Driving the Science behind New Farming Solutions
Friday, January 27, 2017
Dilara Ally always had an interest in ecology, but she ended up in agriculture for one simple reason: Plants don’t move. That may sound silly, but after hearing horror stories from colleagues about their study subjects not being in the same place that they were the previous year, she thought plants would be a good study subject. And now, she leads the Functional Data Science and Experimental Design team at the Bayer Biologics headquarters in West Sacramento.
To understand Dilara’s job, you first have to understand the role of microbes and the work of the scientists in West Sacramento.
The Functional Data Science and Experimental Design team (left to right): Sarah Grogan (Biostatistics Grad Scholar); Punita Juneja (Bioinformatics Scientist II); Dilara Ally; Adam Newman (ad hoc member: Chemistry Grad Scholar); Sunny (Chun-Jou) Hsiang (Biostatistics Research Specialist III); Lynnae Landberg (Data Analyst); and Rauf Salamzade (Bioinformatics Specialist II).
Just like humans, plants have millions of microbes that live in and around them. Beneficial microbes such as bacteria and fungi have a huge impact on plant health and growth – for example helping plants to take up minerals and nutrients from the soil, to fend off pathogens, and to withstand heat and drought.
“Scientists are beginning to have an understanding of how microbes affect our human health, and that’s really what we’re trying to do in biologics, except on plants,” Dilara says. “We’re trying to understand how the presence of these different bacteria and fungi can impact the plant health.”
Scientists at West Sacramento conduct study after study – generating mountains of data – in their quest to better understand the role of these bacteria and fungi and to use these beneficial microbes to help farmers grow better crops.
Making sense of that data – and helping to design better experiments – is the work of Dilara and her team.
“My team collaborates on projects with the scientists who generate all of this data,” she explains. “The data can be at the level of the genomes of these microbes; for example, looking for differences among microbes in terms of sequence content. This is similar to the human genome project, where the focus was to use information from DNA to develop new ways to understand and cure diseases. The same is true with microbes. We’re trying to understand what aspects of that diversity lead to better plant health. Which microbes, having which certain genes, or how the alteration in expression of those genes, can actually promote plant health?”
Did You Know?
The Bayer Biologics division maintains a collection of more than 100,000 sequenced bacterial genomes, which employees analyze to understand how they promote plant growth and to learn the function of unknown genes in their collection.
Trying to make sense of endless amounts of data might seem like a daunting task, but Dilara explains that data science is about learning and building on what you’ve learned. “I think we always find something that is of interest,” Dilara says. “For me, I find it to be one big puzzle, and whether the outcome is positive or negative, it’s still an outcome.
In fact, she finds non-positive outcomes the most interesting, because “those are the ones that lead you to ask the question why?” she says. “You had a specific kind of world view about what should have happened, and it didn’t, so it forces you to question that view and to think differently about how you might build the next set of experiments.”
Helping to drive the science behind each Biologics product gives Dilara the satisfaction that she is doing something to help farmers and to serve society, which is one of the reasons the agriculture industry was so appealing to her.
“Working within Bayer, where my personal goals align with the company approach, as well as having the privilege to work with some creative and smart people who all have the same goal and aspiration, has led to a greater personal satisfaction in my work.”
More about Dilara
Born and raised in Canada, she received an undergraduate degree in Botany from the University of Toronto, a Ph.D. in Statistical Genetics from the University of British Columbia, and went on to study microbial evolution using bioinformatics tools in her postdoctoral work. She started off learning about the dynamics of genes in natural populations, specifically in plants, and has always loved the combination of statistics, ecology/evolution and genetics. This is essentially what she sees as the essence of agricultural science. Toward the end of her Ph.D., she realized that she wanted the science she worked on to have a purpose beyond basic discovery. So she believes that the desire to have a positive and meaningful impact on society drove her specifically to a career in agriculture.