U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Director Manjit Misra visited the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences on Jan. 17 to learn about the innovations and impacts UF/IFAS is having in agriculture.
The visit gave Misra a chance to see first-hand the research that is supported by USDA NIFA grant funding. NIFA support has funded a multitude of UF/IFAS research projects, advancing knowledge in the agricultural and food systems spaces, including research into agricultural pests, citrus greening and artificial intelligence.
Misra said he’s excited to hear about the artificial intelligence research being done at UF and thinks the university is poised to provide leadership in this arena.
“The highlight of my visit today is to see how the University of Florida is doing awesome research, Extension and education to help the state, the nation and the world feed and nourish people,” Misra said. “I think land-grant institutions are not just our collaborators. They’re our partners.”
John Davis, senior associate dean of UF/IFAS Research and associate director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station, said collaboration between UF/IFAS and NIFA is essential because of the organizations’ shared commitment to research and workforce development.
“NIFA leadership is seeing the fruits of their investments in our agriculture, natural resources and social sciences enterprises,” he said. “This is extremely important for us as we galvanize teams of faculty to work on wicked, interdisciplinary problems.”
Misra visited the Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra, Florida, to learn about the experimental plots being grown there. There, he spoke with Ph.D. students and professors working on NIFA-funded projects.
Next, he toured the Plant Diagnostic Center on UF’s main campus in Gainesville, Florida, where he learned about how artificial intelligence data is used to spot symptoms in sick plants, saw strawberry samples being tested for deleterious pathogens and inspected pineapple plants being examined for cold snap damage.
Plant Diagnostic Center Director Carrie Harmon said the center is critical to solving the mysteries of plant illness, especially in agriculture.
“We’re saving our food supply, and what we’re doing makes a difference every day,” she told Misra.
He was then provided with an overview of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and its robust program offerings, which include experience in artificial intelligence, big data and food security initiatives.
Misra then held a meeting with agriculture industry stakeholders across various groups, such as fruit, vegetable and dairy industries.
Mike Joyner, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association president, said NIFA’s impact on growers is seen and felt on a daily basis through the results of fundamental and applied research done at UF/IFAS.
“The fact that NIFA leadership is spending the day in Florida with growers speaks volumes for not only Florida growers but for IFAS,” he said. “They see the value in Florida agriculture. They see that their dollars go a long way in Florida.”
Misra’s tour continued at the Blueberry Research Building, where he viewed a series of lighting talks about cutting-edge research. One research presentation was about the threat of thrips, one focused on sweet corn being used as a nanoparticle food ingredient and one captivated the audience with a lidar backpack used for post-hurricane forestry surveys.
At the Honey Bee Research and Extension Lab, Misra heard about the ways honey bee medicine is tested on the on-site hives. He also got to create his own beeswax wrap and taste honey that came from Florida and across the world.
To wrap up, Misra completed his tour with a discussion with Ph.D. students, hearing about their experiences. He encouraged them in their careers but also gave them a nugget of wisdom: Before they took a job, go have an adventure for a few weeks. Then, settle down and dig into your work.
“I thought the student experience was the best highlight of my day,” he said. “Students are so excited to work on the projects they are doing, and I can see how they are very interested in interdisciplinary work.”
Yaz Gonzalez, a soil, water and ecosystem sciences Ph.D. student at UF/IFAS, said the visit made her feel empowered and motivated to continue her research.
“The NIFA leadership visit speaks volumes to how big UF is in terms of research, productivity and value. We have a lot of innovative research coming out of UF and it makes me feel really confident in the value of my research,” she said.