Phospholutions research scientist Pauline Welikhe has been named 2021 International Fertilizer Association’s Emerging Scholar in recognition of her distinguished research in sustainable phosphorus. She says her work focused on managing this finite resource is rooted in economic and social advancement for developing countries. “My drive is simple,” she says. “I want to contribute to food and water security.”
Welikhe says sustainable phosphorus management is key to global food resources. “As the global population increases, the demand for food also increases,” she explains. “The agriculture industry has found itself in a unique position of being tasked with an increased demand for food and reducing its environmental footprint at the same time.”
“Phosphorus is the second most essential nutrient — nitrogen is first,” she adds. "It’s needed for crop growth, you can’t replace it and the reserves are finite. In simple terms, I am working to make phosphorus sustainable.”
"At Phospholutions, Welikhe is currently working on innovative technology that directly supplies phosphorus to crops based on their phosphorus needs, thus allowing farmers to reduce the amount of phosphorus they put into soil, while maintaining their yield. “The costs are lower, runoff is lower and there is a prolonged life of phosphorus reserves,” she says.
Welikhe’s research focuses on evaluating phosphorus losses in agricultural systems and then developing environmental indices and applying artificial intelligence to help model phosphorus input-output relationships in complex agricultural systems.
At Phospholutions, Welikhe is currently working on innovative technology that directly supplies phosphorus to crops based on their phosphorus needs, thus allowing farmers to reduce the amount of phosphorus they put into soil, while maintaining their yield. “The costs are lower, runoff is lower and there is a prolonged life of phosphorus reserves,” she says.
What’s motivated her to study phosphorus and its impact on agriculture?
“To answer that I have to take you back to the beginning,” she says. “I grew up in a small agricultural community in Kenya and I have first-hand experience of what food and water insecurity means, in terms of economic development and social development, and all the things that come with that…”
Welikhe joined Phospholutions in July 2020 as a research scientist, after working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She says “aside from the great minds and great people at Phospholutions,” she chose the startup because she shared its common goals and objectives in innovative technology and sustainable phosphorus use.
She says she would recommend the company — and living and working in Happy Valley — to other researchers, noting“ I love it here. There is a lot of collaborative research with other startups, farmers and with Penn State. It’s a good place to do ag research.”
As to the weather? “You’ll have to get back to me about that after I get through this winter,” she says. “We’ll see… We’ll see.”