Solving Big Problems With Big Data

By Rebecca Nagy

How can we improve the health of loblolly pines? Can we better understand and predict harmful algal blooms? How much does flooding affect water quality? Can we use satellite imagery to better understand the establishment and distribution of hog farms across the state?

The answers to these questions and more can be investigated through data analytics and integrated modeling – a unique specialization area in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

Students in BAE can take all of the advanced computer science classes to arm them with the skills they need to make sense of this data. But the difference in this department is that students will do more than learn to clean data, write programs or create models.


“With a BAE degree you can wear many hats,” explains assistant professor Dr. Natalie Nelson. “You’ll learn to collect the data but also how to analyze it and apply it to study and manage natural and biological systems.”

While the research of many BAE faculty is informed in some way by these concepts, it is the focus of the Biosystems Analytics Lab led by Nelson.

Current projects in the Biosystems Analytics Lab include using satellite imagery to develop higher resolution flood maps and downstream water quality, and using satellite imagery to determine when swine lagoons were constructed and automating the process. Much of this can be done using pre-existing data collected over the years for regulatory purposes. But through data analytics and modeling, new life can be breathed into old data.

“If you have those skills or interests but are also interested in any kind of natural resources management, BAE can be a way of combining those,” Nelson notes.

It’s that next-level understanding and ability to approach the problem from all angles that make BAE the ideal department for tackling these issues and grand challenges.

“It puts BAE in a particularly advantageous place,” says assistant professor Dr. Sierra Young. “How can you use data to inform the health of the environment that you’re looking at?”

Young’s research focuses on the use of robotics and automation for sensing and sense-making in agricultural, natural, and urban systems, and human-robot interaction for small unmanned systems.

She’s currently working in collaboration with NC State’s Department of Forestry to screen loblolly pines for disease tolerance. Through the use of hyperspectral imagery – and a lot of it – Young and the team can detect signs of disease in seedlings before they even leave the greenhouse.

“It’s advantageous to have an understanding of what the application area is. We know the biological side that might affect plant health and we understand the phenomenon we’re trying to measure.”

These types of collaborations can be the key to the most effective data to decision process.

Some of the other faculty members working in the areas of data analytics and integrated modeling include Dr. Daniela Jones in the area of biomass efficiency, Dr. Mahmoud Sharara in sustainable waste management, and Dr. Jason Ward in digital agriculture.

Learn more about the Biosystems Analytics Lab at NC State.