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Diversity and Inclusion

Exploring New Avenues

New Ph.D. student brings math and clinical data science backgrounds to agriculture

Ph.D. student Shana McDowell
Ph.D. student Shana McDowell

Just three months ago, Shana McDowell was a senior data technician at Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute, employing data science in the fight against two of the world’s most infamous viruses: COVID-19 and HIV.

Today, McDowell is at NC State, learning an avenue of data science that fights two new and very different enemies: hunger and food waste. 

McDowell is pursuing her Ph.D. in biological and agricultural engineering, concentrating her studies in systems analysis. To complement her studies and her goals, McDowell also enrolled in NC State’s Ag Data Science Certificate program. The new and innovative course brings data management, analysis, computer science and statistical training to the agricultural, food and life science fields.

How did McDowell make this shift from viruses to agriculture? 

“My background is pure math, but I wanted to apply it in new and different ways,” said McDowell. “After learning there was a lane for data scientists in agriculture, I got very excited. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would qualify, because I didn’t have a background in agriculture. But for the two areas of research I’d done so far, materials science and structural biology, I didn’t have backgrounds in those either. I decided to apply.” 

McDowell first learned about the Ag Data Science Certificate from Daniela Jones, assistant professor at NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and directorof the 12-credit program. 

Jones says the certificate was designed in part for students just like McDowell, who do not have traditional agricultural science backgrounds but have the computer programming and statistical skills needed to advance digital agriculture. 

“Our program seeks out students from two general backgrounds: those with degrees in the agriculture, food or life sciences who want to study data collected from the field – and those like Shana, who have degrees in computer science, math or statistics but want to apply their data science skills to agriculture,” Jones said. 

The Ag Data Science certificate is one of two programs connected to the N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative, whose mission is to improve the world through plant science innovation by accelerating discovery, fostering expertise, and developing applied solutions that solve some of the greatest challenges facing agriculture and society today. 

Jones says the Ag Data Science Certificate program puts McDowell in a key position to take on these grand issues, like food insecurity, sustainable agriculture, and climate change. 

“Shana will be helping researchers collect, manage and analyze the immense amounts of data from the N.C. PSI’s next-generation sensors and advanced equipment,” Jones said. “Her work will improve research outcomes and help researchers make data-informed decisions. This will eventually lead to more informed management recommendations and then finally best practices used by crop consultants, farmers and other decision makers in the field.”

Putting theory into practice

As part of the Ag Data Science Certificate’s elective requirements, McDowell must put her studies into real-world practice. To meet these requirements, she joined N.C. PSI’s Sweet-APPS research team. The massive data-focused project aims to optimize sweetpotato production and reduce waste by uncovering the factors that govern the shape of sweetpotatoes. Oddly shaped sweetpotatoes are often left unharvested, as they are more difficult to sell and process in facilities. 

“The Sweet-APPS team is getting constant snapshots of data through all kinds of sensors across the growing season,” said McDowell. “And when the sweetpotatoes are harvested, images are taken of each tuber during packing. I am using machine learning techniques  to analyze these images and build a better understanding of this crop.” 

McDowell says that the goals of the Sweet-APPS project closely align with her own. 

“I came here to help fight hunger and food waste. Through this project, I’ll be helping to crunch all kinds of data that will help growers produce more uniform tubers that aren’t left on the ground at harvest time,” said McDowell. “I’m also helping other researchers do their jobs better. So I’m saving crops – and potentially even lives – in the future.”

McDowell also enjoys the options that come with the Ag Data Science Certificate program, particularly the options of tailoring her curriculum, as well as her research projects. 

“Here there are opportunities to immediately practice what you learned in courses,” McDowell said. “In the past, I’ve learned a lot of data science techniques that I didn’t use immediately. I’d find myself with information I wasn’t able to use until months later, when I’d be working on a project. I’d have to go back and look at what I learned. It wasn’t fresh.” 

“In this program, you can tailor the classes you take with the Ag Data Science Certificate – and also tailor the projects you’re working on. The Sweet-APPS project is an excellent example of this.”

McDowell says she loves applying her knowledge of mathematics and data science in new and different ways – and that the Ag Data Science Certificate program is giving her this opportunity. 

“I was always interested in stats and math, but I never wanted to teach theory based math; I just like to work with data and make sense of it,” said McDowell. “I always wanted to get a Ph.D., and I kept an open mind as far as the programs I wanted to apply to, as long as it was quantitative.” 

“I always loved learning through the different projects I’ve worked on – and solving problems using computational thinking. Here I can take data that starts out messy, then dissect and manage it in ways that make a difference. I’m helping people make research and operational decisions that can optimize food production.”