In 2012, Wanida Lewis was a graduate research student studying peanuts at North Carolina State University. Lewis’ work focused on how the unsung and often discarded part of the peanut—the skins—could have an impact on inflammation in the body.
This biochemical research in peanuts and Lewis’ active involvement in the community won her the prestigious George Washington Carver Award from the National Peanut Board. Lewis’ drive to innovate along with her ability to find business connections, especially for minorities and women, has opened new opportunities for her and others worldwide. Currently, she works as a senior economic evaluation program advisor, but along the way gained experiences as a foreign affairs officer and a scientist at a large food company.
We asked Lewis how peanuts impacted her life during her graduate school days and how she’s used that experience for personal growth and to help others.
NPB: What did the George Washington Carver Award for peanut research mean to you?
Lewis: That meant a lot, especially at that time. I needed funding to continue my research, so when I received the award, I was ecstatic because I knew I was on the right track. I loved that my work was received well among my peers. It opened doors to further explore uses for peanuts skins.
NPB: When you received a Ph.D. in Food Science from North Carolina State University, the university announced the Dr. Wanida E. Lewis Food Science Fellowship Program Endowment in your honor for your groundbreaking doctoral research in peanut science and dedication to mentoring students of color in the sciences. Tell us about that.
Lewis: A lot of people of color join the STEM fields, but there may not be the necessary funds, access or support to move to the higher ranks of academia to pursue doctoral degrees or leadership roles. The reasons for these gaps are many; but a big reason that I saw was a lack of support.
In my food science programs, a lot of African-Americans joined the program, but not many went on to get a Ph.D. It’s not always easy to find research funding or find mentors who challenge and support you., I’m proud of the endowment given in my name for promising students of color to have not only the financial help to succeed, but to have better access and support to advance in their chosen scientific fields.
NPB: How does agriculture play a role in your economic advisory work today?
Lewis: I was interested in agriculture policy work, even in graduate school. I noted early on there is a lack of women in the higher ranks of the food industry. I asked, “why?” One of the big reasons is lack of access. This is especially true when talking about economic empowerment overseas and I thought about this at a policy level. To develop economic empowerment in agriculture overseas, I had to ask, “who is out in the field?” Women are. Because of cultural concerns, the husband will have access to the latest biotechnology available and this information may never transfer to the woman. As a result, both husband and wife lack the best information and, in the end, cannot contribute to the economy most effectively.
It was at NC State working in peanuts that I began to see this gap. From there, I now work solely on women's economic empowerment and women in agribusiness. My goal is to ensure our programs align with policies that include and promote all women.
NPB: How do you connect peanuts to helping women globally?
Lewis: I lived in Ghana last summer and hosted workshops for women in agribusiness, including female farmers. Ghanaians connected easily with me because of my work in the U.S. with peanuts as a young woman. The workshops I’d conducted in the ag policy office made sure peanut farmers, especially females, were included and educated about biotechnology and how it could positively affect their operations. I met many women in Africa who worked in groundnuts. This led to many good conversations about groundnuts and what they could do to increase yield.
Peanuts are a great icebreaker when you meet someone new. I usually ask, “do you eat peanuts?” I’ve found most people are eager to learn new things about the nutrition in peanuts or how the crop grows.
NPB: You founded and launched the program Young, Gifted, and Brown. Tell us about that and why you think it's important to support this group.
Lewis: Young, Gifted and Brown came out of my time in Ghana. I worked on issues with women and youth, encouraging more involvement in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). I saw an opportunity to connect young African women who are interested in STEM with positive role models from science and technology fields, especially in agriculture.
I [brought in] four organizations that were all [founded or] run by black women ranging in age from 21 to 45-50. I was very intentional about that because representation matters. I wanted to inspire these young girls toward careers in agriculture science and technology and show that you can do all these things because agriculture is around you. I asked them to think about the food we all eat or that changing weather patterns are real problems to solve, and how they can positively impact the food supply.
We held a round robin event where young girls from 10 to 14 [years old] were able to meet with women who were in all facets of STEM in agriculture, showing how the students could take control of their personal journeys. We created strong mentoring opportunities and connections.
NPB: What advice would you give to graduate students, particularly students of color, who are considering peanut research?
Lewis: Always look back to see what has been done. Think about how it affects your friends and can be a solution that affects everyone globally. Be open minded. Don't follow the same kind of rigmarole because all you're doing is reinventing the wheel. See the wheel for what it is and add a rod to it or add a new rim to it that no one thought about and then go from there.
NPB: What’s your favorite way to eat peanuts?
Lewis: In the U.S., I like honey-roasted peanuts, but in Africa I like to eat peanuts raw or roasted with a pinch of salt. Another African favorite is to buy peanuts mixed with ginger chips from street vendors.
When I lived in Ghana, people soon found out that my favorite soup in West Africa is groundnut [peanut] soup. Every time I sat down to eat people would offer me groundnut soup.
NPB: What do you have in the pipeline for the future?
Lewis: I'm still committed to making the case that if you are a woman in agriculture your personal economic empowerment is important too, no matter where you are. Designing programs that positively impact women entrepreneurs, and girls, and creating an environment to learn from these programs is vital. Even when the [formal] program stops, the project is still ongoing, and women are able to create their support systems and live self-sustaining lives.