Back to our roots

July 26, 2017

MIT short program, Innovation and Technology in Agriculture and the Environment, unifies industry and academia.

In 1861, MIT was founded as an institute for using science and technology to innovate and advance an array of industry sectors, including agriculture. Over 150 years later, research conducted across the Institute continues to be critical for environmental research and for agricultural industry applications in the United States and across the globe.

Last month, a group of academics and industry practitioners from around the world gathered for a short course on the research and approaches that MIT researchers use to advance agriculture and improve the environment on local and global scales. The certificate program, Innovation and Technology in Agriculture and the Environment (ITAE), disseminated MIT research to industry leaders and informed them of future developments and challenges in agriculture.

“At MIT Professional Education, we strive to offer professionals around the world latest research-based knowledge to help them deal with real world challenges they confront at work,” said Bhaskar Pant, executive director of MIT Professional Education. “Food production and security are among the globe’s most urgent challenges, and this course addressed how approaches driven by innovation and technology, the celebrated strengths of MIT, can help provide novel solutions to modern day agriculture.”

Markus Buehler, lead instructor of the course and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), stressed the critical connection between industry and academia in the program. “Through ITAE, professionals and industry leaders visit MIT and hear directly from faculty and researchers about the research we conduct that may be particularly beneficial for our participants’ work. It is our hope that our research can help professionals in industry — at all scales, from small farms to large-scale ag businesses — as well as government” he said. “With the renewed focus of MIT on agriculture and the environment, as evidenced through the creation of Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab and the Environmental Solutions Initiative, this is an exciting opportunity to engage broadly to contribute to making a better world.”  

Over the course of the week, professors and researchers with a myriad of interests presented their emerging research, methods, and vision that are both critical for advancing academic research and applicable for agriculture and environmental specialists. Topics covered included hydrology, climate change, irrigation, fluid mechanics, atmospheric science, soil science, and nanotechnology, and included active discussion with the participants.

“Professional education courses enhance the outreach of academic research to professionals by providing them not only an update on the most prominent research in their fields, but also a holistic vision of how problems may be solved through an interdisciplinary approach,” said Professor Benedetto Marelli, who presented during the program. “In the specific case of the ITAE course, attendees have been exposed to the latest technological innovation in agriculture and environment from a perspective that encompass modeling, materials science, synthetic biology, fluid mechanics, logistics and advanced manufacturing, just to name a few.”

Chandra Madramootoo, a visiting professor of CEE and visiting scholar in the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) echoed the value of the program: “There are new technologies being continually developed, and participants need to be aware of developments in the subject matter on a frequent basis. We are always coming up with new discoveries,” he said. Madramootoo presented his work and emerging techniques related to irrigation, drainage, and food security during the course.

Issues such as feeding a growing population and addressing food waste were a few of the threads between the lectures, which each took different approaches to the problems. The variety of presentations featured a combination of technical and theoretical lectures, as well as lab demonstrations.

Faculty also fielded questions and engaged in discussions with members of the audience, who brought their own personal expertise and related the research to the challenges they have observed in their own businesses.

“I enrolled in the course because I wanted to know what the latest research was focused on and how this technology could benefit agriculture. I also wanted to share what is happening ‘in the trenches’ of American agriculture, so that researchers could know and understand our current obstacles and issues,” said participant Mark Hockel, a master agronomist from Minnesota.

Among the multidisciplinary lectures was a presentation by Institute Professor Robert S. Langer, who researches and produces products in the fields of bioengineering and biomaterials, with a focus on medicine. Langer, an esteemed engineer, scientist, and entrepreneur, and one of the most prolific inventors of our time, explained his previous work and future projects, including his groundbreaking work that allowed for controlled release of drugs to directly attack tumors. He also suggested how his research could also be applied to agricultural challenges. For example, he mentioned the possibility of using controlled release methods to get chemicals and fertilizers to crops and ultimately assist with targeted delivery and reduce fertilizer waste.

