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A Conversation with Dr. Nick Syring
A Conversation with Dr. Nick Syring
A Biostatistician at Corteva

Here is the podcast page for the interview with Dr. Nick Syring. The transcript is included over on our posts page, but you can read it here as well.



Blake Armstrong, Nicholas Syring


This editable transcript was computer generated and might contain errors. People can also change the text after it was created.

Blake Armstrong: Hello and welcome to the UIC ink podcast, where episode to episode. We interview different working scientists This episode. We have Dr. Nick Syring. And without any further ado, I would like to allow Dr. Syring to introduce himself, Dr. Nick How are you?

Nicholas Syring: Hi, Blake, doing great. How are you doing?

Blake Armstrong: I'm doing good. Happy to be talking to you, so, Can you tell us what is the spelling of your name? And what do you do?

Nicholas Syring: yeah, and Nick Syringe last name is syringe. It's pronounced just syring your Syrian meat and a skillet or something like that. I am a Biostatistician. I work at Corteva Agriscience

Blake Armstrong: Whatever. And what does Corteva Agriscience do?

Nicholas Syring: Cortana Agriscience is one of the largest agricultural companies in the world. we do a couple really big things, so part of the company about half the company or so is a seed company. So we produce commercially,…

Blake Armstrong: Okay.

Nicholas Syring: we produce commercial seed for farmers so if you're in Illinois, I'm over in Iowa, if you're driving through and you see corn fields and soybean fields, probably half, or so of, that came from corteva. So right now Corteva is the market leader in soybean.

Blake Armstrong: Wow.

Nicholas Syring: I think we have about 55% product share of soybean in the United States. Yeah.

Blake Armstrong: That's insane.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, there's other big companies in Agra Science like Bayer which was formerly Monsanto. It's been bought by Bear a few years ago, BASF Upl Syngenta, just to name a few. Yeah, you might see sometimes when you drive past,…

Blake Armstrong: Sure.

Nicholas Syring: cornfields, you'll see little signs that are the brand names of different seed that the farmers are using a big one.

Blake Armstrong: Yes. Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: Maybe you've seen before is pioneer and pioneer is a corteva brand came from a merger. Yep.

Blake Armstrong: Okay.

Blake Armstrong: Are they the symbol? That's like the infinity beneath the little plant.

Nicholas Syring: That yeah,…

Nicholas Syring: very good. That's that.

Blake Armstrong: I have that.

Blake Armstrong: I have a hat from them.

Nicholas Syring: Really. Yep, that's And that pioneer is part of corteva actually came about a few years ago,…

Blake Armstrong: Okay.

Nicholas Syring: as a big merger between really three, different agriculture of companies, Pioneer, and And DuPont the divisions of Dow and DuPont, which you're really chemical companies that we're doing crop science, ever science. And so that's really the other half of the corteva company which is crop protection and crop protection really refers to kinda chemicals. things that are sprayed on fields or also codings their chemical,…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: codings of seeds. That work is herbicides, fungicides. Pesticides, those sorts of things. So it's really a biochemistry company.

Blake Armstrong: Could you restate your position and then define it again?

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, So I have a really generic job title, which is research scientist, which I think sounds really cool, but tons of people at my company are actually called research scientists and…

Blake Armstrong: that's why we're talking to you.

Nicholas Syring: we do vastly different things.

Blake Armstrong: Okay.

Nicholas Syring: So I said I sort of have a sub job title which is Biostatistician and…

Blake Armstrong: biostep just

Nicholas Syring: And that's a lot more honest. I am really a statistician. Not so much a scientist. I didn't come from a science background.

Blake Armstrong: okay.

Nicholas Syring: I have a PhD in statistics and so my knowledge, my expertise is really about statistics and most of my work is supporting people…

Blake Armstrong: Okay.

Nicholas Syring: who you would probably refer to more. It's scientists and plant breeders.

Blake Armstrong: what sort of data do you start digging into as a biostatistician to help these folks out?

