Dec 10, 2020
Family’s history in agriculture inspires Posadas to advance industry

Agriculture has always been in Brianna Posadas’ blood.

Her family immigrated to the United States through the Bracero Program from México and her abuelos and tios were field workers.

“I know how important agriculture is to feeding people in this country and how my family has contributed,” Posadas said. “I wanted to work in an industry where I would be able to help those people and to raise awareness of how food ends up on the table.”

To help achieve that, Posadas joined the Department of Agricultural, Community, and Leadership Education in September 2020 as a prestigious 2020 Computing Innovation Fellow – one of only 59 selected across the country.

Kim Niewolny, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and director of the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation, will mentor Posadas, who will work on a variety of grants in addition to teaching courses in the Department of Agricultural, Community, and Leadership Education, working with the SmartFarm Innovation Network and Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“Dr. Posadas brings a wealth of interdisciplinary knowledge and experience to study the use of culturally relevant participatory design for developing affordable and flexible robotic assistive technologies with farmers with mobility disabilities,” Niewolny said. “Having Dr. Posadas on the team will only strengthen the impacts we hope to make to ensure the safety, wellness, and sustainability of farmers and farmworkers through the lens of participatory design.”

The pair will work together on several grant initiatives, including the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture-funded AgrAbility Virginia program, National Science Foundation “HARVEST” Research Coordination Network, and the Affordable Robotics to Aid Farmers with Mobility Limitations Partnership in Innovation National Science Foundation-funded project.

Posadas’ family history inspired her to pursue agricultural biological engineering and she was the first Latina student to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Florida’s computer science department. She’s also the first member of her family to earn a Ph.D.

“I am honoring the sacrifices of my family,” Posadas said. “Since my work is in agriculture, I feel like I’m honoring my family history with my chosen career path. Getting an education was a requirement for me, and I wanted to build upon the foundation that my family laid for me in the past couple of generations. Being the first Latina Ph.D. student to graduate from this program is an honor, but more importantly, I hope that it is something others may see themselves doing in the future.”

During her graduate program, Posadas studied agriculture and user experience and user design. In her dissertation, she focused on using a crowdsourcing platform to gather data on lamb’s quarters, an annual wild edible that can help restore healthy nutrients to poor quality soil.

In precision agriculture – also called satellite farming or site-specific crop management – there’s remote sensing data, the imagery, and the satellite data, but someone is needed on the ground to confirm that something is where it’s expected. For example, if an algorithm was created to determine where all the oak trees are in the United States are, it could be done with images and data, but a person is needed on the ground to see if the oak trees are actually there.

That’s labor-intensive. Posadas is studying how to get regular people to participate in activities like this, reducing the labor overhead needed to complete this task.

“It requires a lot of people and is expensive – there’s no way around that. How do we get people to participate? I see it as a way to get people more interested in food systems and get them more interested in why certain things are grown and what can grow in their region,” Posadas said.

In working with Extension and AgrAbility, Posadas hopes to influence agricultural technology policy, particularly in regards to data collection from farms.

“Oftentimes, data is being collected without the farmer’s knowledge,” Posadas said. “Tractors, for example, can have a turn-key policy, which means that as soon as it is turned on, the user has agreed to the data collection. This data is used to create algorithms and create their software before turning it around to sell back to the growers.”

Information that is collected includes GPS coordinates.

“If the data is not protected, it could have some negative consequences for the growers. If it falls in the wrong hands, GPS coordinates are, obviously, very easily traced back to their origin, potentially exposing the farm, who owns it, and more,” Posadas said. “That product wouldn’t have existed without the farmer’s information that was taken, and right now on there are no federal laws to protect agricultural data.”

To help boost involvement with agricultural policy, Posadas is creating a course in Agricultural, Community, Leadership Education that will cover policy of this nature. To inspire future agriculture leaders to invest in policy and related policy decisions, Posadas hopes to have each generation make agriculture better.

To Posadas, family is important, and it’s guiding her career to help navigate the future of agriculture.

Max Esterhuizen, Virginia Tech

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