Developing sustainability solutions to change the world


Farmers may soon have the ability to attach a sensor to their plants to gauge when they should irrigate, saving crops and livelihoods. There could be mobile devices that, in real time, help stop disease outbreaks. Bananas could be saved from extinction, and new innovations made in affordable energy efficiency. These ideas are the hard work of future leaders at Penn State.

Five interdisciplinary teams, made up of Penn State graduate students, presented their sustainability-related solutions to world challenges at the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Awards (SISCA). These students highlighted the connection to their homes and their research, showing why their work matters not just to them, but to those around the world.

First place, and the $10,000 award, went to “Leafy: Leaf water content sensor for optimizing irrigation water consumption.” The team, led by Sayed Amin Afzal, a doctoral student in plant science, developed a device for optimizing irrigation scheduling. The small and light leaf sensor attaches to a leaf and accurately measures leaf water content and plant water status for determination of the best time to irrigate.

Team members included Hojjat Sayed Mousavi and Mohammadreza Aminikashani, both doctoral students in electrical engineering, and Sepedeh Kamrava, a doctoral student in computer science and engineering. All hail from Iran.

“[They] have felt the importance of the issue and have the needed specialties,” said Afzal, noting that experience in electronics, wireless communication and software development were critical to their work. The group also won the 2014 Ag Springboard student contest for their research. Currently, they are working on a business plan and patent for Leafy.

Freddy Magdama and Sarah Eissler teamed up to tackle the problem of diseases killing banana crops. Their presentation, titled “Innovative use and optimization for ethyl pyruvate for biological soil disinfestation: A viable alternative for saving bananas,” addressed the need to help farmers save their livelihoods.

Eissler was working on tropical commodity crops. She saw the call for proposals for the Dow SISCA challenge and thought it would be a great opportunity to work with Madgama, who was researching the use of ethyl pyruvate, an alternative for saving bananas. The goal of their research was to develop an effective and ecological-friendly technology to control Panama disease and to prove its suitability for further application in crops.

Magdama, born and raised in Equador, said that this hits close to home for him, as bananas are one of the country’s main exports. “As a citizen, I have witnessed the importance of this fruit for our country, for local trade among communities and personal consumption.

Eissler hails from Philadelphia. Both are currently seeking dual degree titles in the International Agriculture and Development program at Penn State. Faculty advisors were Maria del Mar Jimenez-Gasco, assistant professor and coordinator and advisor of the minor in plant pathology, and Mark Brennan, professor and UNESCO chair in community, leadership and youth development.

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