Scientist’s gift to bring top-flight international lecturers to campus
A new international speaker series will launch in 2020 thanks to Virginia Tech’s preeminent global expert on invasive species, Muni Muniappan, and Sheila, his wife. The couple’s six-figure gift creates an endowment to fund the Muniappan Distinguished International Lecture Series.
The first lecture is planned for the spring, said Guru Ghosh, vice president for Outreach and International Affairs, which is contributing funding for the series launch.
“With the same generous spirit, passion, and foresight Muni brings to his work, he and Sheila have demonstrated their commitment to Virginia Tech and their drive to share action-oriented policy ideas,” Ghosh said. “Speakers will be drawn from many disciplines – including history, politics, economics, and science – spanning all of Virginia Tech’s colleges and institutes, and what ties the subject matter together is a focus on solutions that are both provocative and practical.”
Muniappan directs the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management at Virginia Tech, housed at the Center for International Research, Education, and Development. Funding for the innovation lab, part of Outreach and International Affairs, comes from USAID.
Muniappan said he was impressed by such speakers as world-renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, who earlier this year lectured on sustainable development in Roanoke in a talk hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. The new lecture series will formalize the practice of inviting to Blacksburg top-flight speakers focused on high-profile global dilemmas.
“For Sheila and me, we felt there was need for us to pay back,” Muniappan said. “Outreach and International Affairs has been highly supportive of my professional activities, giving me the opportunity to serve struggling people in the developing countries that I cherish. The gift creating an endowment is our way of offering thanks and also of bringing further visibility to Virginia Tech’s international programs.”
Muniappan is one of the world’s foremost authorities on employing natural means to stop the spread of invasive insects and plants that ravage the world’s food crops. Pests include the tomato leafminer, which destroyed 80 percent of Nigeria’s tomato crop in 2016. Virginia Tech has created a modeling system to track the pest’s progress along trade routes, enabling warnings to be issued to countries bracing for invasion.
The fall armyworm is also a pest devastating crops in Africa and India, now spreading into Nepal, Thailand, and, within the last few weeks, Japan. The innovation lab’s work has centered on seeking biological controls to keep the pest in check.
Under Muniappan’s direction, the lab has carried out workshops and conferences around the globe to counsel farmers, scientists, and policymakers on best practices. These can include pheromone traps or introducing a pest’s natural enemies to the landscape. While eradication is not realistic, keeping crop damage below a 15 percent threshold is the goal, he said. By helping countries prepare, Virginia Tech’s interventions have succeeded in keeping damage in most countries below what scholars call the “economic injury level,” he said.
Before moving to Blacksburg, he led research on integrated pest management at the University of Guam. There, Sheila Muniappan was a high school biology teacher; she retired when they moved to Virginia Tech in 2006.
Muni Muniappan was a Fulbright research scholar in the mid-1980s. He was named Outstanding Alumni in the entomology department at Oklahoma State University in 1992, and he has helped lead the U.S. government’s effort to stop the tomato leafminer from spreading to North America from southern, African, and Asian routes.