UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State entomologist David Hughes used to go by the Twitter handle "@ZombieAntGuy." That’s because his early breakthrough research focused on the fungal genus Cordyceps, some species of which take over insects’ bodies, entwining themselves in ants’ muscles before exploding through their skulls to propagate new fungal spores.
If Hughes had stayed in his lane, a career researching Cordyceps and its formic victims could have been a fruitful one in and of itself; the morbidly fascinating work generated lots of press and public interest. But it’s an entirely different project — a long-burning side hustle called PlantVillage — that led him to massively impact one of the world’s most pressing socio-scientific challenges: food security.
It’s for this work that the magazine Fast Company, a publication dedicated to the power of disruptive innovation, just added Hughes to their list of "The Most Creative People in Business 2021."
"This is a very deserving recognition for Dr. Hughes,” said Gary Felton, head of Penn State’s Entomology Department, of the Fast Company acknowledgement. “He brings deep passion, amazing creativity, and science acumen to address issues related to world hunger and famine.”
Fast Company’s “Most Creative People” list is designed to honor pioneers from a wide range of fields that are making notable impacts through innovative thinking and bold action, and regularly includes engineers, executives, filmmakers, activists, designers, research scientists, and founders, among others. The common denominator is that all of them have done something that’s never been done before. Seventy-two innovators from across 14 categories made the cut this year. Hughes’ profile is included in the “Gathering Strength in Numbers” section.
The new, never-before-done thing that Hughes’ PlantVillage did over the past year is to deploy an artificial intelligence-enhanced app in smartphones across the Horn of Africa to empower farmers there to collectively mitigate the massive damage done to their crops by the largest swarms of locusts seen in the region for decades.
In early 2020, just as the SARS-CoV2 virus began to spread around the world for the first time and public health leaders scrambled to respond, PlantVillage was called in to help contend with the tens of billions of insects that were threatening the food supply of a tenth of the world’s population.
Having already piloted a smartphone-enabled project called “Nuru” to address crop blight across Africa — as well as Pennsylvania — the PlantVillage team built a new app called “eLocust3M” in under a month, used their local connections to recruit scouts, and generated nearly a quarter-million data points over the next year. This data provided insights necessary for partners to effectively target and combat the locust swarms, preventing the destruction of more than $1.5 billion in agricultural products. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated it preserved the livelihoods of 34 million people.
Through a partnership with the U.N., PlantVillage is now available in more than 60 countries and has been translated into 30 languages. It’s a terrific chapter in a story that began for Hughes back in 2012, when he applied for a Huck Innovative and Transformational Seed Fund (HITS) grant to try out an idea deemed too risky to appeal to more typical funding sources.
“I am delighted that David has used Huck’s seed funding of almost a decade ago to build something so important that he’s recognized as a most creative person — not in science, but in business!” enthused Andrew Read, the director of the Huck Institutes and the former head of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, where he and Hughes were colleagues. “There can’t be too many academic scientists so recognized. I am very much looking forward to seeing where his creativity takes him next.”
For Hughes, recognition is nice, he said, but more important is the proof that PlantVillage is viable. Here’s what Hughes had to say when asked about the project, and what this latest honor means for him and his team.
Q: What motivated you to create PlantVillage?
Hughes: I'm disgusted by inequality. We have a phenomenal body of knowledge in our university. We're the seventh-best library system in the whole country. We have 162 years or something of research and extension experience. But if you go a few kilometers away from our campuses, you don't have access to that. And you certainly don't have access to that across Africa. And so we need to level the playing field: Take the very best of what the land-grant universities have done in this country and make them available to anybody in the world.
Q: How has the business lens been applied to this project and what impact has it had?
Hughes: We currently are facing 41 million people on the brink of famine, according to the World Food Program. Solving these problems is typically never approached in a creative business framework. But the approaches that Google, for example, use to scale across the planet — they can be used just as effectively to help small holder farmers across Africa get the very best knowledge at the right time. And especially when we combine the very best of Silicon Valley with the very best of the land-grants, in those cases, we can have excellent research and extension work delivered at-scale.
Q: What does it mean to you that you’ve made this list in Fast Company?
Hughes: I think it's a really great recognition of the entire team of PlantVillage, which is over 70 people now, but during the locust crisis went above 100 highly committed individuals. A lot of them were in Kenya, working very, very hard to tackle these food security crises. It's a phenomenal opportunity to show how things can be done differently. COVID was a great accelerant. It was 10 years of development in 10 months, and we managed a crisis within a crisis — locusts in COVID — to achieve these great gains.
Q: What role did the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences play in fostering PlantVillage?
Hughes: PlantVillage is a Huck creation. It was born out of the interdisciplinary environment that the Huck Institutes have created. And I really don't believe it can exist without the Huck.
Q: How will this honor impact what PlantVillage does next?
Hughes: The recognition is very nice, but more than that, it tells us how we can operate in the next 10 years as all of these farmers try to cope with global climate change. If we're having such stresses in the Pacific Northwest, and the fires out west, and Turkey and Greece and all those places, imagine what stresses we're going to have in Africa, where people don't have electricity or water for irrigation. And so, in order to tackle those things, what we learned in this locust crisis can be applied over the next 10 years to save a lot of people.
Q: What do you think that will look like?
Hughes: At the ground level, we work with local communities and farmers and pastoralists, and particularly noteworthy are young people across the continent who have graduated with agricultural degrees. These are called our PlantVillage dream team. We have over 40 of them now working and we'll still be expanding. We're going to continue to leverage partnerships, private sector, public sector, and communities. Our goal is to expand the dream team to 20 countries by the end of 2022, with 50 million people using the platform, if we can get there.
Those who want to follow David Hughes' work as it continues to develop can find him on Twitter @DH_PlantVillage.