MIT OpenAg Lab – Building a Food Computer

By Neelam Ferrari
Moravian Academy Student

Hi, my name is Neelam Ferrari. I am a rising high school senior at Moravian Academy and I have been working as a summer intern at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  My work is focused on a project which is part of the Open Agriculture Initiative at the Laboratory.  The OpenAg Lab is focusing on building a ‘Food Computer’ which involves an open source approach to the global food production and distribution system, through a combination of collaborative genetics, computer science and robotics, and web based public outreach. With an increasing global population over the next 30-50 years, and more anticipated weather driven food shortages as a result of climate change, the lab is hoping to develop technologies that can help feed the world in the future.

My contribution to the project involves working with laboratory instrumentation, independent research, and public outreach.  I am using a hand-held spectrometer to take readings from different varieties of test plants in the lab, analyzing data, and identifying which characteristics are most important in understanding the plant’s phenotype. The spectrometer measures the color characteristics, which can be related to physical appearance and flavor and this data goes into the ‘open phenotype’ library for other researchers to use. In addition, I am researching in more detail about the pigment characteristics related to anthocyanin, brix and carotenoids. These pigments recorded by the spectrometer are related to characteristics such as color, ripeness, flavor and sugar content. This information here can be used to guide future experiments in the lab.  Finally, I have created a thread on the OpenAg’s public forum “OpenAg for High Schoolers”, where I keep high school students informed about the events occurring at the lab and discuss any new discoveries that are made.  It is also a place for students to communicate with me and start projects, like those at OpenAg, in their own schools.

The projects at OpenAg are heavily involved with several components of sustainability: economic, ecological, and social.  Economic issues include providing new jobs, providing an adequate amount of food for the population, and trade between countries.  Some ecological issues include soil and water degradation. Finally some social issues include utilizing these technologies for low income families as well as creating a community based on the technologies.  These issues are closely related to the daily challenges faced by many of the companies involved with the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL).  How these goals are achieved, in my opinion, will be one of the defining issues of the 21st century.








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