Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A Q&A with New Western IPM Center Director Amer Fayad

Dr. Amer Fayad

Dr. Amer Fayad joined the Western IPM Center in July as its new director, coming from the IPM Innovation Lab headquartered at Virginia Tech University. This introductory Q&A was recorded in Davis, California and has been minimally edited for clarity and length.

Q: Tell us a little about your background and education.
A: I have a B.S. in agriculture from the American University of Beirut and I was very interested in crop protection so I did my master’s in crop protection, specifically in plant pathology. For my research, I worked on IPM for cucurbit viruses in Lebanon. I went on to do a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech in plant pathology and a post-doc at the University of Florida in citrus viruses.

After that, I spent six years teaching biology, environmental sciences and health and nutrition at Notre Dame University-Louaize in Lebanon and in 2011 I saw an opportunity to join the IPM Innovation Lab at Virginia Tech. I was really interested in going back into research and into the IPM field, so I applied for it. I got the job, moved back to the U.S. and I was involved in managing the project for eight years until I joined the Western IPM Center.
Q : What was the focus of the IPM Innovation Lab?
A: The IPM Innovation Lab is a USAID-funded program (United States Agency for International Development) focused on improving the standards of living of smallholder farmers specifically by helping them protect their crops from pests and diseases. The focus was on using economically sound, environmentally sound and ecologically sound IPM approaches to pest management. We worked to develop IPM tactics and also to find ways to disseminate that knowledge to farmers, to scientists, to the public and the private sectors and to policy makers in the developing countries where we worked.

Another big focus was capacity development for farmers and scientists, especially early career scientists. So we sponsored graduate students and post-docs and we conducted several workshops. We also focused on empowering women to make sure that they had equal access to resources and information about pest management and had a voice in making decisions and being involved in the program design and implementation.

The countries we worked in varied over time, depending on the phase of the project and on USAID and the State Department. Our last phase was focused in East Africa in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania and in Asia we were working in Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Q: What was your specific role there?
A: My role as associate director was managing the portfolio of projects – the coordination of the research activities, communication of results and planning for workshops and meetings. Most of it was linking U.S. scientists or partners with the national partners in the countries where we worked and also making the connections and linkages with the students, farmers, NGO partners and policy makers.

Some of my activities as a virologist were conducting workshops that focused on plant virus diseases and the management of those diseases, and representing the IPM Innovation Lab at scientific meetings and meetings with USAID or USAID missions in the host countries.

Q: I imagine you travelled frequently.
A: Yes, yes I did. I miss it, international travel.

Q: What elements of your previous work do you think will be most relevant to your new role at the Western IPM Center?
A: I think what's most relevant is the understanding of what IPM is and my experience working with different stakeholders – people coming from different cultures, different languages and different disciplines. I think the same applies here and I can use my knowledge and experience in working with diverse stakeholders throughout the West.

Q: What attracted you to this position what are you most looking forward to with this job?
A: What attracted me most is that it required a solid background in science and using science-based IPM approaches. I also liked that it presents an opportunity to create linkages between farmers and commodity groups and scientists and regulators. I think sometimes a common language is missing between all of these groups. This is a great opportunity to make those connections, which I hope can advance the mission of the Center.

Also these days, there's a lot of mistrust about pest management so I think there's a great opportunity for the Western IPM Center to educate the public, consumers and regulators about IPM and that IPM can be a safe alternative to chemical pesticides or standard practices some farmers use.

Q: Do you think the public needs to know about IPM?
A: Definitely. I think consumers want safe, healthy, high-quality produce but they’re unaware about agricultural practices and crop production and protection. And I think there's lots of misconceptions about pesticides, and about organic agriculture and biological control.

Unfortunately, the IPM community hasn’t been really vocal. We haven’t done enough to talk about how important IPM is and how safe it can be for the consumers and how it can deliver safe produce at a fair price. The community has struggled, especially with the rise of organic, but we also have to remember that organic doesn't always mean safer and not every consumer can afford to buy organic. And we have to think not just about the U.S., but also about all the billions of people who don't have access to food and resources.

IPM is a really important strategy to help produce enough food to feed the billions of people on the planet, but it's a challenge.

Q: What are your plans for getting started?
A: I think the biggest thing I need to do my first month or so is to get to know all the partners and the stakeholders. The Western region is huge and there are lots of players, from the commodity groups to the IPM coordinators and scientists and Center co-directors. I need to establish a rapport with them. And, especially since the position has been vacant for a while, I’ll need to make an extra effort to get to know all the people and get the discussion going again. It's a lot of people.

Q: What do you think will be the biggest challenges?
A: What we just talked about – getting to know all the players and seeing the areas where we can make the most impact.

I think another big challenge we’re facing is all the changes at USDA NIFA and its move from Washington D.C. to Kansas City. I hope that will not impede our progress and I’ll work to find ways to make sure that the Center is not affected and our work goes forward smoothly.

Q: Did you have similar situations with USAID?
A: Yes. All the time. Yeah, we had budget cuts, budget delays.

Q: So how do you deal with it?
A: You have to make sure that our stories are out. Make sure our legislators are aware of what we're doing. I think the same applies to the Western IPM Center in that we have to make sure that all the people who make decisions are aware of what we do and the importance of what we do and the impact that we can make.

We need to keep telling our story. We have to have the data, have that evidence and then we have to make our case. Science doesn't speak for itself. We have to be the voice for science.

Q: What else do you want people to know about you?
A: Well, I will say that, yes, I'm passionate about the science but I'm also passionate about the people. One of the things that attracted me to this position and my previous position is working with people and connecting with different stakeholders. I'm passionate about people having equal access and equal opportunity to resources, to education, to food and health.

I value diversity and human rights. I've been involved in many activities to promote those principles throughout my career and I hope to continue to find ways to be engaged in making a difference in the lives of my community and the community at large.

I'm passionate about teaching. I miss teaching college students. I had the opportunity to do workshops in my previous job and I hope I will have similar opportunities in this position.

I'm passionate about running and indoor cycling and food, culture and travelling.