Postdoc Spotlight: Daniel Mutyambai

Daniel Munyao Mutyambai

Daniel Mutyambai is featured as part of Cornell’s Postdoc Appreciation Week 2018.

Daniel Mutyambai is from Kitui, Kenya and has a PhD in Environmental Science from North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa. He conducts research in the field of chemical ecology as an Atkinson Center for Sustainability Postdoctoral Fellow.

What is your area of emphasis?

I am a chemical ecologist studying utilization of cropping systems for integrated pest management, through multi-level “plants-pests-natural enemies” interactions in agro-ecosystems. My current project aims to understand the mechanisms that make “push-pull” companion cropping technology work so efficiently for pest management, soil health improvement and biodiversity conservation. This involves attracting cereal stemborers with trap plants (Napier grass), while driving them away from the main crop (maize) using a repellent intercrop (Desmodium). The system has emergent ecological and socio-economic properties that go far beyond insect pest control. Chemicals released by intercrop roots provide very effective control of the noxious and parasitic Striga weed. The companion plants also provide high value food for milk cows. Specifically, my current project focuses on: How are volatile signals emitted by intercrops perceived by the main crop? How does soil conditioning by this intercropping system affect soil microbes, and in turn the defenses of the main crop?

Why is this work important?

To feed the growing global population, we need to produce more food with limited land while conserving the environment, and strategies like push-pull are a good fit for meeting this global goal. Understanding the underlying mechanisms of this technology is very important for successful adaptation of the push-pull technology to other crop systems, pests, climate change, or altered landscape parameters (including larger scale agriculture) for sustainable agricultural production to curb food insecurity.

Which lab do you work in?

Andre Kessler’s lab in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

Throughout my high school studies, I had this love for biology as a subject and felt very excited while learning about biological systems. This encouraged me to choose to major in biology and minor in chemistry in my undergraduate studies. But, it was an internship after my final undergraduate year at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), a not-for-profit research and development organization, and the interdisciplinary biological and chemical ecology work of Professor Baldwyn Torto that inspired me to pursue a career in chemical ecology. ICIPEs mission – to help alleviate poverty, ensure food security, and improve the overall health of peoples of the tropics, by developing and extending management tools and strategies for harmful and useful arthropods, while preserving the natural resource base through high-profile research and capacity building – further endeared me to this field of study, because it is chemical ecology that connects human-animal-plant and environmental health. I would later end up getting fellowships for both my masters and PhD studies at the same organization.

How has your background influenced your scholarship?

Growing up in rural Kenya, I observed the challenge that insects pose to smallholder farming systems, causing devastating damage to crops, which heightened the level of food insecurity and poverty. Motivated by a strong determination to make a contribution towards agriculture and contribute to food security, I started my research journey on studying plant-insect interactions. As a graduate student, I ended up studying behavior and physiology of both plants and insects: how insects locate plants and how some plants are able to defend themselves against the insect attack. Through electrophysiological studies, I found that plants produce some volatile chemicals which either attract the insects or repel them and that the insects were able to perceive these semiochemical volatiles. In my current project, I am applying these skills to develop pest management strategies for increased food production to curb food insecurity and poverty.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?

I am an avid lover of nature. Any strategies that can help improve agricultural production while conserving biodiversity motivate me as a scholar. This is why I find it important to explore the working mechanisms of push-pull, because it solves the complex problem of pests while conserving the environment.

Additionally, the dedication of different mentors that I have had at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, at Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom, at North-West University in South Africa, and currently at Cornell University, has influenced my thinking as a researcher.

Have you won any awards or fellowships?

Yes, in addition to my current Atkinson Center Postdoctoral Fellowship in Sustainability, I have received research grants from the International Foundation for Science and National Research Fund, Kenya; an Award of Excellence for the Best Published Science Paper by an ICIPE Scholar by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) Governing Council 2014; a PhD fellowship by the German Academic Exchange Program (DAAD) and hosted by African Regional Postgraduate Programme in Insect Science (ARPPIS) at ICIPE; and a student travel award to attend the 32nd International Society of Chemical Ecology meeting.

What other hobbies or activities do you enjoy in your spare time?

I enjoy nature walks, and whenever I can find spare time, I always explore nature. I also like photography, playing volleyball, and watching documentaries.

Why did you choose Cornell?

To sharpen my skills further, there was no better place to do this through in-depth scientific training and mentorship than Cornell University, the birthplace of chemical ecology. I had always read about Cornell and was looking forward to one day being here! In collaboration with the Atkinson Center for Sustainability, who offered me the fellowship, Cornell University offered me the opportunity to learn and collaborate with top scholars, including Andre Kessler in the field of chemical ecology. Thus, Cornell was the best place to enhance my research network as a postdoctoral fellow.

What’s next for you?

In my second year as a postdoc, I am looking forward to strengthening my current research portfolio and broadening my research network and collaborations. Thereafter, I look forward to going back to my home to my country, Kenya, where I will apply the research skills gained during my postdoc into applied research to solve agricultural challenges in Kenya and beyond, while teaching and mentoring students at South Eastern Kenya University, where I was offered a lecturer position. My long-term goal is to build a research program and a laboratory that will allow me to continue to strengthen international research collaborations, adoption of farming technologies through extension services, and mentorship of the next generation of scientists to help fight food insecurity and poverty.

Do you have any advice for current graduate students?

Nothing comes easy and nothing is impossible! Graduate school is full of challenges, but you should never let the challenges overwhelm you; treat them as opportunities, not as problems. Always consult others, not only your mentors, but also your peers, for much-needed support. Be positive, with the mentality that others have done it, and you will do it as well, since you are equal to the task!