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By Megan Wittmeyer
  • Animal Science
  • Agriculture
  • Digital Agriculture

Ben Polson ’23 and Shirley Zhang ’23 are graduating from CALS’ Biometry and Statistics major this May. While studying at Cornell, both explored digital agriculture opportunities with the Cornell Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP). Hear what their work with NMSP involved and where they are going from here! 

What brought you to Cornell’s Nutrient Management Spear Program?

Shirley: I was looking for a hands-on research experience to apply my statistical skills so when the statistics department mentioned a digital agriculture opportunity with NMSP, I reached out to the team. 

Ben: The director of my major reached out to everyone with information about a machine learning role with NMSP that seemed very interesting to me. I interviewed with Quirine Ketterings, director of NMSP and professor of nutrient management in the department of Animal Science, and she offered me a position on the team.

Did you have any previous experience with agriculture?

Shirley: I didn’t have any previous agricultural experience! But I was willing to learn new things and take advantage of CALS resources to learn about digital agriculture.

Ben: I began at Cornell as a Plant Sciences major, so I learned a lot about agriculture in my introductory courses. I also worked as a research assistant on a project that tried different methods of growing strawberries hydroponically.

What projects did you work on?

Shirley and Ben both started out working with NMSP data specialist Manuel Marcaida III, learning how to clean yield data from corn silage and grain harvests. Yield data cleaning involves correcting errors in sensor generated data from a yield monitor mounted on harvest equipment.

Shirley: Once I was experienced with yield data cleaning, I continued working with Manuel to use machine learning to identify drivers of yield in corn fields. The team has been working on understanding why certain areas yield higher than others and what causes yield variability from year to year.

Ben: For my first few months, I worked on cleaning yield data with Manuel. After learning how to clean yield data and gaining an understanding of the team’s goals, I began working with NMSP research associate Sunoj Shajahan on a paper that we hope to publish later this year. The focus was comparing machine learning models’ performance in predicting yield from satellite images taken early in the season.

How do you hope your work will impact farmers?

Shirley: The machine learning models I worked on aim to help farmers identify yield drivers and barriers to optimizing yield so that farmers can manage resources more efficiently, thereby increasing profitability and sustainability.

Ben: I hope farmers will eventually be able to easily train machine learning models tailored to their farms using the results we found in our research. This can help them map yield data more easily and also fill in missing yield data from previous seasons or fields from which no yield data were captured.

How have you grown from your work?

Shirley: The NMSP experience has given me a holistic overview of the data science project. I gained exposure to data wrangling, feature selection, model selection, and model testing. The summer research experience also allowed me to visit farms, get to know other NMSP interns and understand how their projects contributed to the team’s mission to improve farm profitability while protecting the environment.

Ben: I had never worked with such a large amount of data nor written an academic paper before! Being part of the team improved my proficiency in machine learning across many datasets along with my scientific writing skills. Working with Sunoj has been a pleasure. We can comfortably hold each other accountable to effectively complete tasks.

Where do you see yourself going after this?

Shirley: I’ll be doing an MPS in Information Science at Cornell this fall. I never realized how applied statistics could make a difference in agriculture! I’m interested in continuing to explore digital agriculture opportunities.

Ben: After graduating, I’m going to be a Data Scientist at an insurance company. I’ve developed many skills with NMSP, such as teamwork and communication, that will help me in this role. While I’m very excited about this work, I hope to eventually return to the agriculture or food industry.


Megan Wittmeyer is a writer with the Cornell Nutrient Management Spear Program.

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