College of Agricultural Sciences promotes interdisciplinary research initiatives

February 17, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Six projects have received funding from Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences under its Strategic Initiatives and Networks Program.

Sponsored by the college's Office of Research and Graduate Education, the program aims to increase the capacity for interdisciplinary research within the college and the University by strengthening existing programs and promoting formation of new interdisciplinary research partnerships.

The projects, each of which received up to $25,000, address one or more of the college's five cross-cutting strategic research areas: advanced agricultural and food systems; biologically based materials and products; environmental resilience; global engagement; and integrated health solutions.

Funded projects for 2015-16 include the following:

Advanced Automation and Robotics to Support Agricultural Systems

Transportation and food production systems are undergoing a revolution in the areas of robotics, automation, data-based decision-making and mapping. These innovations promise fundamental changes in crop selection, harvesting practices, agricultural employment, food safety and production efficiency. A seminar series will be organized to bring together an interdisciplinary group of faculty and students across Penn State interested in advanced cyber-physical systems, robotics, automation and autonomy in agricultural environments, vehicles and applications. Contact: Paul Heinemann (, professor and head of agricultural and biological engineering.

Gender, Agriculture and Environment Initiative

There is a high demand for expertise on gender issues in agriculture and the environment, coupled with a short supply of experts. This project aims to develop a network of scholars and researchers to initiate and respond to new opportunities for research, instruction and evidence-based outreach that address the intersections of gender with agricultural and environmental sciences. The primary goal is to establish Penn State as a leader in this field, both domestically and internationally. Contact: Ruth Mendum (, academic program director in international agriculture.

Phytobiome Initiative

A "phytobiome" is a system of organisms that consists of plants, animals (insects and nematodes) and a wide diversity of microbes (viruses, bacteria, fungi, oomycetes, amoebas and algae), all of which are influenced by environmental factors such as soil and climate. Research is needed to understand the role of phytobiomes in plant health, productivity and response to pathogens, pests and environmental stresses. A series of seminars and informal events will take place to promote the formation of new interdisciplinary teams to study these systems. Contact: Cristina Rosa (, assistant professor of plant virology.

Penn State Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology

The use of molecular biology, commonly referred to as GMOs, to improve crops and animals has raised many safety, ethical, legal and social issues of concern. Independent (nonindustry-funded) and unbiased research and public outreach are needed to generate new scientific knowledge and to communicate accurate science-based information to the public. This consortium will build a network of faculty from across Penn State interested in exploring the various dimensions of ag biotechnology, host seminars and discussion groups, conduct unbiased research, and provide information to extension specialists and the public. Contact: Mark Guiltinan (, professor of plant molecular biology.

Building Capacity for In-field, DNA-sequence-based Diagnostics at Penn State

A commercial company recently released the first DNA sequencer intended to be used in-field, called the MinION. This initiative is aimed at developing the first plug-and-play pipeline that uses the MinION for detection of microorganisms from agricultural settings in real-time. The goal is to develop a diagnostic tool and associated user interface website that will give an accurate diagnosis in less than three hours. The project is designed to bring the college to the forefront of this rapidly developing area and to provide training for students in cutting-edge DNA sequencing and bioinformatics protocols. Contact: David Hughes (, assistant professor of entomology and biology.

Soil Health for One Health

Soil health is the soil's capacity to deliver all requirements for stress-free plant growth while minimizing off-site losses of soil, water and nutrients to the environment. Soil health protects against erosion, desertification and pollution, which threaten landscape sustainability and human health. Given the importance of soil health to ecosystem stability, water supply and climate mitigation, researchers will seek to articulate linkages between soil health and human well-being by promoting faculty research partnerships across three areas: soil health in agriculture, soil health across land uses, and soil health to reduce public health risks. Contact: Mary Ann Bruns (, associate professor of soil science/microbial ecology.

More information about the College of Agricultural Sciences' Strategic Initiatives and Networks Program can be found on the college's website.


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Last Updated February 19, 2016