Using technology to improve agriculture

Stephanie E. Vasko is busy exploring ways to use machine-learning approaches in food and agriculture.

Stephanie Vasko

With a passion for computing and community-building, Stephanie E. Vasko is busy exploring ways to use machine-learning approaches in food and agriculture. Vasko is managing director of the MSU Center for Interdisciplinarity, a unit that is headed by the College of Arts and Letters and is focused on scholarship across academic disciplines.

“In the most basic sense of the term, in machine learning, an algorithm takes a set of data, learns from it in some way, and then uses it to make predictions [about] other data,” she said.

During her childhood, Vasko received a gift from a surprising source — a memento that would later serve a vital role in charting her career path.

“My grandfather, actually, of all people, instilled my passion for computing in me by giving me my first computer when I was a kid and telling me that computers were the future of things,” she said.

 Currently, she’s looking at machine-learning approaches to team science (how groups collaborate on science-related projects), and to disease identification in agricultural crops and animals.

“I think ag, specifically food, is one of the most exciting, yet least approached machine learning spaces that’s out there,” Vasko said. “I think it’s really ripe for MSU to be doing some really cool work.”

Vasko also coordinates the research for Food@MSU, an initiative funded by MSU AgBioResearch that gives consumers the tools to navigate information and misinformation about food.

She is hopeful that the emergence of technology will change the way food information and research is communicated to consumers.

“It might be a little easier to access knowledge using an app, sometimes, than reading an academic journal paper,” she said. “I think if we start moving a little bit more in that direction, we might be able to change some minds or do some great science communication, and not hit some of the barriers that we have in the past.”

Q&A: Stephanie Vasko

Title: Managing director, MSU Center for Interdisciplinarity (C4I)

Joined MSU: 2015

Education: B.A. in chemistry, Carleton College; M.S. in chemistry and Ph.D. in chemistry and nanotechnology, University of Washington

Hometown: Oxford, New Jersey

Favorite vacation: Iceland this past summer. I took a Zodiac boat ride around some glaciers, rode an Icelandic horse to a hot spring, and went on a run through volcanic rocks. Fun, active things.

On a Saturday afternoon, you’ll likely find me: On the Lansing River Trail going for a jog.

If I weren’t in my current role I’d be: I’d love to be a research scientist at Google.

The best meal I’ve ever had is: The first time I went to Germany, we were wandering around late at night and looking for a place to eat, and we stumbled upon this all-you-can eat buffet of the richest meats and butter-coated vegetables. I still, to this day, would love to recreate this buffet experience.

The strangest meal I’ve ever had is: Fermented shark in Iceland. I also ate a smoked puffin there. The smoked puffin was good, the fermented shark was not.

My favorite cook or chef is: Brad Leone from Bon Appétit. I watch his YouTube show religiously.

Favorite restaurant: A bakery that just closed: Easton Baking Co. back home in Pennsylvania, right over the border from New Jersey. They made tomato pies and the best cupcakes. They made my high school graduation cake. Every time I’m home I go there, and now I can’t anymore. I cried. My younger brother told me the bakery closed and sent me a link, and I was like – “Well, there goes my day.”

The best part of my job is: Getting to work with really awesome people. I love working for Doug Buhler (AgBioResearch director) and Michael O’Rourke (C4I interim director) because they’ve been so supportive of my career, including this foray into machine learning. I love the people that I work with at C4I. I like working with the community, too. It’s exciting to be able to give back to the community in a way that’s going to be meaningful.

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.


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