Ester Ngumbi. Credit: Fred Zwicky via UI News Bureau

By Gabe Lareau

On paper, Esther Ngumbi is a multiple award-winning Professor of Entomology and African American Studies at the University of Illinois, a food security advocate, and a science communicator featured in venues such as NPR, Scientific American, Al Jazeera, and The New York Times. She’s also the recipient of a shelf-full of awards: the 2017 Emerging Sustainability Leader Award, the 2018 President’s Medal from the Society for Experimental Biology, and the 2021 Award for Public Engagement with Science by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to name just a few.

In person, Ngumbi makes those, and every other line of her biography, seem like an understatement. Like most in Kenya’s southern Kwale County, Ngumbi was born a farmer, and poor. After graduating from Auburn University in 2018, Ngumbi became the first person to earn a Ph.D. from her village, Mabafweni. Ngumbi has played an integral part in Mabafweni’s recent transformation, founding a school (Dr. Ndumi Faulu Academy) and a lab (the only item on her bridal registry).

Ngumbi manages her own lab at the University of Illinois, which specializes in studying plant-insect chemical relationships as part of an overall effort to build better climate-resilient “muscles” in crops like tomato and maize. When not in the lab, Ngumbi is busy writing about anything under the sun: climate change’s impact on food security among the world’s poorest; how scientists need to rethink their communication strategies; and the exclusion of African scientists on the world stage.

Q Magazine’s Gabe Lareau sat down with Ngumbi this past fall semester to discuss the many threads of her work, her upbringing in Kenya, climate change, and how she can’t help but stay joyful amidst it all.

 

You grew up in the small village of Mabafweni, Kenya, where you lived with your parents and four siblings. What was it like growing up in that community?

We went to school like every other kid, but a large part of growing up was agriculture. We would farm with our parents; we had to do that to kind of subsidize or enhance our ability to feed ourselves. We would go out to the field in the morning and tend to the crops — maize, beans, vegetables — go to school, and then go back again to the garden. Some of us girls would go out to get firewood for cooking and then prepare the meals. But when we were not at school or on the farm, we were just playing with other kids.

 

And your parents particularly stressed your education, right?

Yes, absolutely. My mother and father were both teachers. Just looking at the surroundings, you know, poverty was a real thing and they themselves were brought up in homes that were not well off. They emphasized that the way out of poverty, the way out of having not much to eat, the way out of not having not a lot of wealth, was education.

They would say, “I can’t give you anything because you’re not going to inherit anything. But what I’m going to give you is education. So, do the best that you can.” They definitely sacrificed anything and everything to get us in school.

It was truly a sacrifice because, on payday, they would leave in the morning, go into the city, and divide their paychecks. As children, we always told them to spend their money in the city, but they would say, “If we do that, that means you’re not going to go to school.”

 

Was science something you always loved in school or did you learn to love it?

Well, I’ve always been a curious person. Growing up, I was always asking questions. But the reality was that I was growing up in a place where you don’t have access to a lot of people who did different things and had careers to facilitate broader thinking in kids.

So, for most of my early childhood, I wanted to be an accountant because I would go to the banks with my parents. It looked like the best career — they were working in air-conditioned rooms, wearing suits and ties and looking so well dressed. I wanted to be like that. But with that, there’s this dilemma: I also wanted to be curious every day and not see the same things. And I found that especially with growing crops. I was always curious, thinking things like, “How do all of these insects find all of our plants?”

I did well in high school, and during undergrad I did a lot of science. I went to the lab for the first time and was like, “Wow, here I am. This is the profession that truly satisfies my curiosity.” It was just question after question after question which I get to find the answers to. So then I flipped. I was like, “OK, I am definitely going the science route.”

 

Science is heavily collaborative, and you take advantage of that at every opportunity. Why does collaboration bring you so much joy?

I can never do it alone. I like science that is collaborative because when we work together, that’s when we get close to the answers. We can also tap into the strengths of different experts and then things can always become a hybrid and interdisciplinary project. It’s so much better than somebody doing things by themselves.

