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Focus on Broader Impacts: Dr. David Mendoza-Cozatl at the University of Missouri

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Engineers work side-by-side with plant biologists to design a high-throughput phenotyping robot

Not all things naturally complement each other. Whether it be foods, colors, or people, some combinations just seem to work while others don’t. Dr. David Mendoza-Cozatl from the University of Missouri has dedicated part of his broader impact work to exploring the relationship between two scientific disciplines that may seem completely different and aren’t generally thought of as a natural pair- plant biology and engineering.

Dr. Mendoza-Cozatl states that while plant biologists and engineers seem to speak “different scientific languages”, the few times these groups have gotten together, they have yielded extraordinary results in the form of new devices, task automation, and increased sensitivity of existing devices. He recognized that there is a wealth of untapped potential in the interactions between plant scientists and engineers, but that there is also a major obstacle in that the two groups rarely interact.

With his colleagues at the University of Missouri (Dr. Heather Hunt, Bioengineering and Jon Stemmle, Journalism), Dr. Mendoza-Cozatl decided to bring together plant scientists and engineers to teach each other about their respective areas of expertise and work on problems together. Dr. Mendoza-Cozatl explains that need was the driving force for creating this unique broader impact activity. Plant biologists rarely have training in engineering even though they have a strong research driven engineering needs, while engineers are not generally familiar with plant biology or the needs of plant biologists to accomplish their design goals.

While part of the problem is that these groups don’t interact enough, Dr. Mendoza-Cozatl also recognized that the more important issue is figuring out why these groups don’t interact. Thus, with the help of journalists, he created a comprehensive program that allows him to document the interactions, challenges, and struggles that take place when plant biologists and engineers get together to work on a problem. This will allow the interactions to be studied to uncover the most efficient way to promote interdisciplinary research, all the while teaching these two groups of scientists how to generally communicate their science better.

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Testing lighting to capture Arabidopsis plants growing on plates.

The program is set up so that there are two groups of bioengineering undergraduate students who work together with three plant science PhD students to build high-throughput phenotyping (HTP) robots (one robot per group). The teams meet weekly with the plant students, to discuss specific needs and currently available devices, and with a bioengineering advisor who provides feedback in terms of prototyping and software development. Through the meetings, the engineering students are able to learn what actual needs exist within the biological community and how these needs can be better addressed. The plant students are able to learn how a machine is “made”, from schematics to prototypes and eventually leading to the final product.

While creating an HTP robot is a worthwhile task, Dr. Mendoza-Cozatl explains that the main goal is actually teaching students how to work and thrive in an interdisciplinary research team and documenting the entire process so other people can learn from it. He has a journalism student go to the meetings and document the interactions, what limitations arise, and how the groups “negotiate” their differences. By looking at what issues arise and how these students move past the issues, he is hoping to help gain understanding of and eventually break through the roadblock that is limiting the interactions of these two groups in the first place.

Through his program, Dr. Mendoza-Cozatl is able to both influence students directly and move towards finding a way to quell the plant biologist/engineering divide. He explains that he was able to create his impactful broader impact activity by “thinking backwards”- he first identified a need, and then designed his broader impact activity based around that specific need. He would encourage others to consider thinking the same way when they design their broader impacts, as it has led him to a program he and his colleagues are extremely excited about.

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One-on-one meetings between engineers and plant biologists are key to refine details regarding design of the robot.