Following is an interview with Akshara Athelly, a Ph.D. student pursuing a doctorate in Agricultural Engineering. Akshara is a graduate assistant in Dr. Sandra Guzmán’s SMART Irrigation and Hydrology Laboratory, working in irrigation management and stakeholder engagement in the laboratory and the field. In this interview, Akshara shares her experience as a graduate student at the University of Florida/IFAS-Indian River Research and Education Center (IRREC) in Fort Pierce and how the opportunity will serve her career interests.
Question: How did you discover the University of Florida/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center (IRREC)?
Answer: Though my master’s was in Agronomy and Applied Statistics, I was fortunate to work with the precision agriculture team at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. During my master’s, I realized there was a lack of personnel with expertise in plants, soils, and sensors. It would be helpful to have that knowledge and skills to work in the real-world rapidly fluctuating farmers’ problems, especially with irrigation. While searching for the Ph.D. position, I came across Dr. Guzmán’s advertisement, and the position fit my career and personal goals. My interest in plants, soil, sensors, and helping farmers led me to pursue my Ph.D. in Agricultural Engineering under Dr. Sandra Guzmán’s stewardship.
Question: How was it that you first became interested in agricultural engineering?
Answer: Agricultural Engineering, especially involving irrigation, has been a crucial part of my life since childhood. Growing up, I was inspired by my father, who helped farmers in my village by pioneering in using different methods to use groundwater for irrigation. During my under graduation in Agricultural Sciences at Professor Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University, Hyderabad, India, I have learned several aspects of agriculture involving agronomy, entomology, pathology, extension, economics, etc. With a growing interest in acquiring knowledge and skills, I have joined Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, for my master’s and graduated in December 2021. Currently, I have joined the Agricultural and Biological Engineering department, working with sweet corn irrigation scheduling using soil moisture sensors in farmer’s fields. It feels like my life experiences with irrigation and farmers have come to a full circle.
Question: Please elaborate on the focus of your academic research studies for this summer in Dr. Guzmán’s SMART Irrigation and Hydrology Laboratory and where you want to take your work:
Answer: During my summer at IRREC, Fort Pierce, I was working on a laboratory experiment involving nitrogen and salinity impact on the performance of the soil moisture sensors. The sensors currently used for irrigation scheduling should be calibrated and assessed to improve the accuracy of irrigation scheduling. This laboratory experiment helps us calibrate and understand the sensor’s data trends with rising salinity and nitrogen application. Apart from the laboratory experiment, the two months this summer at IRREC allowed me to conduct a pre-test for the farmer’s survey, which focused on assessing farmers’ knowledge and opinion on smart irrigation technologies. I have met with farmers and listened to their views on the survey, which helped me reframe my survey to achieve its full potential. Overall, this summer helped me organize my research ideas, conduct preliminary research, and focus clearly on future research.
Question: What are the most pressing issues in agricultural water management concerning crop production?
Answer: Globally, with the effects of climate change on agriculture, irrigation has quickly transformed from a choice to a necessity. Irrigation determines food security not only in drought-prone or low rainfall regions but also in high rainfall regions such as Florida. I had first-hand experience in India with droughts and their drastic effect on the farming community. So, it is highly crucial for the optimal management of the existing limited freshwater resources to maintain food security worldwide. To solve that intricate problem, precision irrigation is key.