Clemson mathematician’s research featured at national exhibition in Washington
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A Clemson University mathematician’s research on precision farming was featured at the prestigious Coalition for National Science Funding’s 23rd annual exhibition and reception.
Lea Jenkins, an associate professor in the College of Science’s department of mathematical sciences, has spent the past six-plus years collaborating with an expanding team of hydrologists, economists and related experts to develop high-tech models designed to help farmers maximize profits while minimizing the deleterious effects of drought, fluctuations in supply and demand, and rising operating expenses.
“I was honored to be invited to this exhibition and play a role in requesting funding for the fundamental science that our nation must continue to pursue in order to thrive in a changing world,” Jenkins said. “There were more than 30 exhibits from all different aspects of research and it was very interesting to walk around and look at all the posters. But once the reception started, I was on the go the entire time. There were always people stopping by, chatting with me and sharing a mutual interest in the intrinsic value of science.”
The Coalition for National Science Funding is an alliance of professional organizations, universities and scientific societies united in support and advocacy of the National Science Foundation (NSF). This year’s event, which was attended by hundreds of high-profile guests, showcased a menagerie of scientific and educational projects funded by NSF.
Jenkins’ project – titled “Berry Smart: Mathematics for Food and Water Security” – was sponsored by the American Mathematical Society, an international organization of approximately 28,000 individuals and 560 institutions that provides programs and services to promote mathematical research and its uses. This includes strengthening mathematical education and fostering awareness and appreciation of mathematics and its connections to other disciplines and to everyday life. The society chooses one project each year to highlight at the Coalition for National Science Funding exhibition, which this year was held on May 16 at the Rayburn House Office Building across the street from the U.S. Capitol.
Among those who stopped by Jenkins’ presentation included U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-California), who is the only mathematician in Congress; France Córdova, the director of the National Science Foundation; and Henry Warchall, senior adviser to the National Science Foundation division of mathematical sciences.
Jenkins spent most of the afternoon meeting with three representatives of South Carolina’s legislators, including Emily Lavery, legislative correspondent for agriculture in the office of U.S. Sen. Tim Scott; Jessica-Phillips Tyson, legislative assistant for agriculture in the office of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham; and Elise Krekorian, legislative correspondent for science in the office of U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan.
“I was grateful for the time they spent with me. They were extremely polite, receptive and very on top of things,” Jenkins said. “I was lucky, as a South Carolinian, to be able to present our work to people with direct connections to our state’s most influential officials. Everyone I met was keenly interested in the research our group is doing and they were especially interested in the impact this kind of work can have on a state like South Carolina, whose No. 1 industry is agriculture.”
Jenkins’ research began in 2011 when she and a team of hydrologists and other scientists began helping a farming cooperative of strawberry and raspberry farmers in the valleys of California cope with an unprecedented drought that was drying up profits, depleting groundwater supplies and damaging the environment. Since then, the researchers have been meeting for an entire week once a year to develop the models. Using an optimization mathematical framework spearheaded by Jenkins and colleague Kathleen Kavanagh at Clarkson University, they were able to devise a suite of techniques that guided growers on how to minimize water use and maximize profits.
“Our first model was very simple,” said Jenkins, whose ongoing research has been funded by the American Institute of Mathematics, one of eight NSF-sponsored mathematical sciences research institutes. “We sketched out a calendar and introduced variables to represent the percentages of the crops in the ground at a particular time. We used optimization algorithms to rotate the crops and compute profit margins for a given scenario over a five-year period while ensuring the crop portfolio met water-use constraints. The results from the optimizations were then used to guide the decisions that farmers needed to ensure profits were maximized, subject to restrictions on irrigation.”
In 2015, Kavanagh and Jenkins obtained American Institute of Mathematics funding for a workshop that brought together almost 30 mathematicians, hydrologists, computer scientists and agricultural economists for a week devoted to developing better methods for modeling and simulating agricultural-based problems. The primary team for this project has been together since 2011 and includes John Chrispell, a Clemson alumnus and current faculty member at Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Matthew Parno, Stacy Howington and Matthew Farthing, researchers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and Randy Hanson and Scott Boyce, research hydrologists with the U.S. Geological Survey’s California Water Science Center. The team has also relied on the dedication of several undergraduates from Clarkson University, including Mark Minik, Stephen Carter, Corey Ostrove, Andres Colon and Jakesh Bokhira.
“The economists were an important component of the problem we had been missing,” Jenkins said. “We asked them, ‘How do you price water? How do you incentivize farmers to dedicate a certain portion of their acreage to a recharge basin? How do you measure the impact of an agricultural community losing its farming component?’ As we add the new information the economists help to provide, our models will become more sophisticated and efficient.”
With each successive year, Jenkins and her team have been working with farmers and hydrologists at water management agencies to fine tune the models. She added that they can be applied not just in California but anywhere, including South Carolina. They also can be used for farms of any size.
“With a lot of projects that involve mathematics, the algorithms are developed first, and then the researchers back track to find a problem that best fit the algorithms,” Jenkins said. “Our approach has been decidedly different. We started with existing problems that needed resolutions and then dug out the math that provided the solutions. Anybody who’s been in the U.S. the past few years understands the impact things like drought have on our day-to-day lives. Our team is trying to make sure that farmers have the resiliency to overcome adversity.”
Chris Cox, chair of the department of mathematical sciences at Clemson, said that Jenkins’ research epitomizes the contributions envisioned by Clemson University founder Thomas Green Clemson.
“In his will, Thomas Green Clemson clearly stated that his purpose was ‘to establish an agricultural college which will afford useful information to the farmers and mechanics … in thorough theoretic and practical instruction in those sciences and arts which bear directly upon agriculture,’ ” Cox said. “Lea exemplifies the critical role played by an applied mathematician on an interdisciplinary team that is providing a solution of significant social and economic impact.”
Ranked No. 23 among national public universities, Clemson University is a major, land-grant, science- and engineering-oriented research university that maintains a strong commitment to teaching and student success. Clemson is an inclusive, student-centered community characterized by high academic standards, a culture of collaboration, school spirit and a competitive drive to excel.