Five engineering researchers selected as PSI Faculty Scholars
The Plant Sciences Institute (PSI) has awarded funding to investigators in three colleges in an effort to stimulate high-risk, high-reward research in the plant sciences.
The awards are part of the Plant Sciences Institute’s Faculty Scholars program. The new initiative was spearheaded by PSI director Patrick Schnable and takes a different approach than a traditional internal seed-grant program. Instead of funding specific research projects, the program will invest $2 million annually to provide investigators with flexible funding they may use in a variety of ways — salaries, acquisition of equipment, seminar support, consulting fees and other related expenses — to engage in innovative and high-risk research that may lead to important breakthroughs in PSI’s focus area of predictive phenomics.
Predictive phenomics is a complex and rapidly emerging discipline in which scientists attempt to understand in detail the effects of plant genotype (genetic makeup) and environment, and the interaction between the two, on plant phenotype (traits). That understanding will lead to the development of better predictive models for plant breeding.
The following CoE faculty members have been honored as PSI Faculty Scholars:
- Ludovico Cademartiri, materials science and engineering assistant professor
- Liang Dong, electrical and computer engineering associate professor
- Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, mechanical engineering associate professor
- Lie Tang, agricultural and biosystems engineering associate professor
- Lizhi Wang, industrial and manufacturing systems engineering associate professor
Ludovico Cademartiri’s research focuses on creating tools to characterize how plants and other organisms interact in soil. Understanding and predicting such interactions will improve crop yields, allowing society to keep up with the rising demand for food. Currently, plant breeding is slowed down by the fact that genetic modifications cannot be generally predicted to determine a specific response of a plant to its environment.
Cademartiri admits that his research is, “rather unusual and somewhat ambitious. We are engineering tools to investigate how plants interact with their physical environment, which is difficult to do, and with other organisms, which is even more difficult.”
Electrical engineer Liang Dong has experience working with micro-electro-mechanical systems, sensors and biochips. He has been researching plant phenotyping and agriculture sustainability since 2012. He plans to use the award to develop miniature field-based sensors and biochips to continuously monitor plant phenotypic parameters and plant-soil interactions. This research will create an affordable way to get data about plant behavior, such as growth and stress tolerance that allows linking to genetics.
Dong is honored to be selected as a PSI Faculty Scholar, and says, “It provides me with more opportunities to brainstorm and work with other scholars as a team, helping us to provide solutions for advancing plant phenomics.”
Baskar Ganapathysubramanian is excited to utilize engineering and computing principles to improve agronomic output. Ganapathysubramanian’s research focus will be to leverage computational sciences, specifically big data techniques, to create a platform that will allow correlating and predicting phenomic responses in different environments to improve agronomic output. The focus is to increase crop yields at a steady rate, while also finding solutions to crop stressors, such as climate change and water supply shortages.
Ganapathysubramanian says he is fortunate to have worked with plant scientists over the past two years. “Our progress suggests a promising interplay between computational sciences and predictive phenomics.”
Lie Tang looks forward to using agricultural automation and robotics to create real-world solutions in agricultural and biological environments. Tang is working with his research group to acquire high-quality plant trait characterization data in both field and lab conditions in a high-throughput fashion. He has collaborated with plant scientists and plant breeders to create several projects, including automated infield corn plant stand sensing, robotic probing and tissue sampling, 3-D characterization of morphological traits of plant seedlings, and more recently a NSF MRI funded project – Enviratron.
“I believe the resources from the PSI Faculty Scholar award will greatly further my research by developing and enabling new engineering solutions in automated plant phenotyping,” said Tang.
Lizhi Wang plans to increase the efficiency of plant breeding using systems engineering and optimization approaches. He says creating new plant breeding strategies will lead to faster and more affordable solutions for critical genetic improvements. “The application of systems engineering to plant science is an emerging and potentially fruitful area.”