Melodine Jeptoo working in Northern Kenya, so on and so forth. I could just go through a list of names, and they're just cloning. It's just absolutely amazing. I talked to Annalyse about this the other day how you might have an idea and then the idea comes back to you after they do it. Just phenomenal. It's just wonderful.
Cole: I want to see your playbook, David. I need to clone myself because I'm running myself ragged. Well, you do too, but yeah, the cloning. Yeah. I've been thinking about that myself. How do I get others to maybe be able to do some of these things? That's brilliant. We only have about five minutes left officially. I'll ask one more question, and then I do want to make sure that we cover the donation side and you could talk about Eric Schmidt you mentioned a second ago and someone at Google is-
David: We have a matching fund.
Cole: That's that matching fund. Yeah. I'll ask one more question, then we'll put something up on the screen for folks. Let's see. There's two that have tied. You can, answer either one: How do you decide what countries to work in or what do you look for in students or researchers you partner with?
David: For the second question, we look for a biased action. It's fine to talk about these things all day long, but that's why we're in the current problem. So we want people who have a biased action and we're very good at finding that.
Cole: A biased action. Meaning?
David: Meaning they want to get working on a problem. If they're domain experts, if they're students, whatever the issue in front of them, what are they actually doing on a daily basis to change that? If we give them a task, will they do it and come back. They're just act rather than talking about it. That's very much related to the first question, which is which countries. We tend to gravitate towards opportunity we have. Currently, for example, we're really scaling up in Uganda and that's because of we're working with the world bank there and John Ilukor, a collaborator with us. It's just phenomenal. So active, so engaging, so much bias towards action. That's obviously where we're going to go more than a country where we don't have that strong partnership. That's how we would go with those two questions.
Cole: Yeah. So you follow where the energy is, where others have the passion and the energy. That makes a lot of sense because there's only so many minutes and hours in a day.
Cole: So you want to use them wisely. Thank you for not taking any texts from the UN or the USAID while we're on this because usually, I know they're always at you constantly, speaking of time. So as we just kind of wrap it up, I do want to make sure we put up on the screen, Dan, if you could put that URL up on the screen for people. It's plantvillage.psu.edu/donate. If anybody watching this wants to go there, there's actually a matching program going on. Explain for people, if you're getting up to 39 million from USAID, why do you need more money? Where does that money go? Let's really let people know what that's like.
David: Yeah. The USAID money is for research and development. We still need a lot of money for putting into action on the ground, operationalizing things on the ground. Things we know work, we could operationalize them. They might be boreholes or tree planting or providing farmers with phones or SMS for knowledge about what to do when to do it. Through Jeff Dean and Heidi Hopper, the Hopper-Dean foundation, Jeff is a lead AI researcher at Google and he's been working with us for a long ... Very, very great supporter of what we're doing.
They put up to 2.5 million matching funds, which is just so, so amazing. We want to match that and lead to a situation where we're doing climate change adaptation practically on the ground. We have a goal. We currently reach about four to eight million people a week. We have a goal to get to 50 million a week in the next two years. We need a lot of infrastructure for that. We need more team members and that's what gifts do. Gifts are just extraordinary because they allow us to operate flexibly.
Cole: We really do thank the Hopper-Dean Foundation. It's phenomenal. They've been there with you on the ground. The male side of that, Jeff, he had an experience going to Africa. He had a personal transformational experience himself. Is that right?
David: I don't know about transformational, but he lived there when he was a kid. I think he was about 11 years old. I think he lived in Somalian Uganda. Obviously, that flavors his thinking, but I also think it's their daughters. As a family, this is their gift giving, and their daughters are in their twenties and obviously are focused on climate change as many of our listeners are. It's the biggest issue we have.
David: So we must solve it for the farmers and help them because they didn't create the problem, so why should they pay the bill? At the same time, we should solve it for the world. So we're trying to do those things. I think the Hopper-Dean Foundation have just been amazing partners as have Schmidt Futures and other donors like the Gates Foundation, Skoll Foundation, and so on.
Cole: Yeah. So many have all chipped in. I think it's your vision. I think it's that inspiring vision that you're walking your walk and you're talking your talk as well, but walking your walk is, as you say, that biased action. Bias is how you put it?
Cole: It means a lot.
David: Just do something.
Cole: Just do something real. Just be real and take things on for real. Well, kudos to you. If anybody goes to that link, if you have money and you're able to do that and feel inspired to do that, you can. You can go to that link and it'll be matched for the next two years that'll be running.
Cole: A matching fund up to an additional two million dollars they gave.
David: That's correct. That's correct.
Cole: For those of you watching who are in that category and are inspired by what you're hearing here and seeing, might want to consider checking that out. Also, I want to, before we leave, I'm just about at the end of our time, we'll let you know that next episode in one month, these are going to be every month, we will have Dr. Nita Bharti on the podcast. Nita is a great friend of ours. We worked on the Ask CIDD stuff. She's done a lot of public good, public service answering questions about COVID from the local community just because.
David: And a fabulous scientist. Excellent work.
Cole: And a fabulous scientist.
David: Her work in Africa on fire.
Cole: Taking risks and doing things that are a little different, taking junk data and making it into actionable data that makes a difference, a real difference in the real world.
Cole: Look forward to that. Bookmark it, folks. It'll be at this same page, it'll be on the 24th of February. It's always the last Thursday of the month. We're going to run these all the way through until October, and then we're going to fall down and go to Thanksgiving and have a break and regenerate. Next episode, come back because we may do a little something special with our ... If you've seen these over here, if you can cut wide, Dan, we have our little plushies here. We're going to do a little poll.
I just wanted to point this out. Dan's shot a little clip earlier. I love to say that Penn State's evolving. If you want to, Dan, you could even roll that clip on our way out here. Let's just do it. This is live. We're going to go along just for fun. You let me know when that's rolling. Okay. It's rolling. Today, the beautiful thing is you're not just stuck with the Nittany Lion. If you don't feel it, if you don't feel Nittany Lion-ish, you could get a llama. You could get a gnome, you could get a little baby bear, you can get a unicorn. I asked David earlier, and he's with me. His favorite is the unicorn. If you're still here and you want to vote for your favorite alternative plushy, the llama, the gnome, the bear, or the unicorn, this is your chance.
Just go in the chat and we're going to collect the data all year, and then we're going to see if the different audiences for the different scientists like the different plushies. And then, maybe we'll get back to you at the end of the year, David, and we'll see how many people are with you with the unicorn and who's with some of these others. We got a lot of gnome lovers, too. Anyway, all that silliness aside, thank you so much, David. It's just been brilliant talking to you. I don't even have to tell you good luck and do your thing because you're always doing it! You're like the Energizer bunny, just going. So just keep on going. We're all going to be watching and thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us today.
David: Thank you. Thanks to the team for inviting me. It was a pleasure.
Our video and livestream producer is Dan Lesher. Our sound engineer is Brennan Dincher. Our web developer is Jodie LeMaster, and our marketing manager is Keith Hickey. Cole Hons hosts and directs the show, and original illustrations and animations are provided by Sam Muller and Bethany Seib.
If you enjoy our podcast, we hope you’ll subscribe and share it with others. We’d also love to know what you think about our content, so if you want to get in touch, please email email@example.com.