The P.E.O. Fund, established in 1949, provides scholarships for international women students for graduate study in the United States and Canada. The organization states that education is fundamental to world peace and understanding.
Chilufya acknowledges that the award is very competitive and in fact last year she applied and did not get one, “so I was not sure if I should apply again,” she notes. However, her professor, Dong Wang, biochemistry, recommended that she try again: “Dr. Wang really encourages us to reach out and make these applications, and my lab mates were very encouraging, too. I’m grateful for the attitude of encouragement and not competition in our lab.”
“When I got the award this year, I actually couldn’t believe it. It’s a great honor and privilege because so many apply. I feel honored and blessed. My family are not science people, but they always ask me, ‘How are your bacteria doing? How are your plants doing?’ My mom may not fully understand what I’m doing but she is really supportive.”
Chilufya says the fellowship will support her while she conducts her plant biology research with a focus on legume-bacteria interactions. She hopes someday this will contribute to her country’s agriculture needs when she returns to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital in southern Africa. “Farming contributes to a large part of the economy in Zambia,” she explains. “I want to help our farmers diversify their agricultural crops so that there is less reliance on corn, which is not sustainable because it requires large amounts of fertilizer and it’s not a good source of protein. This is important to food security.”
Specifically, Chilufya has been experimenting with legumes such as alfalfa and soybean which receive fixed nitrogen, a natural fertilizer, in their roots through their relationship with good soil bacteria called rhizobia. This nitrogen enriches the soil rather than depleting it and at the same time the legumes are a valuable food source for both animals and people. She hopes to collaborate with the University of Zambia, the Ministry of Agriculture and other universities to launch a government campaign against single-crop farming, to reduce reliance on corn and increase the use of legumes.
This past summer the young scholar visited Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum where her advisor previously received an award as a visiting scholar, to collect legume root nodules, the special root structures where rhizobia reside and fix nitrogen. She hopes to identify rhizobia that have the potential to improve growth in agriculturally important legumes.
“We’re trying to see if these rhizobia that normally associate with long-lived trees can interact with soybeans and boost their growth through better nitrogen fixation,” Chilufya explains. “I would like to contribute practical knowledge to the farmers, especially the women back home. Women do the most non-commercial farming for their families and I’d like to teach them best practices. We have a saying in Africa, if you educate a woman you educate the whole community.”