Nicholas Syring: Yeah. so that kind of goes back to the two halves of the company, which is on one. Half the crop protection or a sort of more like chemistry business and the other half being, the commercial seed, production business. and so I work in the seed part of the business. So,


Blake Armstrong: Seed production.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, so really what I'm involved with is the breeding part of the company that is continually trying to improve crops that we offer as products in the form of seed and we do that through field trials. So we have new crops on really a seasonal basis that aligns with the seasons of growing crops outside in the fields in different climates around the world and aligns with the maturities of those plants and we go out and we do plant crossings we cross plants. We reproduce plants and make selections. That's what plant breeders do. They make selections to get the best hybrids or inbred crops that they can that we meas.

Nicholas Syring: In various ways, a lot of it has to do with yield, but lots of other traits for example, disease resistance. So we have lots and lots of field experiments where we're growing huge numbers of crops and fields in various places and recording. A lot of data about how those crops perform and then assessing what are the best ones and trying to make good selections?

Blake Armstrong: So what would be a typical sample size for one of these?

Nicholas Syring: it certainly varies by crop and by what you're trying to measure corn and soybean the biggest were, we have dozens of breeding programs in

Nicholas Syring: Multiple continents. I mean we have reading programs for corn in North America and in South America and in Asia. And so there are hundreds of locations where we grow corn. And I couldn't actually even tell you how many, data points that comes to. But it's a lot every year and then for other crops we have much smaller programs. for instance, we grow mustard in India. That's a very small program on We have alfalfa, which is grown as fodder for capital to eat and that's a very small program sunflower, which is grown for seed oil. We have that in maybe two locations, I think in South Africa and

Nicholas Syring: A blanking on the other place so it depends a lot by the crop. We might have, hundreds and hundreds of locations that we grow every single season, or maybe it might just be like a dozen.

Blake Armstrong: are you in this data set? Just because as a hobby, I'm growing my own mustard and I really enjoy. Are you getting the species of mustard that their names and your data set are these all, experiment 21a versus 21b. Or do you get the species names?

Nicholas Syring: Yeah. it would be great if we had fun names but we generate tens of thousands of names.

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: And because That gets to the number of hybrids. If it's a hybrid crop like corner, we end up producing, thousands and thousands of hybrids that go through a selection process over several years.

Blake Armstrong: You're organizing data. You're not marketing to seed so I,…

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, right. And yeah.

Blake Armstrong: I can't look in the Burpee catalog and be like, Yeah, I need the 21a b 2023. but if yeah,

Nicholas Syring: Right. Right. Yeah. I mean, once they get commercialized, they get a certain kind of name. But even We do refer to commercial products, by coded names. So, unfortunately,…

Blake Armstrong: 

Nicholas Syring: I know there's not any really fun name or anything like that,…

Blake Armstrong: Sure.

Nicholas Syring: and we don't tend to attach the names of specific breeders to the products that they produce because we think of it as a team effort.

Blake Armstrong: MR. That's nice.


Nicholas Syring: So the credit goes to, more people more widely.

Blake Armstrong: Yeah, I'm looking at a bed of green wave outside of my window right now.

Nicholas Syring: that sounds successful.

Blake Armstrong: The two beds in the backyard, did better than the front yard, but that's okay. I'll still have some spicy mustard for the fall. Yeah. So…

Nicholas Syring: Delicious.

Blake Armstrong: how did you get interested in science? Nick.

Nicholas Syring: How do I get? and maybe I'll interpret that a bit more broadly about How did I get interested in statistics then So,…

Blake Armstrong: Okay, sure.

Nicholas Syring: way back, when I finished college, my first job out of college was in the insurance industry and I was working as an actuary.

Nicholas Syring: and that's kind of a job where you work with data. but, I only had a bachelor's degree. There's a lot of interesting problems in insurance. For example, if you're a big insurance company and you ensure a lot of houses in Florida, for instance, you really have to be good at hurricane modeling and catastrophe modeling, and you have to be able to predict losses for those catastrophic events. And so I was really interested in trying to figure out kind of make predictions or just using data to learn. And I think just kind of the place where I was working and this is probably true more broadly there are certain barriers to entry to doing certain kinds of work and that doesn't mean you can't learn a lot of

Nicholas Syring: Things on the job. But you do kind of have to have some kind of credential to get your foot in the door. And so for me that was really going back to school and getting a graduate degree in statistics. So that I could do that kind of work, that just seemed more interesting to me. So that was kind of the path that I took. I went back to graduate school and then I did some work in academia and I ended up in the agriculture industry. And I guess I would just say, if you're really interested in statistics, agriculture is kind of where it's at. Agriculture is…

Blake Armstrong: Really.

