The Convergence of Tech and Agronomy

May 21, 2020

In this digital world, technology is becoming more prevalent in all aspects of life, and students at Iowa State University have utilized technology to gain the knowledge and tools that will help the world construct crops that can thrive in our ever-changing environment.

One of those students is Ashlyn Rairdin, who enrolled at Iowa State in fall of 2019, after studying biochemistry and graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“I had always had an interest in engineering, but I have a larger interest in biology, so I chose that when I went to college,” Rairdin said.

A headshot of Ashlyn Reidin Her acceptance at Iowa State was not only in the interdepartmental Plant Biology program, but also the Predictive Plant Phenomics (P3) program. P3, funded by the National Science Foundation, is the convergence of agronomy, data and engineering to develop methods to predict plant growth and increase productivity to meet the world’s ever evolving demands on food, fuel and fiber.

Graduate students from different areas of expertise learn how to work together and communicate while gaining the understanding design and construct crops with desired traits. 

It was in P3 that Rairdin got the opportunity to help design a workshop for the Phenome 2020 conference in February.

“The P3 group was given the opportunity to run a workshop at Phenome 2020, and I was in charge of the part of the workshop that was focused on low-cost easy to build rovers,” Rairdin said.

She designed and built three different rovers: one controlled from a computer, the second was given a path to execute continuously and the third was controlled by a joystick, which Rairdin also built. These rovers were designed to be more simplistic to help others learn how to make their own. Simple rovers that could be used in a greenhouse, and that could be adapted to include light, temperature and other basic sensors to monitor plants.

“Building these rovers helped me realize I could work with both plants and engineering, specifically in the area of robotics used for phenotyping; before this, I had the thought that someone with my background wouldn't be able to do something like that,” Rairdin said.

Two rovers Rairdin built. Small black bases with wires coming out of it and both with wheels. All this led to Rairdin meeting agronomy professor Dr. Arti Singh, who has similar interests. Rairdin is now a member of Singh’s lab and has switched to the Plant Breeding program, which focuses on breeding crops to improve crop yield and other valuable traits.

“Breeding involves evaluating phenotypes and choosing the best accessions/lines to continue in your breeding program,” Rairdin said. “I am interested in using robotics with breeding to gather more phenotypic data quickly and accurately. I would like to use ground vehicles and UAVs to help gather data and create systems that can accurately collect data.”

The first step to that is collecting phenotypic data using robotics and sensors, and second is extracting features, and this requires machine learning to process the data.

Rairdin is currently in the process of learning how to code and hopes to collaborate in making effective machine learning algorithms soon. Creating more efficient methods of collecting phenotypic data can help breeders when selecting plants, and Rairdin sees breeding moving this direction in the future.


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