In Nepal, Seerjana Maharjan is carving a pathway for future young scientists — while trying to close the pathway for emerging invasive species.

Maharjan is a recent recipient of the prestigious Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD) Student Researcher Award. Her research specifically assesses the impact of climate change on the spread of invasive weeds in her home country. Maharjan, a doctoral student at Tribhuvan University, is one of dozens of graduate students in Nepal whose research is supported by Virginia Tech’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management, an international development program that aims to strengthen the resiliency of food and agricultural systems in Africa and Asia.

With this award, BIFAD — a presidentially appointed advisory board for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) — recognizes trailblazing research efforts that contribute to the objectives of the U.S. government’s Global Food Security Strategy: inclusive and sustainable agriculture-led economic growth, strengthened resilience among people and systems, and a well-nourished population. The Student Researcher Award is one of only two awards BIFAD gives annually to recipients who demonstrate both scientific merit in their research and dedication to improving livelihoods in their country.

“This award is a major achievement for both Seerjana as a researcher as well as Virginia Tech and Tribhuvan University,” said Muni Muniappan, director of the IPM Innovation Lab, which is funded by USAID. “It symbolizes the immense value and contributions that can be made from universities in different countries working together, sharing knowledge, and learning from one another in order to solve global challenges. Like much research on invasive species, Seerjana’s work could have important implications on both a local and global scale. That’s what our mission is all about, and we are happy to see that being acknowledged.”

Amid the backdrop of a changing climate and resulting extreme weather events, Nepal’s rich biodiversity has been disproportionately impacted in recent years, including increased invasions of invasive species. Maharjan’s research takes a closer look at one particular invasive weed called parthenium, whose invasion not only makes agricultural land inept, but also causes human and animal health issues.

People working in a field of tall grass
Seerjana Maharjan works with Nepali farmers in a field invaded by parthenium. Virginia Tech photo

One of Maharjan’s most important research findings assessed the current and future spread of parthenium in the Chitwan Annapurna Landscape area of Nepal, a region abundant with floral and faunal diversity. Using satellite images, she demonstrated that the suitable habitat for parthenium will significiantly increase, with the mountainous region projected to be most affected. Given that the mountain region encompasses some of the most resource-poor communities in the country, the weed could significantly constrain the ability to foster plentiful crops and healthy livestock. Her research also assessed distribution of the weed from the years 1990 to 2018, revealing that from 1990 to 2000, the weed expanded by 0.39 percent, from 2000 to 2010 by 0.88 percent, and from 2010 to 2018 by 1.26 percent.

Pramod Jha, professor emeritus at Tribhuvan University and Maharjan’s advisor, noted that understanding where parthenium has been and where it is going, especially in the context of climate change, is incredibly helpful in preventing the further invasion of this weed and developing early detection and eradication strategies in case the weed invades new areas.

“Maharjan’s research provides Nepal national programs with the evidence they need in order to decide next steps for managing parthenium and other invasive species,” Jha said. “Her research proves that the vital native biodiversity of Nepal is at risk if we don’t do something about invasive species spread, and soon. Given that Nepal is limited in experts in the field of biological control of invasive weeds, her training would be an advantage to the country.”

In addition to assessing parthenium’s spread, Maharjan also assessed the efficacy of different management strategies for the weed. Her research found, for example, that two local, naturally occurring enemies — a type of rust and a beetle — show potential for reducing the spread of parthenium when released, especially in specific climates.

“I’m proud of this research because my findings could reach policymakers to generate new policies to control this invasive weed in Nepal,” Maharjan said. “I’m honored to receive the BIFAD award — being a researcher from a country like Nepal, this is really a great achievement.”

Nepal, a highly agriculture-dependent country, is ranked as the third most threatened country due to biological invasion. Climate change impacts, including the increased spread of invasive weeds, could push out vital native species and constrain the communities and livelihoods that depend on the land in which they live. Research efforts from such emerging scientists as Maharjan contribute to an important and growing conversation around how to protect the world’s most valuable resources amid increasing globalization.  

In the fall, BIFAD will host an event further recognizing Maharjan’s achievements, inviting her to share a presentation of her work to relevant stakeholders in Washington. Currently, Maharjan is working as an assistant scientific officer in the Department of Plant Resources of the Ministry of Forests and Environment, Nepal.

Maharjan is the second student supported by the IPM Innovation Lab, part of Outreach and International Affairs, to win such an award. In 2017, student Laouali Amadou, mentored by Muniappan, won for his work addressing a destructive millet pest in the West African country of Niger.

Written by Sara Hendery

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