Nicholas Syring: where statistics started the kind of the oldest statistics,…

Blake Armstrong: Okay.

Nicholas Syring: back to

Nicholas Syring: are a Ronald Fisher, who kind of came up with a lot of the early statistics. It really all revolved around agriculture and field experiments, and designing experiments and trying to farm better and we're still doing that. And we've made a lot of progress, but in many ways, it's still on the cutting edge of applied statistics.

Blake Armstrong: just because'm in the field that you're in. Do you think you would need any instrumentation to measure the sulfur or carbon content of your soil samples in your fields?

Nicholas Syring: My goodness. I mean and I'm not the person to talk to about that stuff, but I have gotten quite a few nice tours and even in the office building where I work. The first floor is all science labs, and…

Blake Armstrong: okay.

Nicholas Syring: I've gotten tours of those places and they have lots of nice shiny equipment. I'll tell you that, and I don't know all about what it does, but there is a huge amount of chemistry going on there,…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: even on the side, that does more seed work. But especially I'm the crop protection side…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: where we employ a lot of analytical chemists. And a lot of people who are trying to discover, novel compounds that have some activity in terms of pesticide or beside or, those things they're relevant to agriculture. So, there's a huge need for

Nicholas Syring: Chemists and scientists, and also for laboratory equipment, and lab experimentation. And we also have people who study insects, I guess you'd call them like entomologists. We have insects labs where we breed insects,…

Blake Armstrong: nice.

Nicholas Syring: that is something that I never would have known that we did until I got a tour of our insect green facility. Because, one thing that we do is we produce plants that based on their genetics, they have some resistant to insects and…


Blake Armstrong: Sure.

Nicholas Syring: and then one thing that we're interested in is how long is that inherited resistance going to last before the insects evolve to eat them,…

Blake Armstrong: Wow.

Nicholas Syring: any eat them And so what we can do is we can breed insects many generations of insects and…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: an in

Nicholas Syring: Lab and figure out How long is this product going to be viable for until the insects have evolved to not care about that kind of resistance and bypass that and so we also have labs full of bugs. But it is.

Blake Armstrong: That is disgusting and awesome. Really.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah it smells it does not. It is. That's all right. Yeah, it's a funky.

Blake Armstrong: …

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, I wouldn't want to work there because they.

Blake Armstrong: that's your statistician. If you're an entomologist, there might be a different story.

Nicholas Syring: They love it.

Blake Armstrong: That is so cool.

Nicholas Syring: They love their bugs.

Blake Armstrong: But That's good. That is absolutely fascinating. So, do you get to do much direct frost department? Communication or you guys kind of all? On your own.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, I think coordinating with people across the country across the company is a huge challenge. But also something that's really, fun and rewarding. So, One of the things that's inside my responsibilities is supporting breeding programs in Asia Pacific. So, I actually have a lot of communication with breeders and their teams in India, and in the Philippines and Indonesia and in the future, probably in China as well. So we have,…

Blake Armstrong: Means.

Nicholas Syring: we are a global company. We have people all over the place and so we do communicate with lots of different.

Nicholas Syring: Lots of People and Different teams. I also, work a lot with people who are kind of doing the software end of it, in terms of getting all of our data analysis in sort of automated pipelines of software programs. So it's working with a lot of different groups.

Blake Armstrong: That's fantastic. Sounds like you're gonna have to have Cortiva send you a couple of field trips to Southeast Asia.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, probably, that's the kind of thing you ask for in the first quarter and not the third quarter of the year. Yeah, the later you get in the year,…

Blake Armstrong: Right. Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: the less the company wants to spend money on that stuff. But yeah,…

Blake Armstrong: Of course, yeah.

Nicholas Syring: yeah, definitely in the future, I think that'll be on the prize.

Blake Armstrong: what are some of the main challenges in your field specifically?

