You may know it as what enables Netflix to recommend movies you are likely to “ enjoy. But Polavarapu sees data science technology – “Big Data” – as key to ensuring global food security for decades to come.
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In her capacity as Global Analytics Lead and Associate Fellow at Monsanto, Nalini heads a team that provides all the research analytics for the company’s corn program, which devotes significant resources to developing new hybrids that can deliver on Monsanto’s vision of doubling yields in core crops by 2030. “With data science technology, we are doing with corn research what Netflix does with its movie recommendations,” she says.
“Except in this case we can take decades of available research information on how different corn hybrids are performing and we can apply that to new hybrids under development and predict how they will perform.” “And just as Netflix would probably not recommend a Brazilian art film to a die-hard James Bond fan, we can predict how certain hybrids might or might not perform in a farmer’s field and use that insight to make better decisions on where to put R&D investments.” Data science isn’t only useful in product development; there is significant opportunity to empower farmers with data-driven recommendations on precisely when to plant and harvest and how to manage their crops throughout the season. It’s this farm-level impact that gets Nalini most excited about what she is doing.
“Growing up on a rice farm in Southern India, I know from direct experience what it means to have a good harvest and what life can be like when you have a bad year. Farming is by nature unpredictable, but with data science I feel we are making it less so and increasing the chances of a good harvest.” Her upbringing was also the source of a dual passion that led her to the rewarding career she has today. “I would help my father and grandfather do the calculations on how to optimize the farm’s operations.
So in addition to loving agriculture I developed this enthusiasm for math, which I pursued when I went to college in India and then into my graduate studies here in the United States.” After earning two master’s degrees and then a PhD in Bioinformatics, all from Georgia Tech, Nalini was recruited by Monsanto, which offered her the opportunity to connect her advanced skills with her lifelong passion for agriculture. “If we are going to be able to feed nine billion people in 2050, we must get more out of the land, and do it in a sustainable way. And it is enormously rewarding to be able to bring the passion that I have to this vitally important objective.”