Robin White is trying help solve to one of the world’s biggest problems using a blend of futuristic technology and an ancient occupation.

“The grand challenge is trying to find sustainable ways to feed a growing population,” said White, assistant professor of animal and poultry sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Right now, I feel like we have a lot of the tools in place, we just have to find a way to implement all of them.”

During her five years at Virginia Tech, White has taken a lead role in harnessing advancements in technology to study livestock and convert big data into applications for producers. With an environmental systems-oriented approach, her research aims to better understand how livestock and the areas in which they live impact each other in search of practices that are increasingly beneficial to the animal, environment, and industry.

It’s the type of work the university aims to scale to a statewide level with the SmartFarm Innovation Network, which launched this spring and is made up of about 120 interconnected research and Virginia Cooperative Extension locations throughout Virginia.

“Robin’s research does a wonderful job of marrying the needs of farmers today and with the technologies of tomorrow,” said Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Her work goes to the core of what our SmartFarm Innovation Network is going to do – help producers make more informed decisions that will allow them to boost yields and save money by harnessing the power of new technologies. With her work — and countless others around the state — we can grow public-private partnerships to ensure that agriculture remains the largest private industry in the commonwealth.”

White received both her bachelor's and doctorate in animal sciences from Washington State University before coming to Virginia Tech to increase her focus on work at the intersection of animals and big data.

“Being at Virginia Tech just really enabled that because we have such a great engineering school and they’re so willing to collaborate,” White said.

White was named an assistant professor in the college in 2017 as a part of effort to bring new talent into the college's focus areas, including food and health, the environment, and the economy.

Previously, White worked as a USDA/AFRI Postdoctoral Fellow at Virginia Tech and as a postdoctoral scholar with the National Animal Nutrition Program. In these positions, she focused on coupling mathematical modeling and experimentation to enhance understanding of cattle nutrient requirements.

White splits much of her time between the Blacksburg campus and some of the 11 Agriculture Research and Extension Centers throughout Virginia, working on projects that put advanced tools to work learning more about livestock and their environments.

Currently, she is working with a team of mechanical engineers to create a “rumen robot,” a microscopic device inside of beef cattle that takes measurements of the animals’ nutrient intake.

“Their digestive system is very difficult to get to. It has multiple chambers and anything we do to sample it messes with its function,” White said.

The four-year, USDA-funded project attempts to change that with the bio-inspired robot that can be inserted into the system without detection and take measurements in real time. White can then use that data to create individualized diets that not only optimize animal health and reduce waste, but also cut down on the animal’s production greenhouse gas.

“This will be the first time we’ve been able to collect such samples and observe the digestive system without influencing it,” White said. “It gives us the opportunity to get back to that idealistic concept of knowing each animal individually and treating it that way, rather than as just the average of a group.”

Once completed, the project has the potential to expand via the SmartFarm network and benefit not only Virginia livestock, but society as a whole.

Similarly, White is working with other colleagues in the College of Engineering on horse and cattle halters with sensors that transmit real-time data and pair that with similar data from sensors within the animals’ fields or pastures. Analyzing the data together provides the type of big-picture perspective that’s critical to the system-oriented approach that drives White’s work. She was recently awarded $350,000 from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to tackle this project.

“It helps us better understand how livestock interact with their broad ecosystems,” she said.

And having that understanding allows White to address concerns about the environment, livestock, and industry profitability at the same time.

“The promise of precision technology is strategies to simultaneously get at all those goals,” White said.

— Written by Travis Williams