Wilkerson in Ghana

Penn State doctoral graduate student Megan Wilkerson is pictured working with cocoa farmers in the African nation of Ghana. She spent a year helping the farmers increase their harvests by reducing the damage to plants caused by insects. Wilkerson is a Rhea County native and the daughter of Michael Love Wilkerson.

Rhea County native Megan Wilkerson is nearing the completion of her work in the graduate studies program at Penn State University, but the time she has spent in the program has included much more than classroom work and library study.

Wilkerson is pursuing a dual-title doctorate in Entomology and International Agriculture & Development (INTAD). According to a press release from Penn State University, the goal of INTAD is to provide a new curriculum at the Master’s and Ph.D. levels that complements a student’s primary discipline with documented knowledge and experience in their discipline’s application to global agriculture and development.

In 2015, she and another INTAD graduate student attended a Future Leaders Forum in Washington, D.C. The duo were only two of the 12 graduate students from colleges and universities across the nation to be selected to participate in the forum

According to a Penn State University press release, the forum was held as part of the annual meeting of the Association for International Agriculture and Rural Development.

“This forum not only offers unique insight on rural topics and potential careers, but also provides a networking opportunity to advance myself personally and professionally,” Wilkerson said.

In May 2017, Wilkerson surpassed 50 participants from across the nation to finish first place in the Second Annual Pitch Competition sponsored by Pittsburgh Plate Glass.

The competition gave students the opportunity to present a two-minute slide presentation judged by representatives from both academic and industrial fields, according to a Penn State press release. Students were evaluated on the big picture, clarity, structure, audience, passion and pace. Wilkerson’s top finish earned her a $750 prize.

For one-year period in 2016 and 2017, Wilkerson worked in the African nation of Ghana, assisting cocoa farmers in battling pests and diseases to increase their crop yield. Ghana is the world’s second largest producer of cocoa beans.

According to a Penn State press release, funding from Penn State University and the USDA Norman Borlaug Fellowship gave her the opportunity to document arthropod communities, conduct sociological investigations and test the effectiveness of pesticide replacements.

Wilkerson stated that the farmers would lose as much as 70 to 100 percent of each harvest due to insects and/or plant diseases.

“ My research aimed at improving yields by using handmade, high pressured soapy water solutions as an alternative to pesticide application,” she said. “Liquid soap proved to be a natural insecticidal agent that damaged the protective outer coating of the insects that feed and maintained diseases on cocoa.”

In December 2016, Wilkerson left Ghana briefly to speak at the World Cocoa Foundation Meeting in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

According to a Penn State press release, Wilkerson was one of eight individuals who were selected to present their cocoa-related innovations to an audience of 400 members of the cocoa industry. She spoke on the Atopitx device, which was developed by Penn State alumni Dr. Perry Edwards and current Penn State professor Zhiwen Liu. Atopitx is a mobile miniature optical spectroscopy that can diagnose plant disease in the field.

The president and first lady of Cote d’Ivoire was in attendance and Wilkerson had the opportunity to meet the leader of the African nation

Shortly after the completion of her work in Ghana, Wilkerson traveled to the country of Lebanon to provide technical assistance to tomato farmers in an effort to develop strategies to combat and control diseases affecting their crops.

According to a press release from Penn State, she collaborated with the Lebanese ministry of agriculture, Land O’Lakes-Beirut, agriculture engineers and several small farmers to identify insect-related diseases and provide expert pest management recommendations to the Farmer to Farmer Program (F2F).

“Despite the destructive nature of pests, the majority of diseases can potentially be managed with a rotation of diverse active ingredients, monitoring of pest populations and proper timing of chemical application with proper personal protective equipment. By applying the above strategies and specifically targeting detrimental insects that maintain disease, yields will improve since beneficial insect populations, like pollinators and natural predators, are allowed to recover,” Wilkerson said.

Skills provided by the INTAD program along with her international experience has afforded her the opportunity to partner with government agencies to assess diseases and pest damage, provide on-site technical assistance and conduct presentations at technical workshops illustrating the pest and disease constraints faced by the farmers in the region with the management techniques for the major insects and diseases affecting the crops in Lebanon.

Wilkerson is scheduled to earn her Ph.D. in May 2018.