PI Profile: Wondi Mersie

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Wondi Mersie stands in front of a tank at Wollenchiti Bioagent Rearing site in Ethiopia.

Wondi Mersie has been working with the IPM Innovation Lab, formerly the IPM Collaborative Research Support Program, since 2005. His projects have focused on the invasive weed Parthenium hysterophorus, which is causing a lot of damage to his home country of Ethiopia. He is the principal investigator (PI) for IPM IL’s “Biological control of the invasive weed Parthenium hysterophorus in East Africa” project. Currently in its third phase, the project focuses on developing and implementing biological control of Parthenium in East Africa.

Wondi Mersie’s interest in Parthenium goes back to his childhood in Harar, Ethiopia, where his grandparents had a farm. The invasive weed wasn’t such a problem when he was younger, but when he went back to the country on visits after moving to the United States, he was surprised by how much of the country had been taken over by Parthenium. “It was all over the place, on the roadsides, in the pasturelands, and it was adversely affecting the lives of people.”

Mersie’s early interest in agriculture led him to get a B.S. in Plant Science in Ethiopia, followed by an M.S. in Crop Protection from the United Kingdom and a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech in the department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science. He then did his post-doc at the University of Florida before moving to Virginia State University in 1988 to be an assistant professor. As time went on, he moved up through the ranks, and he is now the Associate Dean and Director of Agricultural Research.

He became involved with the IPM Innovation Lab in 2005. He was already collaborating with Virginia Tech on another USAID project in the northern part of Ethiopia when the RFA for the IPM CRSP came out. He submitted a proposal on Parthenium and was selected. The project is now in its third phase. “A lot has been accomplished since our project began,” Mersie says. “One focus was to introduce biological control, so we trained staff from rearing sites to make sure all of them are well versed on the techniques rearing the two bioagents, Zygogramma and Listronotus.”

This phase of the project focuses on scaling-up the rearing and release of the two approved bio-control agents, the leaf-feeding beetle Zygogramma bicolorata and the stem-boring weevil Listronotus setosipennis. In addition, two new bio-agents are under consideration and are being evaluated.

The project has been very successful in evaluating the safety of these biological agents to non-target plants and rearing them after permits to release them were obtained. The project was also successful in building human and physical capacity of partnering countries in biological control of invasive plants.

However, there are have also been challenges. “Our major challenge working with Parthenium is a lot of people get sick,” Mersie observes. “We get a lot of turnover, so we have to continuously train people, despite all the protective clothing, the precautions they take, they still develop skin allergies, things like that.” One of the things that makes Parthenium so harmful is not only is it damaging to native crops and livestock, but also to human health as well.

Still, despite these challenges, Mersie is proud of the work he has done fighting Parthenium in East Africa and counts it among one of the top accomplishments of his long career. “I think I would consider my involvement with this project for a long time one of my key accomplishments because this is the first project to introduce biological agents to Ethiopia, to evaluate their safety and get them released,” Mersie says. “This project could be used as an example because we’ve had such a long period of time with a project on one issue.”

PI Profile: Wondi Mersie
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