Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering postdoc reflects on accomplishments at ISU

April 23, 2019 - by Sarah Igram

After six years in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, Yin Bao’s adventure at Iowa State is nearly complete. He earned his Ph.D. from ISU in 2018, spent the next year on campus as a postdoctoral scholar, and is now about to head to Auburn University as an assistant professor of biosystems engineering.

Bao became interested in Iowa State after meeting Lie Tang, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering. Tang gave a research seminar at China Agriculture University, where Bao completed his undergraduate studies.

“I just wanted to give it a shot and reach out to him [after the seminar], and see if he’s interested in recruiting me,” Bao said.

He ultimately started graduate school at Iowa State in 2013, and Tang served as his major professor. They worked together throughout Bao’s time at Iowa State on developing technologies to automate the characterization of crop morphological and physiological traits for plant science research.

Yin Bao

ISU postdoctoral scholar Yin Bao

“Plant scientists can use our technologies to measure plant phenotypes more accurately and efficiently,” Bao said. “There is a great need for accelerating plant science research with the ongoing rapid climate change.”

Since 2015, Bao has worked at Enviratron, a facility that can simulate different environmental conditions and gather large amounts of data on plants in different growth chambers. Bao’s main role at Enviratron has been developing a robotic rover that can examine and gather data on each plant. The development process was also part of his doctoral dissertation.

Enviratron Rover

The robotic rover that monitors plants at the Enviratron facility

“This project is a one-million-dollar project funded by NSF under the major research instrumentation program, which means we can use state-of-the-art sensors, robot arms and automated guided vehicles. The robot uses 3D imaging to find where plants and leaves are. Then it places the cameras above individual plants and even collects sensor measurements on individual leaves without knocking down the plants or colliding with the chamber,” Bao said. “This project requires many types of expertise, so I get to work with all kinds of people from different disciplines, which is a valuable training for me. This new plant phenomics facility will eventually be used by plant scientists on our campus. It’s not trivial to make it run flawlessly 24/7. We have overcome so many challenges.”

Previously, Bao also worked on developing a robotic phenotyping system that can automatically traverse fields and capture images of sorghum plants.

“Sorghum plants produce bioenergy products,” Bao said. “And from images of them, we can quantify height, width, surface area, volume and stem diameter. The ability to collect these data in a high-throughput manner opens up new possibilities for plant breeders to understand the genetic control of plant architecture throughout the growing season.”

After Bao received his Ph.D., he decided to stay at Iowa State as a postdoc so he could continue working on existing projects, including Enviratron. He also worked on applying for faculty positions.

“You really have to focus on [developing] all aspects: research, teaching, leadership and also grant writing experience. Those areas are very important during the faculty job hunting process,” Bao said. “Also, you need to think about what you will want to do in the future for that particular position. It’s not enough to continue what you did before. You need to think about how to extend that and how to collaborate with other faculty in that particular department and across campus.”

Bao was drawn to Auburn University in his job search because he felt it had a similar experimental feeling to Iowa State. He will also be the only professor in the biosystems engineering department with his specific area of expertise, meaning he will have a large amount of support and resources.

He is grateful not only for the interdisciplinary research he was able to do at Iowa State, but also for the advice he got from his major professor and mentors as he interviewed for faculty positions.

“It was a very intense interview process,” he said, “But I think the best advice I got is just to stay yourself, be confident, because you cannot change yourself to somebody else.”

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Tags: engineering, agricultural and biosystems engineering, postdoctoral scholars