 

What made you want to go into entomology specifically?

It had a direct impact on our lives as children. It had a direct impact on food security and just poverty at large. The effect that insects have had on my family and my community have been huge when you realize that when insects take away crops, families go hungry. That lack of food then opens things up to poverty.

There’s this interrelationship between insects, food, and poverty that each feed on one another. It becomes this combined issue that escalates to other things. A lot of aspects of poverty originate in food insecurity.

 

Has food insecurity gotten better in spite of, or worse because of, climate change?

As we’ve gotten better at development, food security frequently goes forward and then goes behind us. We keep thinking we make progress, and then climate change brings another wave of challenges. So it’s been a lot of “one step forward, five steps backward.” It has just been this zig-zag line.

Some governments can teach people how to be resilient when climate stressors come in or step in and allow people to move altogether. But for many families, when climate change pushes them, it means that it takes so many years for them to get back to normal. All the monumental good that we do just quickly gets wiped away.

 

Many people overlook how climate change, environmental justice, and the education of young women are all related. How are those things important and intertwined?

First of all, education broadens your understanding: your understanding of nature, how it is changing, how we’ve changed it, and how we, as much as we are the problem, can also be the solution. By learning and by educating yourself, you broaden not only your thinking but also the solutions which we can use to tackle these challenges.

It’s all so interconnected. Some of these challenges can be tackled by education. And so when you go out and educate people, most importantly young women, then you’re also educating families and you’re educating societies. When these young women succeed and go back to their families, their educational upbringing becomes part of the fabric of their society, and it never goes away. That’s why we need to kind of stitch in the lack of education as an aspect of all of these environmental problems.

 

You’re also a science communicator and have stressed the importance of clear science communication for the public. How do you balance educating a more general audience with being a major contributor to the scientific community?

The Dr. Ndumbi Faulu Academy (founded by Esther Ngumbi) in Mabafweni, Kenya. Credit: Esther Ngumbi

When I was part of the Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship, we had a training that was focused on empowering us to be advocates from the Global South. And in my training, it was clear that scientists are not communicating at all.

And most of the time, yes, I write manuscripts. But available research shows that less than 10% of people are reading a lot, especially manuscripts. That’s because of the way we write our manuscripts. The language is so dense that nobody can understand what’s going on. Second, most of the time we are publishing in journals that are not open access.

We have a lot to gain when scientists translate and try to use accessible language that not only just reaches your peers, but a wider audience. Those audiences consist of policy makers, business owners, and people who can translate what we are doing into products that can immediately start taking on the challenges humanity is facing.

 

What’s the Ngumbi Lab up to these days?

Our work is heavily focused on agriculture. We focus on tomatoes and maize, which is a staple in my country and many other African countries. To grow it, we must learn about its biological faculties.

In my lab, we are guided by chemistry first. Chemistry is the way that plants can communicate with insects and pollinators. Beneficial microbes below the ground all communicate with plants that are being eaten; they can call for rescue from natural enemies. That’s all chemistry.

My lab tries to understand how that chemistry changes when the plants themselves are being stressed out, whether it’s biotic stress — biotic means insects — in the fields or abiotic factors. In my Ph.D. I was studying drought. When I came to Illinois in 2018, the next year saw a big flooding event, and it was clear that farmers did not know what to do.

All of their crops died, and they had to replant. There was no scientific evidence on what was going on or how the plants would respond to climate stressors. My lab quickly started investigating how flooding, as a stressor, influences not only plant chemistry, but its physiology, its relationship to the microbiome, and ultimately soil health.

We wanted to see how long the impacts of flooding events last and how we can start integrating everything we are learning from my lab into knowledge that will help mitigate this. We wanted to find out what defensive traits give the plants their muscles to perform well and be resilient, no matter the stress. When we really understand what’s going on, then we can use that to work with leaders and other experts to equip our crops and our farmers’ systems.