Nicholas Syring: I think, there's kind of some general challenges and some specific challenges. I think the biggest challenges are common to lots of companies of the size that we're at. I was talking about coordinating across very large, teams of many different areas of expertise who are located all over the world dealing with different time zones and people with different native languages, So that's

Nicholas Syring: That's a challenge. I think in agriculture time is a big challenge because we are always working with the growing seasons of different crops and in different parts of the world and the maturity times of those crops. And, once the harvest is in you got to make decisions and pick, your best performing hybrids and bread lines and move on. We've got to stay on the cutting edge of technology to stay competitive and to try to keep a competitive edge advantage there, also regulatory, so being a seed company, we are in the business of GMO, genetically modified organisms and the kind of global regulatory environment, around those types of products changes. Kind of all the time.

Nicholas Syring: There's a lot of Public perception of that.

Blake Armstrong: 

Nicholas Syring: That can be a challenge, regulatory environments are influenced a lot by international politics so that's a big challenge as well.

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Blake Armstrong: what are some specific challenges as a statistician for what you're doing?


Nicholas Syring: Yeah. I think it always trying to incorporate kind of the latest technology, like,

Nicholas Syring: For instance, drones we've been using drones for a number of years now…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: but it's picked up a lot more recently. As drone technology has gotten better as the cameras are getting better. As sort of the range and battery life control ability of drones gets better. So, kind of what I'm talking about is when we grow crops and fields we can have people go out in the fields. And, look at things and measure things with their hands and their eyes and write these things down. And another thing that we can do is we can have drones fly over fields and take pictures and then try to use those pictures to gain some information about yield or disease all sorts of different traits about the plants growing in the fields and

Nicholas Syring: and the drone technology is I think gonna be a huge it advantage to us, moving forward, because drones do have a cost and they have some battery life and range and they had some issues with cloud cover and things like that and weather. But all …

Blake Armstrong: About us. You guys are going way up there.

Nicholas Syring: quite cover. that's also kind of like fog and so something that happens over. A lot of fields is you get evaporation? Yeah, you get sweating coming off of crops.

Blake Armstrong: And then you don't get a clear image.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, that can happen so that's kind of what I'm talking about there. But there are some different,…

Blake Armstrong: Sure.

Nicholas Syring: difficulties with drones but ultimately use it with using drones. We can get a lot more data than with humans. there's costs associated with getting people out in fields to take measurements manually and…

Blake Armstrong: Right. Right.

Nicholas Syring: so if we can fly a drone overhead, we can probably actually plant it more locations and get more data and take measurements multiple times and that's going to change the way that we analyze the data for those types of experiments.

Nicholas Syring: Actually, so there's a few challenges there. One is changing the way we analyze the data. Another is actually taking those measurements from drones and figuring out how to make them useful. Because, it's one thing to have people go out and harvest a field of say cotton and it's another to fly a drone over and take pictures and convert them to black and white and see, how many pixels are white and try to estimate the cotton yield from that.

Blake Armstrong: Sure.

Nicholas Syring: So that's kind of a machine learning problem.

Blake Armstrong: Yeah, that's…

Nicholas Syring: Yeah. Of taking image data and…

Blake Armstrong: what I was thinking.

Nicholas Syring: converting it into something that's gonna correlate, really? Highly with…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: what would be human, observe data. So, that's a major challenge.

Blake Armstrong: You have anybody looking at something along the lines of these new large language learning models with these large training data sets, where you're taking the drone images and laying that overhand gathered data. So you have image sets that you could maybe train machine learning application on Very cool.

Nicholas Syring: We absolutely do that. Yeah Yeah. we absolutely have been doing that for a number of years now of.

Blake Armstrong: Wow.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah taking and taking image data and comparing it with human observed data now and that's something you got to be careful about too, because the human observed data that doesn't necessarily mean it's true. when you're talking about,…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: yeah, a lot of times when you're talking about,

Nicholas Syring: What you would call supervised learning in machine learning is,…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: is, you have some known data like predictions or labels or categories and then you train a model to learn the categories of unlabeled data, right? So you can create human observed yield or some other tray as the known label but it's actually not the truth. It's just the human observed version of the truth. So there are actually instances…


Blake Armstrong: Right.

