Clemson grad designing the technology for the future of farming at John Deere
After 17-year-old Margaux Ascherl saw the painted tiger paws on the road leading to Clemson University and the campus, she knew she was meant to be there.
“I really fell in love with the place and never looked back,” Ascherl said.
After her freshman year, she transferred from Duquesne University in Pennsylvania to Clemson. However, the Merritt Island native said she didn’t take the typical route from Clemson to get to where she is today in the industrial and agricultural industry.
Now, she leads a user experience team for the Intelligent Solutions Group, a unit of John Deere located in Des Moines, Iowa, that makes precision agricultural technology such as applications to be used in the cab, and on web and mobile devices that help farmers get the most out of their farming operation.
“We are working to link technology to the iron that we produce,” Ascherl said. “We try to design easy to use systems. Our technology is used to help farmers get through difficult decisions during the growing seasons.”
But 15 years ago, she was a junior psychology major, unable to afford school. She left to work with hopes to continue her education in the future. She found a job in Hilton Head at ESPY Lumber Company, replacing technology in older computer systems.
While working there, she discovered her passion in user experience and human factors that would ultimately lead her back to Clemson and then to John Deere.
“I fell into a situation where a lot of people really believed in me. They challenged me and set me up for success to come back, I’m forever grateful for that experience and the friendships made at ESPY,” Ascherl said.
After she reconnected with her undergraduate advisor at Clemson who told her about the new Human Factors Ph.D. program, she knew that’s what she wanted to do. Human factors psychology is about analyzing the relationship between humans and machines.
Ascherl went back and finished her undergraduate degree in December 2007. She then applied and was accepted to 9 graduate schools, including Georgia Institute of Technology, but she couldn’t leave Clemson. So, she stayed to continue her education.
She said Richard Pak, a psychology professor, inspired her to continue with her education and to prove herself academically. She worked in Pak’s lab as an undergraduate and graduate student.
“He always challenged me, but he helped me get better,” Ascherl said. “I think his guidance and the closeness of my lab mates, the whole program was great. I also had a great graduate committee as well. I can’t speak highly enough of that group.”
It was there in Pak’s Cognition, Aging and Technology lab where she learned about the opportunities at John Deere. She joined the ranks of John Deere in September 2012 and then finished her Ph.D. that December.
Though she wasn’t very familiar with the details of agriculture initially, her research in the lab, her dissertation, and the diverse Human Factors Ph.D. program prepared her for her job at John Deere.
“I had no idea how complicated agriculture was. It really married a lot of the automation research that I was doing at Clemson with many other areas of Human Factors,” Ascherl said. “You’re basically analyzing what’s the best way to off load work from human to machine without causing any errors, still keeping the operator in the loop, and helping them build appropriate trust with technology, while considering the capabilities and limitations of both human and machine. “
With her job, she and her team have the chance to impact farmers who feed the nation.
“We have this altruistic mission of feeding the world. You take pride when you see your product hit the market and really change the way the farmers are able to improve their operations,” Ascherl said. “You see new generations coming on board with optimal technology and being able to take their farms to a whole new level.”
The technology they create allows farmers to make the most informed decisions on a moment’s notice, especially in unpredictable situations such as when the weather turns. The technology also helps farmers use cost efficient measures and environmentally safe practices, such as knowing the precise placement of nutrients, so less money is spent on input costs like fertilizer, herbicide or seed.
Pak said he is proud of her work and her successful training from the human factors program.
“We use the scientist/practitioner model to train our students which means we train people to solve complex, abstract, ill-defined problems. Ideally, you can drop one of our Ph.Ds. in a foreign situation, present them with a complex problem, and they will know how to solve it using the scientific method,” Pak said. “That is exactly what Margaux is doing now with the impossibly complex problem of how to efficiently feed a booming world population using technology.”
But just because she’s across the country, doesn’t mean she’s no longer part of the Clemson family. She’s had the opportunity to work with interns from Clemson, and she even works with two other Clemson alumni. She keeps in contact with her graduate advisor and continues to attend the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society meetings locally at Clemson and on a national level. And those Clemson tiger paws painted on the road bring her back to campus almost every year for football games and events with her friends.
“I really feel part of the Clemson family and that I never really left,” she said.