Underclassmen Dazzle with Big-Brain Biosecurity

Underclassmen Dazzle with Big-Brain Biosecurity

A team of UMD students from the First-Year Innovation and Research Experience (FIRE) Summer Fellows program developed and coded an algorithmic technique to identify unregistered farms, a tool that will help the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) improve regional biosecurity.

Under the guidance of Thanicha Ruangmas, FIRE assistant clinical professor, four FIRE Summer Fellows (Mishti Relan, Anna Lazarus-Hall, Janna Chapman, and Shanil Kothari, all sophomores from various colleges within UMD) collaborated virtually with each other and APHIS to build this data collection, analysis, and visualization tool for use by the agency.

“Students collected information from online registries and social platforms to determine the extent of grey markets and backyard poultry farms,” said Ruangmas. Using a type of open-source software available to the public for free, the students developed and coded an automated tool that could search available public databases and directories online to identify existing farms for comparison to state registry data.

“This type of information helps us with our outreach efforts, to know who’s out there in the event of a biosecurity crisis,” said Beth Gaston, USDA-APHIS liaison to UMD who worked with the FIRE program to initiate the project. “It helps us target a response effort, but it also helps us provide preventive instruction.”

The summer fellows developed the tool used to find and manage the online data—an endeavor that came with its own set of challenges surrounding privacy terms of use, confidentiality protocols, and the ethical treatment of data. Fellows also employed other interactive web apps for data visualization of their collected information, allowing the team to see the information in map form for comparative analyses.

“This was my first real experience where I had to use my brain for something that wasn’t just a class assignment,” said Lazarus-Hall, material science and engineering major.

And it was interesting to work on a project with a client that provided direct feedback." Because this was a digitally-focused project that did not rely on field research, the Sustainability Analytics Research Group was the only FIRE summer fellowship program able to run through 2020, funded by USDA-APHIS. Creating a path for career development that involves real-world experience is also the goal of Gaston’s work with UMD and the FIRE program.

“The passion to expose students to real, complicated research problems is important. So much knowledge is shoved into our brains, and we sometimes only regurgitate it, rather than really understanding that knowledge, creating, and building with it,” Gaston said. “To see them do that at the freshman and sophomore level is so powerful. The students who do that sort of thinking—that’s our future.”

By Laura Wormuth