In this episode, our guest is Professor Liang Dong from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECpE) at Iowa State University (ISU). Here, we talk about his research on new sensing technologies and its applications in the remote monitoring of plant health, soil fertilizer levels, and irrigation. We also discuss about relevant coursework, research opportunities, facilities, and equipment available for new and current students to build a solid foundation in this emerging topic of smart and precision agriculture. This episode was conceptualized, recorded, and produced by Santosh Pandey from the ECpE Department of Iowa State University. The audio editing and compilation was done by Ankita, while the transcript was prepared by Yunsoo Park and Richa Pathak from the ISU ECpE Department. The communications and digital hosting was handled by Kristin Clague from the ISU ECpE Department. The music was provided by Coma-Media from Pixabay (Track Title: Positive Ambient Technology).
Welcome to our ECpE podcast series, where we talk about exciting activities in the department. I'm your host, Santosh Pandey. Our guest today is Professor Liang Dong from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Iowa State University. Liang, thank you so much for joining us in this episode. Today, we want to chat about Sensors and Actuators and, more importantly, your perspective on student involvement in this field. To start with, could you briefly tell us about your research on smart agriculture and the impact it has had so far? Sure, Santosh. First of all, thanks for having me here. I'm very glad to talk about my research. We are living in a new age of agriculture. And big portion of my research is to develop new sensing and measurement technology to enhance our agricultural productivity, profitability in the environmental conservation. We are looking at smart and digital agriculture that leverages technology to enhance sustainability through more efficient use of inputs. For example, the land, water, fertilizer, pesticides. My specific research in this context is to design low-cost sensors for real-time measurement of nutrients, water, and disease to provide information to farmers and other stakeholders and help them in decision-making process for on-farm operations and management. These measurements will allow farmers to apply fertilizer, water, and pesticides to only the area that needed them. In this way, the farming and the conservation communities will be very happy to see the reduction of input cost and the negative environmental impacts. So, farmers who use digital or smart agricultural equipment use less and grow more. That's the whole idea that we are trying to realize. That's great. So, as far as the input cost goes, in your understanding, the cost of fertilizers is a main driver. Exactly. A fertilizer, for example, nitrogen fertilizer, is the second-highest inputs after seed in agriculture. At least, for corn or maize plants. And is that within the United States and Iowa, or is that effect at a global level? I think this is not only for regional and national, this is also for global scale. Same concept could be applied to any place in the world, as long as we are looking at both productivity, profitability, as well as the environmental conservation. This is the driving force of my research. So, moving onto the next question, how has the field of sensors and actuators evolved in recent times? Well so when we say sensors and actuators, I would like to, you know give a very definition of sensors and actuators. Sensor here is for sense and send information and Actuator is to take action and activate. Actuators gets a signal and sets in motion what it needs to in order to do act within or upon one environment. So that's the actuators. So, sensors actuators always work together and, in the past decades, we have seen great improvement in both sensors and actuators. And sensors become like more intelligent and measure more accurately at lower cost and also have been more integrative into measurement systems for new applications. Especially in nowadays, we all are talking about internet of things and intelligent sensors or smart sensors, I believe are at the basis of the real internet of things or IOT, which people define as some network of connected IOT devices that, by definition, include intelligent sensors. Yeah. So, we have seen great progress in achievements in both sensors and actuators. Just take a car as an example, there are lots of technologies, embedded in the car and these technologies most of them rely on sensors to detect defection of, the sensors or to detect the defection of the cars, people measurement technology software. Most of them involve the sensors, right? There's a massive number of sensors involved in the car repair or car inspection. So, we are touching kind of all the hot topics today. The application of sensors in agriculture or in self-driving cars. Are these the promising trends in sensor technologies today? I think so. Autonomous vehicles and, you know, high-fi smartphones and many other industrial, you know applications. These are the driving force of a sensor research. And these are the factors that a lot of students are very interested in working in the area of sensors and actuators. What are some of the top journals within your field of research? In the sensors and actuators area, you know, there are lots of good journals for students to publish. Yeah. So they are depending on what exact research projects, they are working on. Okay. So, how do you recruit students who are interested in your research and is there funding support that is available for new students who join in? Good question. In my lab you know, when I have a new research project funded, I will recruit a new graduate student .And the student will be supported as a research assistant or sort of like mixture of research and teaching assistant, depending on the funding availability and the level of project. And we also help student to apply for fellowships available within the department within the or even outside the university, such as National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships. These are the additional resource that we could use for supporting the students. Each student will work on a project that's funded, and this is the way that I recruit a new graduate students. So do the undergraduate students work with the graduate students under your supervision? Yes, we do have a mechanism of recruiting undergraduate students and guiding undergraduate students, providing opportunities to those undergraduate students. In my laboratory, they mainly work on projects that already has a Ph.D. graduate student or PostDoc working on. So, their involvement will not only help the project itself, but also help students themselves to build their skills in order for them to enter the area of sensors and actuators. That's great. If you see the facilities that we have within our department and even within Iowa State, within this field of sensing and actuation, how does our university compare with peer institutions both within United States and let's say at a global level? I would say facility wise, nowadays we do have a very good set of equipment for students to use in this area. We do have equipment necessary for micro/nano fabrication, characterization, as