In addition to Buehler and Langer, other speakers came to speak to the class from across MIT, including: Lydia Bourouiba, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Assistant Professor of CEE and associate faculty member of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science; Daniel Cziczo, associate professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences and of CEE; Benjamin Kocar, assistant professor of CEE; John Lienhard, director of J-WAFS; Chandra Madramootoo, visiting professor of CEE and J-WAFS visiting scholar; Dennis McLaughlin, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of CEE; Benedetto Marelli, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor of CEE; and Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering.

Other speakers included Ross E. Alter, a postdoc in the Eltahir Research Group in CEE; Marco Ferroni, executive director of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture; and Sonny Ramaswamy, administrator of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

As MIT students for a week, participants were taught about the unique culture at MIT and were encouraged to explore the campus and surrounding area. Aligning with MIT’s motto “mens et manus,” the participants were also able to get firsthand experience of the research described through lab demonstrations.

“I loved the lab demonstrations, especially when paired with the lecture. The lecture established the foundation so that we were all on the same page for the lab and understood the significance,” Hockel said.

On Tuesday, Marelli spoke to the class about his research in bioinspired materials, which he uses as a starting point for engineering new materials that can extend the shelf-life of produce. Marelli created an edible silk coating that has shown to preserve strawberries and bananas longer than produce without the silk material. Following the lecture, Marelli brought the group into his lab for demonstrations and to see how the strawberries are coated.

“Opening the lab to a group of professionals always spurs a lot of enthusiasm and allows them to better understand the work previously presented,” Marelli said. “Many interesting questions also stem from the lab visit, which helps us to define our research in a context that is more applied to the final application.”

The following day, Bourouiba, head of the Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory, discussed crop disease transmission and prevention. Specifically, she discussed the state-of-the-art in understanding transmission of crop pathogens and propagation of human pathogens in the field and from pre to post-harvest. She also introduced the students to the focus of her laboratory and team: studying the processes of transmission and contamination and developing new technologies and intervention strategies to minimize yield loss. Bourouiba also led the participants in a laboratory session, in which she prepared for them to explore and apply the physical and chemical principles discussed in her lectures. The series of hands-on demonstrations and experiments in her laboratory allowed the participants to think through, apply, and internalize the concepts of interfacial dynamics and fluid fragmentation presented in her lectures.

Similarly, Buehler hosted a computer-based demonstration of molecular-level simulations of materials. Buehler’s group, the Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics, is researching, among other topics, the potential of transforming waste materials such as biomass, algae or manure into new, useful materials. To do this, Buehler looks at materials at the nano-scale. He explained that researchers must model and simulate the elementary chemical properties of the waste materials in order to reengineer these products into new and innovative materials. Buehler then gave a demonstration of molecular simulation tools and taught participants how to simulate and design materials from an atomistic scale.

“An important part of this course is the chance to create and experience the kinds of research we conduct and the large impact of what we do,” Buehler said. “Hands-on lab demonstrations are a fun and informative way to enhance our participant’s understanding of our research.” 

The research and innovations from MIT are not limited to campus, however. Throughout the course, various faculty members highlighted how the advancements created at MIT are accessible for industry practitioners to use to improve their own industry research. Lienhard stressed during his presentation that “MIT is a place that is organized around the idea of taking inventions out of the Institute and having an effect on the world outside.”

Kocar exemplified this idea through his discussion of methods used to collect data for soil and crop monitoring during the annual fieldwork program Traveling Research Environmental eXperiences (TREX).  The TREX group used low-cost methods, including an unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV) and a sensor to the information on soil and crop health on a Hawaii farm. Kocar highlighted how these tools can be purchased online and with relatively low barriers of entry, could be one future method for agriculture practitioners to gather data on soil and crop health.

While these methods and the research discussed throughout the week were of particular interest to class participants with agriculture and farming industry backgrounds, the course content is similarly applicable to other fields that align and overlap with agricultural technology, such as academia, economics, and business.

“I took the class to learn about new trends going on in technology related to agriculture, and specifically to learn about MIT’s models for connecting academia and industry,” said Tamar Weiss, a class participant from Israel. “I come from a business background, so I enjoyed learning about fundamental science and seeing how the research at MIT is relevant to agriculture, and how MIT is focused on real-world challenges.”

Innovation and Technology in Agriculture and the Environment is offered through MIT Professional Education and was first held in 2016. The course will be held again next year.