Improving Agriculture with Mathematical Models

September 7, 2017
Alex Ferris
Livermore, Calif

What can you accomplish when you have support? Quite a lot. I’m a new Hertz Fellow, just finishing up my first year of PhD work at Stanford. My thesis research involves developing better ways to engineer multiple genes into a plant, which would allow us to engineer plants to make compounds that improve complex traits, such as increasing the health benefits or the nutritional value of a particular plant. It’s still in the early stages but there are many ways it could benefit people around the world. And support from the Hertz Foundation is helping me explore different ways this research could make an impact. It’s freeing to know you can take on new challenges—like the Hertz Fellowship for Global Health and Development.

My PhD research is fairly theoretical, so I was really interested in this opportunity to gain more exposure to research and development and how real-world, practical problems are solved. I also wanted to expand my skillset to help with my research. So far, I’ve been really impressed with the people and projects at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I’m learning about how agriculture works on a large scale and there are so many elements I never considered. For example, I didn’t know that there are logistical problems with transporting fertilizer in Africa and making it cost-effective for smaller farmers. That knowledge, and the future lessons I am confident I will learn, will help inform my work back in the lab, offering a reference point when I’m thinking about applying my research to farming.

The people at the Gates Foundation are passionate about their work and it shows in everything they do. One of the most interesting things is that the Gates Foundation funds research in a variety of areas but doesn’t conduct the research in-house. I’m working with people managing grants given to research institutions and organizations. They’ve come from industry and academia and brought their knowledge and experience to help tackle global problems that impact millions of people. And they don’t just manage the funding—they facilitate the projects. They are organizing meetings to bring researchers together, share information and effect change quickly and effectively.

I am especially looking forward to working on projects with grantees. One of the best parts of the Fellowship for Global Health and Development is that I am able to work at the Gates Foundation for two summers, so I can really get involved. One of the projects I’ll work on deals with predicting yield increases when improving photosynthesis by improving a mathematical model for predicting how sugars are used by plants and by extending the model so that it can make predictions for additional plant species. The other will deal with modeling cassava brown streak disease, which is starting to spread from East Africa to West Africa. We’ll create a model that shows how the observable amount of disease in a field can be non-representative of the amount of disease at harvest time and how the timing of surveys affects the accuracy of the results. These projects will allow me to apply my knowledge and experience and simultaneously expand that knowledge and experience. It’s a unique opportunity to effect change while learning and I’m very much looking forward to it.

The Hertz Foundation has an impressive group of Fellows, both in school and in the working world. This year’s Summer Workshop was a good example, with a mix of newer Fellows and those closer to retirement, people who followed an entrepreneurial path and those with a more traditional research/professor path. It was great to interact with them all. My involvement with the Hertz Foundation has already opened new avenues for me to explore. The next few years will bring more research, potential exciting discoveries and impactful accomplishments. I am looking forward to meeting more Fellows, conducting research with the Gates Foundation and so much more.

About Alyssa Ferris

Alyssa Ferris is one of the first recipients of the new Hertz Fellowship in Global Health and Development and is currently interning at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of the Fellowship. They graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in biochemistry and are pursuing her PhD in bioengineering at Stanford University. Their broad interest is using synthetic biology to design and model genetic circuits, with their current research focusing on developing a high-throughput platform for implementing small molecule biosynthesis pathways in plants by creating new genetic parts and bioinformatics tools. While at Wellesley, they conducted research in Timothy Lu’s laboratory at MIT using recombinase to develop genetic tools for efficiently programming and recording order dependent signals detected by cells. Their work led to novel insights about recombinase kinetics and behavior and allowed for to creating devices for recording analog signals.