well as for different types of testing and different environments. These are the resource that Iowa State has for graduate students, as well as undergraduate students to use, to learn, and to develop their skills with. So, could you think of some of the exciting changes that is happening within microelectronics and photonics within our department? You mentioned some of the new facilities that we have or new instruments that we have. Could you elaborate a little bit on exactly what the instruments are or what they can do, and more importantly, how can students have access to these instruments? Sure. This is a fantastic question. We recently acquired a set of new machines for research. These research have different participants of graduate and undergraduate students. One example is that through National Science Foundation, we acquired Nano scribe. Nano scribe is a machine. You can call it as a 3D nano printer. This is the world best, 3D nano printer that produce complex 3D structures at a resolution of 50, or, you know, 100 nanometer. In general, it's very easy to produce 200 nanometer and by adjusting some settings, you can go smaller hundred or less than hundred nanometers. So students have access to these facility and even, you know we also put those equipment in our teaching. So, this is very good tool that, you know you can use ,students can use to build their own device. Okay. So, what would be the course that students would take and have access to these instruments? We do have a micro/nano fabrication course. This is EE 432/532. And this is the course that provides an opportunity to student to make their own devices through micro fabrication skills that they learned from lectures. Ok. Yeah. That is exciting. So, how can students develop the skills needed to build their own sensors and measurement systems? What kind of courses should they take to prepare them for this field and do they need to complement classroom learning with actual hands-on learning in the laboratory? Right. This is super good question. Yeah. So to build their own sensors and measurement systems. First of all, it's always fun to do those things. And besides passion and finance, right, you really need to have necessary skills in hands in place. Starting from choosing off the shelf sensors, developing new sensors, all the way to using data acquisition, communication devices, and then choosing even right software drivers and softwares like that. And we do have a great set of courses in our department that can help graduate student to build their skills in order for them to be exposed in this area. So the courses talk about, for example, optoelectronic devices, semiconductor device and physics, microsystem circuit design, instrumentation, And so these courses definitely, you know, are worth of being taken. And then I believe these courses can help a graduate student to prepare them in this field. So, on a related question, there is only so much time for students to take all these courses. Do you suggest students to specialize in a sub-field, such as microelectronics, VLSI, or data science, or to take courses in multiple disciplines, even those outside the department? Yes. So, in general graduate students come with their interest in specific field when they join my research group. They already have something in mind that they wanna explore and pursue. So, they spend most of the time on the research projects, but if time permits, if research needs certain disciplines, other disciplines, then you know, sensors or electrical engineering, it would be a very good idea to explore in other areas, which can not only broaden their knowledge, but also help their ongoing projects. Yes. So, the answer is yes, taking other courses in other fields is a big plus that's needed and not only for developing skill, but also for helping ongoing research. So, I assume in, in your particular research topics you would get, or you would draw students from not only from engineering, but even in the sciences. Yes, exactly. So, for example, we co-advise students in other departments, for example physics department, as well as agronomy department at Iowa State. So, you have been teaching courses within the department from basic electronics to bioengineering. Could you elaborate a little bit on the course syllabus that you have taught? Yes. So, I regularly teach undergraduate course, electrical engineering EE 230 electronic circuits and systems. So, that course provides basic understanding of electronic circuits, for example the filters and BJT transistors, diodes and rectifiers, like these basic, modular circuits. And this can help us, help students to build systems later. And I also teach biomedical engineering BME 341 biomedical devices and nanotechnology, as well as graduate course micro electro mechanical systems. So, a lot of student come from not only electrical and computer engineering department, but also other engineering departments, as well as, chemistry. I did have multiple students in my class, my graduate course class from chemistry department and physics department. Yeah. That is interesting. So, for students who take your course, EE 230 basic electronics, what are the future courses that they should take to build a foundation in electronics? Yeah, so depending on the sequence or their interest, they can go different routes or sequence. Like you know, semiconductor or VLSI, or, you know power or many others. So EE 230 is really a foundation course that help students to get basic idea about what the electronics is about. So what kind of jobs are available for students who graduate from your research group, both undergraduate and graduate students? Yeah! So my students, graduate and undergraduate students, went to different industry companies, as well as, especially for a Ph.D. student, they also go to academia to pursue their different interests and career. Some names are like ASML, like a semiconductor equipment company, Skyworks, Amazon, Epic. These are the companies that I see my students currently working in. So, what kind of skill sets are these companies looking for students? Are they looking at publications? Are they Are they looking at research projects that they were involved in? Are they looking at communication skills? I think you summarized very well. I think you know, all of the above, all of the above, you know, your question, and, but particularly for students, for especially graduate students, they really want to develop their skills, right. And the development of skills are validated or are shown in their resume through publications, through communications, through reports like that. So ,what advice would you give to our students who want to build a career in sensors and actuators? Well, I think my suggestion will be not only for people in this area, but also in general. Hopefully that's for general, you know. My 2 cents will be - spend your time on research projects, go deep and then go broad. Broaden your knowledge means, you know, to get a wider view of topic perhaps from different angles or by studying related topics, not just limited to what you are exactly doing. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with our listeners. I hope this information will be valuable to our students. Thank you again! Thank you for having me again. Thanks Santosh!