A Career in Microbiology and Precision Agriculture

Jan. 13, 2021

Dr. Sreekala Bajwa.
Dr. Sreekala Bajwa, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Director of the Montana Agriculture Experiment Station and Vice President of Agriculture at Montana State University (MSU).
Precision agriculture uses the fields of microbiology and technology to address soil quality, nutrient cycling and food shortage issues. We interview Dr. Sreekala Bajwa, who currently serves as Dean of the College of Agriculture, Director of the Montana Agriculture Experiment Station and Vice President of Agriculture at Montana State University (MSU). Dr. Bajwa addresses major global challenges, such as food, water, energy security and sustainability. In this interview, we discuss her accomplishments in precision agriculture and her message to the microbiology community about interdisciplinary research opportunities in agricultural engineering.

What is precision agriculture and how it relates to microbiology?

In the last century, American agriculture had some great advances, such as mechanization and genetic improvements [to crops] that reduced the number of people working in agriculture. Today ~1.5% of the U.S. population produces food to feed the 320 million people in the U.S. and many more around the world. Mechanization also shifted agriculture to large-scale farming. Building larger machinery to manage large farms resulted in agricultural practices that treated vast tracts of lands in the same way. Agricultural practices largely follow a recipe that includes the recommended rate of seeds planted, fertilizer applied and water given, even though the land may have differing production factors, such as soil properties, water and topography across the farm. Such variability across large farm fields was causing inefficiencies in agricultural production and loss of crop yields, which led to the field of precision agriculture. Precision agriculture is understanding the factors that influence agricultural production and their spatio-temporal dynamics so that we can identify best management practices to reach the highest production efficiency all across the field. It is about managing the land differently in different areas to suit the conditions and needs of that area. In other words, it all boils down to increasing the efficiency of agricultural production so that we are improving profitability and soil health, while decreasing the environmental footprint.

One of the projects I worked on at NDSU is exploring the possibilities of spatially variable microbiome manipulation on agricultural output. The idea of manipulating the microbiome in the soil or plant to improve soil quality, increase nutrient value of food, clean the environment or to increase agricultural production is simply exciting. Today, scientists are exploring microbial interventions to address soil and water quality problems, enrich cereal grains with certain nutrients to address human health problems, manage plant pests, reduce methane production by livestock and many more exciting ideas. 

What inspired you to become a renowned leader in precision agriculture?

I grew up in India with my family, who worked in a rural agriculture community. When I found out that agricultural engineering was a major, I knew that it was right for me because it combined agriculture and engineering. I started my baccalaureate and masters in India and then when I explored opportunities for a Ph.D. in the U.S., precision agriculture popped up as a new and exciting area. The concept of optimizing agricultural operations to help both farmers and the environment appealed to me.

Honestly, I didn’t set out to become a leader in the area. I simply focused on building a research program in precision agriculture addressing the needs of agricultural producers and forging partnerships. I have to thank many people who saw potential in me that I may not have realized. The researchers in my team were important contributors to my success. The experiences and network I gained through my professional society, American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE), also played a major role in my successes. I embraced (sometimes with a push from colleagues) opportunities, and that led to more opportunities.      

What suggestions would you give to microbiology students who are interested in exploring the opportunities in precision agriculture?

Environmental microbiology is a large area with applications much broader than precision agriculture. I recommend that microbiology students explore environmental microbiology a little further by working in a research lab that explores precision agricultural applications, or explore internships at a company that focuses on microbial solutions in agriculture. There is always a lot of science literature on all kinds of agricultural applications of microbiology. A solid background in microbiology applications in agriculture is fundamental before you explore precision agriculture. You may also want to take a course in geographic information system (GIS) or spatial science to get additional skills needed for precision agriculture.

How do microbiology students develop a multidisciplinary skillset?

Most problems in the world are multidimensional and complex. They require people from many different disciplines to work together to develop the best solutions. However, it is often difficult for people from one discipline to work with other disciplines because of different terminology, thought processes and approaches. These very traits  are necessary to create the best solutions. It is important to have exposure to more than one area and get some experience working with multidisciplinary and diverse groups while you are still in college. I have been surprised when someone else with a totally different background brings up an out-of-the-box idea that helps me refine my own ideas and approaches to challenges.

You have a successful track record in developing technologies that have commercialization potential. Can you give some advice to students and researchers on how they can develop technologies for practical use?

Most universities facilitate opportunities for technology development through innovation competitions. The Launch Pad at Montana State University is an example. This is a great way to turn your ideas into technologies and then commercialize them. Most of these programs offer excellent mentoring on all aspects of this process. In engineering programs, a common avenue for students to independently develop technology is through their capstone design course. Students can design and develop a technology as a capstone project and get it patented for commercialization. For other students, working with a faculty mentor in their research lab can open up the avenue for technology development and commercialization. The university’s technology transfer office is usually keen to take research to the next step of patenting and establishing industry partnerships for commercialization. Outside of universities, many states and economic development corporations have programs and grants to support innovation, with many such resources tied to job creation in the state.

What advice do you have for faculty on developing multidisciplinary courses, programs and materials in precision agriculture? 

Precision agriculture is effective when a system-based approach is adopted to address production-related challenges in agriculture. Natural processes in agriculture are complex and influenced by many factors that vary in space and time. Often, we study these complex systems and manipulate them in disciplinary silos of pathology, entomology, soil science, engineering, etc. When people from different disciplines work together, it becomes easier to address complex problems at a system level and come up with holistic solutions to problems. It is important to teach this concept to our students through multidisciplinary courses and programs, where students get perspectives from different disciplines and understand the complexity of natural systems more comprehensively.

Academic programs are intended to prepare students for a broad range of jobs. It is always good to start from the type of jobs (and potential employers) you are preparing your students for, then work backwards to develop a curriculum that will provide the knowledge and skills they need. Advisory boards made up of a cross-section of those employers combined with faculty experts, become effective groups to identify the knowledge and specific skill sets to impart on your students. Advisory boards are very helpful in keeping programs tailored to the industry demands. Also incorporate an experiential learning component, such as internships with a consortium of industries. This can lead to more resources for the program and course development. 

Author: Navanietha Rathinam, Ph.D.

Navanietha Rathinam, Ph.D.
Dr. Navanietha Rathinam is a research scientist in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.