Seed Funding Incubates Ideas to Improve Agriculture Through Engineering

Mechanical engineering master's student Justin Dykstra, left, works with Cengiz Koparan, assistant professor of precision agriculture technology in the Agricultural Education, Communications and Technology Department. Koparan is one of 10 U of A System faculty members recently awarded $25,000 in the first Engineering Applications in Agriculture seed funding program.
U of A System Division of Agriculture/Paden Johnson

Mechanical engineering master's student Justin Dykstra, left, works with Cengiz Koparan, assistant professor of precision agriculture technology in the Agricultural Education, Communications and Technology Department. Koparan is one of 10 U of A System faculty members recently awarded $25,000 in the first Engineering Applications in Agriculture seed funding program.

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 U of A 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 and Biological and Agricultural Engineering departments. 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 Le, 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.

To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: aaes.uada.edu. Follow on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit uada.edu/. Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk. To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu.

About the College of Engineering: The University of Arkansas College of Engineering is the largest engineering program in the state of Arkansas. Over the past 15 years, the college has experienced unprecedented growth. Undergraduate enrollment reached just over 3,300 in fall 2023, and total enrollment in the college is nearly 4,500 students. The College of Engineering offers graduate and undergraduate degrees in seven engineering departments: biological and agricultural, biomedical, chemical, civil, electrical and computer science, industrial and mechanical. The college also offers distance learning and interdisciplinary programs, including data science. Faculty in the college conduct research in many key areas, including biomedical and healthcare, electronics, energy, healthcare logistics, materials science, nanotechnology, transportation and logistics. Emerging research areas include advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, data science, infrastructure, membranes and separation and water.

About the Division of Agriculture: The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture's mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation's historic land grant education system. The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses. The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

About the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences: Bumpers College provides life-changing opportunities to position and prepare graduates who will be leaders in the businesses associated with foods, family, the environment, agriculture, sustainability and human quality of life; and who will be first-choice candidates of employers looking for leaders, innovators, policy makers and entrepreneurs. The college is named for Dale Bumpers, former Arkansas governor and longtime U.S. senator who made the state prominent in national and international agriculture. For more information about Bumpers College, visit our website, and follow us on Twitter at @BumpersCollege and Instagram at BumpersCollege.

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