Dr. Fathiya M. Khamis, a Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) alumna, has been awarded the 2019 TWAS – Abdool Karim Award for her extensive research on native and invasive pests that devour fruits and vegetables, and for her promotion of sustainable management of agriculture in Africa.
The award, now in its third edition, is designed to honour women scientists in low-income African countries for their achievements in biological sciences.
Dr. Khamis did her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Bio-Chemistry at JKUAT’s College of Health Sciences (COHES).
Her research is centered around the Bactrocera invadens fruit fly which has become an increasingly prevalent pest in most of Africa. Research has indicated that this species is particularly devastating to horticultural industry, staking claim of up to 80% of the spoiled fruits.
The research further attributed the damaging nature of this species to its ability to invade and damage multiple kinds of fruits such as mango, guava, banana, citrus, apple, pineapple, avocado, and papaya, which are also notably the main exports and sources of income to most horticultural farmers.
“Knowing the point of entry and the way these pests spread in the environment gives scientists an important advantage. It allows the identification of the pests, original environment, and, as a consequence, it helps in finding natural biological agents to control and possibly suppress them,” stated Dr. Khamis.
The International Award winner is currently working with The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), carrying out molecular characterization of key entomopathogenic micro-organisms, where she has made substantial progress on the control of Bactrocera invadens and B. dorsalis.
“Entomopathogens are small organisms like virus, bacteria, fungi and worms which cause diseases and kill insects, but do not cause harm to humans. This is why scientists explore their use as bio-pesticides,” explained Dr. Khamis.
She asserts that her research team has assembled a user-friendly tool box with five active components against the pests. One component she said, is the use of biological control agents called parasitoids while another is the use of pheromones chemicals that are coupled with deadly poisons which lure and kill the insects.
In another similar project, Dr. Khamis is making good progress in the characterization of Tuta absoluta, a South American pest that was detected for the first time in Spain in 2006 and has invaded Africa in 2008, entering through Tunisia and finding its way down to Sub-Saharan Africa.
On receiving the recognition, Dr. Khamis said “It is not only a highlight in my scientific career and an important recognition, but also a personal reward as a scientist”.
She added that she is already carrying out mentorship programmes while also encouraging more women into the male dominated career.
The award is named after TWAS Fellow Quarraisha Abdool Karim, the associate scientific director of Center for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa.