Purdue University Agriculture is Inventing the Future Today

102018 - Farm Journal Report
Purdue University launched into a year-long celebration, and instead of looking at the past, the University is focused on the future. ( Purdue University )

Purdue University boasts big enrollment this year, but it’s a focus on the future driving innovation at the University today.

“We have the biggest enrollment we've ever had for undergraduate, the biggest graduate program we’ve ever had,” said Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University.

Mitch Daniels is the former governor of Indiana, and in 2013, he was named only the 12th president of a University nearly 150 years old. Daniels said it's the values and standards that embody Purdue, making it an attractive option for students today.

“Across higher education there's been an unmistakable pattern, what they call ‘grade inflation,’ or higher and higher grades being given for less and less time spent on homework and so forth,” said Daniels. “Purdue has not participated in that.”

As a Governor, Daniels' conservative fiscal policy helped shape his eight years in office, and it’s his fiscal focus headlining the University today. Purdue announced earlier this year it's not raising tuition for the seventh year in a row.

“I wish I could tell you it was something heroic and brilliant; it really wasn't,” said Daniels. “We prioritized that.”

He said while strides are being made to make Purdue an affordable option, the University is focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) studies, which are core studies, which includes agriculture.

“More than 60 percent of our entering class is studying one of those disciplines,” said Daniels. “So investments to strengthen agricultural science, bioscience engineering and computer science, I think have been successful.”

It’s success in those areas that has created the foundation of Purdue’s year-long birthday celebration.

The University is celebrating its 150th anniversary through the fall of 2019 and the celebration is serving as an “ideas festival”.

“Our scientists, agricultural experts and others are helping invent the future right now,” he said.

Just down the hall from Daniels is Jay Akridge, the provost of Purdue University. Akridge said the 150th celebration is focused on the future.

“It's a chance for us to look ahead at some of the challenges and the opportunities that are ahead of us as a world. and to think about how Purdue University can contribute to addressing those challenges and especially what it's going to mean for our students,” said Akridge.

Akridge has a fond place in his heart for agriculture, previously serving as Purdue’s dean of agriculture for more than eight years.

“Agriculture has been a part of Purdue tradition since founding in 1869,” said Akridge.

He said Purdue is home to one of the top 10 agriculture programs in the world.

“It's very important that Purdue University do the research, provide the extension services and again provide opportunities for students to serve that particular industry.,” said Akridge.

He said the goal of Purdue is to provide relevant research; research that is being constructed today.

“It's a really exciting time to be in agriculture,” said Karen Plaut, dean of the College of Agriculture at Purdue University. “We continue to evolve, and right now with the data revolution, the potential for agriculture for the future is really, really great.”

Plaut said the college of agriculture hit a major milestone this fall when it welcomed more than 2,800 students through its doors. The milestone marked the largest group of undergrads since 1980, and 60% of those are female. She said the opportunities for those students revolve around the world of digital.

“The reason digital agriculture is so important for the future is because it's really about using data and data gives you power,” said Plaut.

Plaut said research residing at Purdue is already helping cater to that future need.

“For the basic research, it's really looking at the importance of the genome and understanding what the genome - or the genetics - mean and how it relates to the phenotype - the physical characteristics of a plant.”

Some of the research is being done in Purdue’s controlled environmental phenotyping facility. It houses the largest phenotyping growth chamber in the U.S.

“The purpose of this facility is just so we have a look into the biology as well as the physiology of the plant,” said Yang Yang, director of digital phenomics, Purdue University.

The system is all managed by robotics. Without doing any destruction to the plant, researchers can take images of the crops, watching its performance day in and day out.

“The deliverable ultimately would be to help find the trait that can improve the yield of the key crops to ultimately increase or maintain yield performance under optimal conditions or stressful conditions,” Yang said.

The replicated stress is from drought or from lack of nutrients, and the researchers are looking into key crops, trying to drive higher yields.

While the focus is on the future, Plaut said graduates who walk through the doors one last time must be able to solve the problems of tomorrow-- problems that aren't apparent today.

“Right now the world's largest taxicab company owns no taxis, and that’s Uber,” said Plaut. “The world's largest hotel chain owns no hotels -- and that's Airbnb,” said Plaut. “The reason I bring them up is it shows the change in society and how important data is to decision making and allowing you to move forward.”

The landscape of farming may change, but it's agriculture's ability to change the industry that will persist.

“Using data is so important for the future, it's a skill that we want to bring through our students through extension and through research,” said Plaut.

From academics to research, Daniels says when people think about big issues-- issues like feeding 9 billion people by 2050 -- he wants them to think about Purdue.

“We want it to be a place of really serious inquiry -- free and open inquiry -- where a diversity of viewpoints is not only welcome, but insisted on,” said Daniels. “I want Purdue to be looked at that way a little more than we have in the first 150 proud years.”

It’s persistence, through a passion to transform that future, that will serve as the foundation in the years ahead.