Pramod K. Jha, head of a Virginia Tech-managed project in Nepal, has been named a fellow of the World Academy of Sciences for his work advancing science in a developing country.

Since 1983, the academy has elected more than 1,000 fellows — some of the world’s most accomplished scientists and engineers, and many of them Nobel laureates — granting prizes and awards among the most prestigious given for scientific work in the developing world. Fellows of the academy, a UNESCO program based in Italy, have addressed a range of global issues, including hunger, disease, and poverty.  

In 2014, Virginia Tech’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management initiated a project in Nepal focused on monitoring the spread of seven invasive weeds using satellite images and factoring in the impacts of climate change. Director Muni Muniappan selected Jha, professor emeritus at Tribhuvan University in Nepal, to lead the project.

Jha is a pioneering plant ecologist in Nepal who has conducted research in areas such as high-value medicinal plants, neglected mountain crops, climate change, and air and water pollution. He is a fellow of the International Society for Nature Conservation and the National Institute of Ecology-India, and recipient of such awards as the World Academy of Sciences Young Scientist Award and the National Education Award.

In collaboration with the IPM Innovation Lab and other partners at the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute, Jha’s team found that the spread of all but one of the invasive weeds has significantly increased over the past 30 years. That will have major implications on biodiversity and food security in Nepal.

“We know that climatic changes such as rises in temperature or erratic rainfall can exacerbate the spread of invasive species, so it’s critical that we gather data on how fast they are spreading and where they are headed next,” Jha said. “Being selected as a fellow of the World Academy of Sciences is a testament to the value of this work and the research I have done on land, plants, and biodiversity throughout my career. It shows us that our research could be an example for other countries interested in addressing the challenges our planet faces.”

Nepal embodies some of the richest biodiversity in the world and is considered one of the top five most vulnerable nations to climate change. Under Jha’s leadership, student researchers supported by the project assess not only the increase in spread of invasive weeds because of climate change, but also how this increase impacts important native species.

“One of Jha’s greatest achievements and of this Virginia Tech-managed project in Nepal is the number of Nepali students who have gained mentorship, expertise, and long-term training through its support,” said Brady Deaton, interim director of the Center for International Research, Education, and Development, which houses the IPM Innovation Lab. “It’s one of CIRED’s priorities not only to build the strengths of students in Virginia, but of students around the world — it’s how we can ensure we address the world’s most pressing problems, including climate change, with targeted, localized, and informed data.”

Sita Gyawali is one of Jha’s students who monitors the spread of the destructive invasive weed Chromolaena odorata, which alters soil health and is poisonous to cattle. Using satellite images, she showed the weed’s coverage in Nepal has more than doubled over the past 30 years and is expanding mostly in the midhill region, which encompasses the country’s most fertile valleys.

Student Dol Raj Luitel found that the habitat for finger millet — a valuable food crop for resource-poor communities in Nepal — will significantly decline in the future because of increased invasive weed spread. Student Srijana Paudel found that the invasive weed Mikania micrantha, which prevents seedlings of other species from emerging, has increased in spread by over 700 percent since 1990.

In just the past six years, the IPM Innovation Lab has supported the graduate degrees of 27 Nepali students spearheading invasive weed research throughout the country. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and part of Outreach and International Affairs, the program has worked in Nepal for almost two decades.

The World Academy of Science fellows were announced at its General Conference. It is only the fourth time that a candidate from Nepal has been elected. 

Written by Sara Hendery

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