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What Norman Borlaug has to do with supercomputing

Speed read
  • Norman Borlaug started the green revolution, devising techniques founding modern agronomy.
  • Agronomists fight hunger today with big data and big computers.
  • Apply for travel assistance to SC16 by September 2. 

Norman Borlaug was one of the most important scientists of all time and the only person ever credited for saving one billion people from starvation. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a Congressional Gold Medal, ultimately he would became known around the world as the Father of the ‘Green Revolution’.

Born in 1914 in a small farming community in northwest Iowa, Borlaug lived on a 50-acre parcel with his four siblings, parents, and grandparents. Only half of their land was in production, and it was difficult to make ends meet even in good years. The soil was rocky and challenging to cultivate; the hard work gave Borlaug a strong back and an indomitable spirit.

<strong>Feed the world. </strong>Planting corn in Jasper County, Iowa, ca. 1940. Cross breeding for favorable traits is done much more quickly today, thanks in part to Norman Borlaug's vision and effort. Courtesy US Library of Congress.

With a scholarship to attend the University of Minnesota, he would ultimately earn a PhD in plant pathology, with a minor in plant genetics. Before scientists could determine which crop varieties performed the best, cross-breeding for favorable traits required them to combine genetic material and then wait for them to grow and be tested under various conditions.

He set out to develop stress-resistant, high-yielding wheat varieties, but Borlaug realized it would take a lifetime to progress with such tedious work in a single lab, in linear fashion.

Therefore, he proposed establishing test sites in field stations across the US and Mexico to take advantage of multiple growing seasons each year. His distributed approach significantly expedited the process of discovery, and he was able to develop new varieties and methodologies that would ultimately increase Mexican wheat production four-fold.

Mexico became self-sufficient in wheat production within 15 years, and even exported a surplus. Borlaug continued his work tirelessly in Asia and Africa, where all would eventually experience tremendous economic improvements due to his efforts.

Borlaug thought of himself as a ‘Hunger Fighter,’ and encouraged his comrades-in-arms to continue the battle. While many of his discoveries endured 40 years, pests and diseases evolve and adapt quicker to environmental changes than scientists can develop and bring stress-resistant plant varieties to market. The challenge of producing enough food for the world’s growing population without further deforestation has become even more difficult with a rapidly-changing climate.

<strong>Global village. </strong>South African Development Community members visited the Texas Advanced Computing Center during SC15. Travel assistance to SC16 is offered to those applying by September 2. Courtesy TACC; STEM-Trek.

Fortunately, today’s hunger fighters fight with big data and fast computers. Agronomists conduct field trials at sites around the globe that grow thousands of varieties under a myriad of conditions. Through memorandums of understanding among international research groups, scientists analyze shared data using supercomputers to identify highly productive and resilient genetic traits that are ideally suited for different conditions and environments.

Scientists also often conduct their work remotely via high-speed networks through science gateways or domain-based cyberinfrastructure, such as CyVerse (formerly iPlant).

Today, Green Revolutionaries are likely to be been born in or near agricultural regions, and therefore will lack access and opportunity for training in advanced computational resources, data analysis, and visualization techniques. If Borlaug had been born in Boston, it’s likely he would have become a marine biologist, or a chemist who developed submarine superglue for the war effort instead of becoming the father of the Green Revolution.  

Borlaug’s roots are why STEM-TREK is hosting the US/Pan-African Workshop titled ‘HPC On Common Ground @ SC16’ in Salt Lake City, Utah, November 11-19, 2016.

Want to take part? Qualified hunger fighters are encouraged to apply by September 2.

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