The new faces of MSU AgBioResearch

To address a broad range of agricultural challenges, MSU AgBioResearch is partnering across the university to expand its network of researchers.

January 1, 2019 - Author:

Almudena Veiga-Lopez, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science, watches as an experiment is conducted in her lab.
Almudena Veiga-Lopez, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science, watches as an experiment is conducted in her lab.

Agricultural research has long been valued. In fact, Michigan State University was founded in 1855 largely on the premise of conducting scientific research to help farmers produce better food and more of it.

Beyond agriculture and academia, however, the topic typically isn’t given much thought. Consumers count on being able to buy safe and affordable food in the grocery store without fully realizing the science that goes into producing, processing and delivering it. While scientific advancements in the past century and a half have been impressive, the agricultural and natural resource industries face many challenges ahead.

MSU faculty members Doug Buhler and George Smith, who together lead MSU AgBioResearch as director and associate director respectively, know these obstacles well. Responsible for MSU’s research portfolio on food, energy and the environment, they say now is one of the most critical times facing agriculture and our natural environment, and the stakes are high on a range of agriculture-related issues:

  • The need, by some estimations, to double the world food supply by 2050 to feed a growing population.
  • New agricultural threats and emerging pests are on the rise rather than decline.
  • Threats to water quality and quantity.
  • Uncertain funding for scientific research.
  • Extreme weather events.
  • Immigration policies affecting the available number of farm workers.
  • Trade regulations and tariffs.

To better prepare to address these varied challenges, MSU AgBioResearch is partnering across the university to expand its network of researchers. Buhler and Smith know that solutions will require a truly integrative, multidisciplinary approach involving scientists from diverse fields, including human and animal health, plant sciences, social sciences, engineering, computational modeling and environmental sciences.

“Our overarching vision hasn’t changed – we’re still focused on fundamental research with an intended outcome,” said Buhler, director of MSU AgBioResearch. “The researchers we’ve chosen to profile in this issue of the magazine and others like them whom we’ve recently hired embody that; this isn’t new for us but it is something we’ve more intentionally focused on in recent years.

“These new researchers will help lead us on the path to solve the bigger fundamental science questions. And that, in turn, links us to the bigger world and the opportunity for larger grant partners and more people and talent to address the major problems.”

Many of these hires also are tied to MSU’s Global Impact Initiative, which is aimed at adding to the research portfolio in the areas where MSU has strength and can address some of the grand challenges of the future. Some of those issues are focused on the quantitative and computational plant and animal sciences.

“We are not lacking in the ability to measure. In fact, we’re dealing with actual datasets that are well, well beyond what we envisioned 20 years ago,” said Smith, associate director of MSU AgBioResearch. “We’ve put a heavy emphasis on talent that works between the interface of such things as genomics and computational sciences.”

Buhler said providing tools for precision agriculture is also on the research forefront. “Artificial intelligence and machine learning are big topics on the horizon and we’ve barely scratched the surface on its application,” said Buhler. “Such topics as robots to harvest crops, leveraging computer vision to monitor soil and crops, and using machine learning models to track and predict elements of agricultural and natural resource systems are all things we must explore.”

As the economic impact of the food and agriculture industry in Michigan reaches the $104 billion mark, the MSU AgBioResearch leaders are proud of the role research has played in meeting the emerging needs of the industry. Buhler and Smith agree that the scope of research must focus on more than just increasing production and yields.

“We’re now, in some areas, out of balance between what we’re producing and what the markets can handle,” said Smith. “We’re working to encourage scientists to think of questions beyond just production – such as how to maintain production with lower inputs across the entire food system chain. We must help our friends in the agriculture industry not just to survive, but to be profitable.”

As they add to the researcher base, Buhler and Smith are also rededicating resources to the network of research centers they oversee throughout the state. Special collaborations across the Upper Peninsula have helped the agriculture and natural resources industries make considerable progress.

“Our facility in Chatham is a wonderful example of the connections we can build and the local impact we have,” said Buhler. “We also have new leadership and a vision for our facility in Escanaba to replicate the success of Chatham by boosting the local economy and opportunities that directly meet the needs of the forestry and related industries in the U.P. Ideally, we’d like to better link those two facilities.”

The MSU AgBioResearch leaders have also been focused on expanding the grant support services offered to researchers. Our Office of Research Support now has four full-time employees, compared to only one just a few years ago.

“We need our researchers to be competitive and relevant in a system that funds less than 1 in 10 submissions,” said Buhler. “And that’s no small feat.”

They both agree that the competition for grants will only get steeper, as the research needs of agriculture and natural resources become more diverse and complex.

“Agriculture is America’s oldest career, and today it is arguably one of the most complex, technology-driven, knowledge-based industries in the world,” said Smith. “We’ve come a long way, but the journey is far from over.”

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

Tags: food@msu research updates


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