News Article

New Illinois fellowship builds capacity for digital agriculture careers

By Lauren Quinn
May 8, 2019

URBANA, Ill. – In its efforts to feed a growing population, the U.S. agriculture industry is incorporating advanced digital technologies and increasingly relying on statisticians to process “big data.” Traditional statistics degree programs typically do not provide a background in agriculture or plant science, leading to steep learning curves for new hires in digital agriculture companies.

A new undergraduate fellowship at the University of Illinois, funded by the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, fills the gap with an immersive training program in agriculture and statistics.

“Every discipline is becoming more data-driven, agriculture included. Even though statisticians are being integrated into these multidisciplinary teams, they often do not have hands-on experience in the lab, greenhouse, or field, and yet they’re being asked to design experiments and analyze data derived from these settings. We wanted to give our students an advantage,” says Carrie Butts-Wilmsmeyer, program director and research assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I.

All crop science majors are eligible to receive the expenses-paid statistics fellowship, including juniors in the new combined computer science + crop sciences major, which is offered in conjunction with the Department of Computer Science at Illinois. The fellowship is also open to incoming juniors at Illinois State University and Northeastern Illinois University, and entering transfer students from Parkland College. By offering the fellowship across these diverse institutions, Butts-Wilmsmeyer and other program leaders – Martin Bohn, Maria Villamil, and Alex Lipka – hope to attract underrepresented students into the agricultural sciences.

The two-year fellowship will include student-directed hands-on experimental design, data collection, and statistical analysis experience under the mentorship of faculty advisors specializing in statistics. Program leaders hope to provide a pipeline into graduate school by offering graduate school counseling and covering fellows’ costs for graduate school entrance exams, as well as professional conferences. The program also offers a stipend of $14,500 for each fellow over two years.

“Agriculture is rapidly becoming a data-driven enterprise. We must immerse our agricultural scientists and educators of the future in both data sciences and agricultural sciences, with the skills and abilities to work seamlessly across those fields. That’s why Illinois is investing in digital agriculture,” said Germán Bollero, associate dean for research in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

In a statement announcing the USDA funding for this program, U.S. Representative Rodney Davis, congressman for Illinois’ 13th District said, “Ensuring we have the research and workforce necessary to further agriculture successes is not just important for Illinois, but for our national economy. We need to fill these gaps in our workforce and the College of ACES at the University of Illinois is one of the best programs in the nation to help us do that. I’m proud to be a strong supporter of this program and ag research.”

To learn more about the fellowship, contact Carrie Butts-Wilmsmeyer at 217-300-7560 or cjbutts2@illinois.edu.