 

 Are there any specific examples or discoveries of what a plant needs to gain those “muscles”?

For me, I think the greatest discovery has to do with plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria. When these microbes associate with plants, they form a relationship that becomes a decoy system for the insects. It’s almost like saying, “No, there are already people who are eating me. I don’t need anyone else! Why would you choose me when I’m already being eaten?”

This happens in maize and tomatoes — it’s quite a harmonious collaboration that ends up strengthening the plant. The beauty of it all, though, is that it’s natural. This is a relationship that has already existed. We’re amplifying these benefits as opposed to just spraying chemical pesticides that impact our ecosystems, our health, the health of the soils, and all of the good insects that stick around.

I mentioned flooding earlier: Once plants have been flooded, farmers will usually put nitrogen in the soil. In 2024, we’re going to have an experiment where we test soil with nitrogen and soil with beneficial microbes. Because nitrogen is not good, leading to algae blooms, we’re going to build on this harmonious relationship that plants have with these soil microbes to find their muscles.

 

How do you stay so joyful amidst so many environmental catastrophes?

I feel very privileged to be where I am. Every time I reflect where I came from and where I am now, I realize I’m probably in the 1% of people that are privileged to have been able to overcome all of these hurdles. Because of that, I can use that privilege; for those who much has been given, much is also expected.

But again, you know, why be sad? Comparing how I grew up to what I have access to now, I have everything! Why would I be sad?

I’m doing science I’m on the frontline of discovery. If I want to find something out, I say, “OK, what’s your chemistry?” I can even wake up in the evening and say, “OK, I’m coming to the lab. I have a question I need to solve!”

 

Have you ever done that?

Yes, yes, I’ve done that. I’ve been here on Christmas Day. I’ve been here on New Year’s Day.

You know, I’m only here for such a short time. Time is not on my side. I don’t ever want to say why I didn’t do something.

 

What’s something that people often overlook about climate change?

As I said, when stressors like droughts, flooding, insects — things that I’m studying — happen, it means that affected countries, especially in the Global South, will have citizens that are even more food insecure. Without a support system, resilience becomes impossible. These people are poor: Any climate disaster quickly thrusts them into poverty. And that’s hard to bounce back from; it takes generations. Then these communities have even more trouble sending their children to get the education that they need.

It’s all interconnected: poverty, lack of education, lack of health care. It’s just a continuous spiral of people being thrust back down into poverty without any hope for the future. In the process, we’re losing contributors to challenges that impact, not just them, but all of us. We are losing the talent and the brainpower that is important for us to work together. It slows the world trying to progress forward. Today, our world is so interconnected, meaning that these losses will find a way to impact you one way or another.

We have to work together. We have to have a world where we feel safe and happy.

 

Are you hopeful that world might come about?

Yes, yes. I am a hopeful person. Despite it all, I always think there’s a way. As an example, my country had a national tree planting day recently. That is one way to take the right steps forward. We’re thinking of ways to handle climate change.

I can’t wait for the day where the world is not suffering. Poverty … it’s the worst. That is something I wouldn’t wish on anybody to go through.

I’m always hopeful that we can move towards a brighter future. A future where everybody leads a happy life because everybody deserves a happy life defined by themselves in whatever way they choose.

 

You’ve done so much already; what’s next for you?

Science, science, science all the way. Finding solutions to problems. Always asking, “What is that? What does that mean?” That’s what’s always going to be next.

About the Author …

Gabe Lareau is a senior from Moline, Ill., studying English with a concentration in Literature and Science, and is pursuing the Certificate in Environmental Writing. Gabe also works as a Communications Intern for iSEE, has blogged for Let’s Move Quad Cities, and has successfully advocated for a $30,000 grant World Bicycle Relief in “The Project for Awesome.” He hopes to join the Peace Corps after graduation.

Q Magazine and iSEE commissioned Lareau for this piece.