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Seed Funding Incubates Ideas to Improve Agriculture Through Engineering

By John Lovett

Ingenuity in agriculture requires collaboration, and seed funds, to make an impact.

That’s the mindset behind Engineering Applications in Agriculture, an innovation accelerator created with funding from the University of Arkansas College of Engineering, the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, and the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences.

“This initiative was designed to foster collaboration and create opportunities for significant impact” said Sandra D. Eksioglu, associate dean for research in the College of Engineering. “The two criteria used for selecting proposals to fund through this program were intellectual merit and broader impacts.”

On July 1, five winning teams in the first Engineering Applications in Agriculture program were awarded $25,000 each to carry out their projects. Over the next year, they’ll conduct research to put their ideas into action.

Mary Savin, head of the horticulture department, said the overarching goal of the program is for researchers to develop new collaborations with colleagues from other colleges and to assist them in developing proof-of-concept outcomes that have “strong potential to secure future external funding.”

“When the teams later submit their work to the National Science Foundation, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they will be better positioned to make a compelling case and have a higher chance of receiving funding,” added Eksioglu, who is also professor of industrial engineering and Hefley Professor in Logistics and Entrepreneurship.

During the spring semester, Savin and Eksioglu organized two workshops to bring together faculty from both colleges, providing them with a platform to network, share research and form teams aimed at pursuing external funding. Next, they established the Engineering Applications in Agriculture program, an internal seed funding program, to support the newly formed teams.

The winning teams and projects for the first Engineering Applications in Agriculture program include the following faculty members, with principal investigators and their co-principal investigators, respectively:

  • Wan Shou, assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department; and Ali Ubeyitogullari, assistant professor in the food science department, and the biological and agricultural engineering department. They will work to develop novel, multifunctional materials for food packaging to increase the shelf-life of foods.
  • Ben Runkle, associate professor in the biological and agricultural engineering department; and Shannon Speir, assistant professor of water quality in the crop, soil and environmental sciences department. They will work on a project to evaluate the ecological consequences of “climate smart agriculture.”
  • Thi Hoang Ngan, assistant professor of computer science and computer engineering in the electrical engineering and computer science department; and Cengiz Koparan, assistant professor of precision agriculture technology in the agricultural education, communications and technology department. They will work to develop computational models to translate satellite-view imagery to unmanned aerial vehicles to assess water quality.
  • Fiona Goggin, professor in the entomology and plant pathology department; Khoa Luu, assistant professor and director of the Computer Vision and Image Understanding Lab in the electrical engineering and computer science department; and collaborator Rich Adams, assistant professor in the Center for Agricultural Data Analytics and the entomology and plant pathology department. They will work on an artificial intelligence enabled “multi-omics” approach to improve plant health and productivity.
  • Wen Zhang, associate professor in the civil engineering department; and Young Min Kwon, microbiologist in the poultry science department, will work to improve early detection of emerging pathogens in poultry.
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