Grid Pin, International Agriculture News

USDA grant to blend data with agriculture for improved production

A University of Texas at Arlington math professor will use a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to prepare graduate and undergraduate students for data-based careers in agriculture-related fields.

Jianzhong Su, UTA math professor and chairman of the Department of Mathematics, received a four-year, $295,000 USDA grant for an Alliance for Smart Agriculture in the Internet of Things Era project.

It will encourage graduate and undergraduate UTA STEM students to expand their opportunities in the agriculture sector.

Su will lead the UTA project in collaboration with the University of Texas at El Paso and New Mexico State University to implement the proposed activities sponsored by a USDA collaboration grant. Heidi Taboada, associate dean for research and graduate studies in UTEP’s College of Engineering, is principal investigator in the USDA grant.

UTA professors Nick Fang, assistant professor of civil engineering; Jaime Cantu and Shouyi Wang, assistant professors of industrial, manufacturing and systems engineering; Hristo Kojouharov, math professor; and Wen Shen, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering form the rest of the principal investigating team.

UTA will recruit a team of graduate and undergraduate students to form a Smart Agriculture learning community and will manage the learning community through teaching, research and mentoring.

Su and his team will be able to advise and mentor students individually in the form of meetings, seminars and other organized activities with the entire Smart Agriculture cohort so that students will be adequately prepared academically and in professional development. UTA will enhance the Smart Agriculture Learning Community through experiential learning, internship and research opportunities.

“We’ve already recruited four students and are pursuing research in three different directions,” Su said. “The first research project is with Nick Fang and we’ll be looking at using unmanned aircraft vehicles, or drones, to take images of the agricultural fields while collecting a large amount of data that will help farmers to know ground moisture levels and crop growth.”

Shen and Kojouharov will oversee the second project that involves using small biosensors to detect the presence of bacteria, contamination and moisture levels on any crop. The sensors will also provide the necessary data that will better assist with food safety and storage, and increase productivity with less human intervention with the food products, Su said.

UTA will involve all Smart Agriculture students in experience learning and research in data science related to the USDA mission. The faculty team will continue to recruit graduate and undergraduate students each year for research projects related to water, food, nutrition and other agriculture-focused research. The faculty team also will seek partners for internship opportunities for Smart Agriculture students.

“With urban farming, the experimental field is very limited and there are questions about making decisions using data because certain products may take a longer time to grow and you don’t have space to grow other things, versus other food products that have a much quicker turnaround time,” Su said. “That leaves room for optimization and Dr. Cantu and Dr. Wang are involved in designing that process that can potentially lead to making better decisions with benefits to customers in mind.”

Su’s USDA grant leans heavily on two of the themes of UTA’s Strategic Plan 2020, building sustainable communities and data-driven discovery, said Morteza Khaledi, dean of the College of Science. ”

The work and research that these professors and students will perform will make better use of the land and help farmers and, in the long run, consumers of those agricultural products,” Khaledi said.

UTA’s Department of Mathematics is the recipient of 2013 American Mathematics Society Award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department. With the support of U.S. Department of Education-supported Graduate Assistance for Areas of National Need program for graduate students, the National Science Foundation’s System for Undergraduates to Reach Goals in Education program for undergraduate students and the NSF Math Bridge-to-Doctorate program, UTA Mathematics is a national leader in education, research and mentoring, serving a diverse population of students. Its data-driven discovery research program is also strengthened with recent hiring of five new faculty members in data science, statistics and imaging.