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The portico of Old Main at the University Park campus during the fall.

Hughes named recipient of Kopp International Faculty Achievement Award

1 April 2024
David Hughes.

David Hughes, Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Chair in Global Food Security and professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences and biology in the Eberly College of Science, is the recipient of the 2024 W. LaMarr Kopp International Faculty Achievement Award.

Established in 1995, the award recognizes faculty members who have contributed significantly to the advancement of the international mission of the University. It is named for the late deputy vice president for international programs.

Hughes has had a global impact in several areas of his research. Nominators said he’s a pioneering researcher in his field whose work is improving global food security and beyond.

Hughes is most well known for his international research on how parasites manipulate host behavior, nominators said. His work on the fungal manipulation of ants — so called “zombie ants” — has taken him across the globe for research in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Australia.

“Over the course of his career, David has amassed an incredible breadth of studies that have utilized skills in behavior, ecology, neuroscience and molecular biology,” a nominator said. “His elucidation of the biology of 'zombie ants' is now embedded in textbooks as a classic natural history story.”

In 2012, Hughes, inspired by Penn State's land-grant mission, founded PlantVillage, which uses artificial intelligence, deep learning, imaging, smartphone technologies and local experts to help farmers in developing countries manage emerging pests and diseases. It’s used in more than 60 countries and 35 languages by the United Nations. Hughes helped secure roughly $38 million from a seed grant of $120,000 from the Huck Institites via its HITS fund. Funding has come from sources including the United Nations, Google, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Elon Musk XPrize Foundation, Hopper-Dean Foundation, Skoll Foundation, Cisco Foundation, World Bank,, USAID and the Norwegian government, among others.

“PlantVillage is built on the premise that all knowledge that helps people grow food should be openly accessible to anyone on the planet,” Hughes said.

Through PlantVillage, Hughes helped Africa in 2020 and 2021 with one of the worst locust plagues in history by helping to develop the app eLocust3M to track and forecast the movement of the insects, an effort the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said helped save the livelihoods of 40 million people.

Hughes and his team also secured $39 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for the program “Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops.” The program, built on the PlantVillage platform, “is enabling collaborative research on novel approaches to monitor, predict and combat current and emerging threats to crops in a climate changed world,” nominators said. The program has regional centers in Central America, Asia, West Africa, and South/East Africa and includes partnerships with a dozen other universities and organizations.

“Given these spectacular successes in obtaining funding for global food security, it is not surprising that Hughes is receiving numerous accolades and awards for his contributions,” a nominator said. “In 2018, Hughes was awarded a prestigious UN-FAO fellowship and has continued to receive numerous accolades. He was named one of the ‘Most Creative People’ in 2021 by Fast Company. Also in 2021, he was selected as one of ‘America’s Greatest Disruptors’ by Newsweek Magazine for his efforts through the establishment of PlantVillage.”

To combat climate change, Hughes also is using XPrize funding to establish PlantVillage+ to help smallholder farmers in Africa profit from the carbon market. PlantVillage+ aims to leverage 200 million African farms to permanently sequester 1 gigaton of carbon per year through biochar and agroforestry, while lifting a whole generation out of the cycle of poverty, nominators said.

“We have the chance to leverage advances in AI with the great history of Penn State and the land-grant universities to solve poverty and climate change,” Hughes said. “Happy Valley meets Silicon Valley for a more just society.”