The Right People at the Right Time
Hiring scientists to solve global challenges.
The Agricultural Research Division is the research engine of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Its dean, Archie Clutter, oversees more than 300 faculty members with research appointments in 15 academic units and two university colleges.
“Our programs cover everything from fields and landscapes to healthy children, healthy communities and healthy economies,” Clutter said. There is a statewide ARD infrastructure, including research and Extension centers in North Platte, Scottsbluff and Concord, augmented by satellite facilities around these centers. There are thousands of acres of farm and ranchland on which the university faculty and staff conduct research and carry out Extension programming.
Nebraska’s diversity of natural growing environments produces many kinds of plants and animals, and university scientists study the soils, plants, animals, water and climate in every part of the state. People with knowledge of technology and of each discipline fuel that research engine.
Increasingly, solutions lie in the collection, analysis and storage of data resulting from research into the genomics of crop and animal production; the DNA and RNA sequencing that underpins plant and animal sciences; human and animal health; precision farming and irrigation; and more. “We are creating a formal, strategic approach to building capacity around big data and creating tools and solutions for big data,” Clutter said. The applications address global challenges.
There are more than 7 billion people on Earth today, but there will be at least 2 billion more before 2050, Clutter said, and those people will need to eat. Increasingly, people will have the financial resources to allow them to demand and purchase a greater diversity of food and a higher quality of food, he added.
“We have the grand challenge of feeding more than 9 billion people in just a few short years with the same amount of resources,” Clutter said, noting that Nebraska is positioned well to help lead solutions based on Nebraska scientists’ work.
In 2012, just after Clutter came to Nebraska to be dean of the Agricultural Research Division, then-IANR Vice Chancellor Ronnie Green (now university chancellor) started a conversation on campus around feeding the world in an efficient and environmentally responsible way.
“We essentially said to our faculty – ‘within the framework of our mission, which is food, fuel, water, people and landscapes – what is it that you can achieve, what are the problems you can solve, what are the questions you can answer?’” Clutter said. Based on that question, the work began to identify goals, teams and gaps in those teams. One gap, they learned, was expertise in computational sciences and big data issues.
The faculty also identified priorities, outcomes and impacts and funding for hiring scientists in disciplines that would help Nebraska become a leader in addressing global challenges. Those disciplines were – and still are – computational sciences, stress biology in plants and animals, systems of agriculture and natural resources, and science literacy.
The initial hiring phase attracted tremendous pools of candidates, Clutter said, and 38 faculty members were hired over nearly every one of the Agricultural Research Division’s 15 units.
“We planned to hire faculty who would be successful here and stay for their careers,” Clutter said. By the end of 2016, a total of 140 faculty members had been hired, which meant about 40 percent of the IANR faculty members were new to the university. Of those 140, about 110 have research appointments.
The IANR leadership has formed a Faculty Success Network within the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources to provide support and opportunities to new faculty, Clutter said. The group meets monthly with Clutter and IANR Associate Vice Chancellor Ron Yoder, and faculty have informal opportunities to share ideas across disciplines. “We want to ensure their success,” Clutter said.
That transdisciplinary sharing of ideas models the collaboration now typical among scientists.
“In our division, we can build teams that take systems approaches by combining those different disciplines and partnering with others outside our disciplines,” Clutter said.
Collaborations include entities such as the Food Innovation Center on Nebraska Innovation Campus, the University of Nebraska Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “It’s the Nebraska Food for Health Center that is connecting basic plant science to food science, such as the study of the gut microbiome; the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program; the Department of Food Science and Technology, including The Food Processing Center. It all connects with human health,” Clutter said. “There even is clinical space at the Food Innovation Center where we can connect all the pieces for this Nebraska Food for Health right there at Nebraska Innovation Campus.” The Nebraska Food for Health Center is an initiative to combine strengths in agriculture and medicine, with the goal of improving lives of people around the world. It is led by Andy Benson, professor of food science and technology.
GENERATING, ANALYZING DATA
The genomics of crop and animal production generates massive amounts of sequence data, as do studies of proteins and their various applications such as understanding food allergens. Precision irrigation and other aspects of precision farming also generate tremendous amounts of data, he said, as does the state-of-the-art high-throughput plant imaging technology in the Greenhouse Innovation Center on Nebraska Innovation Campus. That is where university scientists from complementary disciplines translate gene discovery into more resilient crops.
“The application is to tie the plants’ genomic information into important traits like tolerance to drought and disease,” Clutter said. The imaging technology captures plant images at every stage of plant growth, which represent massive amounts of data, he added.
“These are examples of how we are building programs to address important problems,” he said. “We are looking for ways that we can leverage the strengths of the university and the state.”