Nicholas Syring: where drone data is higher quality. We've been able to show that it for some,…

Blake Armstrong: Cool.

Nicholas Syring: for some things, drone data will be better than what a human would measure for other things. It might be worse

Nicholas Syring: There could be some disagreement. And so those are challenges in terms of figuring out how to more efficiently, observe things. But also still getting a high quality of data

Blake Armstrong: So, would you say the statistics, that you are analyzing is Just helping the greater team in the company decide on which seeds to save and Or what exactly is it that you're Statistic work is doing to healthcare company.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, I would say, we are helping to do two things, really? we're designing the experiments. We're figuring out the best way to actually construct experiments to learn the most and account for as much variability as we can. So that we're not confounding different variables, we're not planting All of one type of seed in one location and different type of seed and second location.

Blake Armstrong: Start.

Nicholas Syring: And then, type of seed is confounded with location and you don't know…

Blake Armstrong: Right.

Nicholas Syring: if the difference is due to location or seed, so one thing that we can do is we can design

Nicholas Syring: Have the best design practices possible. And then the other thing that we can do is once the experiments have been done. All of the hard work of, actually implementing growing crops and fields and harvesting and collecting data. Once that stuff is done, then we can analyze the data, which is basically taking a huge number of numbers and condensing them down into meaningful summaries that the scientists,…

Blake Armstrong: Okay.

Nicholas Syring: the plant scientists, the breeders can then take and make decisions on So just providing them with the most informative summaries of the data so that they can go ahead and make good choices.

Blake Armstrong: That's very nice. They trust all of you to design those important experiments.

Nicholas Syring: That trust is earned through close relationships and…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: yeah that's like with the drone data. people didn't just bring drones in and…

Blake Armstrong: Reason.

Nicholas Syring: into the company and tell the breeders Hey from now on we're gonna start flying drones of Fields and you're gonna get drone data, instead of human observed data, no, like we had did you have to work with the breeders and…

Blake Armstrong: Right.

Nicholas Syring: they have to be part of that decision-making process and everyone has to be on board that this is the right thing to do and this is going to improve our understanding rather than take away from what we're trying to do. So it's an earned trust there.

Blake Armstrong: So when it's planting season and you're between harvests and there's not a lot of data coming in, are you out there yolk in the ox and pushing the plow?

Nicholas Syring: Thankfully, no, I'm in the air conditioning and So Yeah, there's definitely a seasonality to the workflows that happen. Planting and harvest are the most strenuous times, but in between planting and harvest, there's a lot of other data collection that happens. There are a lot of traits that are observed that are measured while the plants are growing in the fields.

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: So there's dozens of things that might be measured. Some of them are, like disease, traits, heights of plants,…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: the way that they grow the process of growth over time. Yeah.

Blake Armstrong: so, where are you guys? I mean, I know that it's very easily observable. Are you guys bullying? Your weather data from a official, third party, or do you have your own instruments? Sitting right there in the field?


Nicholas Syring: For weather data. that's actually something I don't entirely know. I know that. there are certain weather models that we use that rely on NOAA data.

Blake Armstrong: They're one of the people that we work with, which is why I was curious.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, yeah. that is a big one and some of that is used to evaluate the different locations where we plant and make comparisons or kind of categorize locations based on whether to try to Kind of get apples to apples comparisons in terms of weather. So that is something that is done. I don't think that we have weather stations but that's something that I don't really know in terms of how I don't think that we will certainly do measurements on if a field gets flooded for instance,…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah. Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: 

Nicholas Syring: We can easily observe those kinds of things, or if there's drought we can measure I would say extreme things like that. But as far as daily weather,…

Blake Armstrong: Sure.

Nicholas Syring: and high wind events or a big deal because they knock over plants. Yeah.

Blake Armstrong: Stock.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah that's called root lodging or stand ability whether or not yeah corn falls over…

Blake Armstrong: do you think?

Nicholas Syring: if cornflower you can't harvest corn if it falls over. Yeah.

Blake Armstrong: Nope, with root lodging. Do you think that is impacted by the health of our soils?

Nicholas Syring: So being someone who doesn't know a whole lot about plant growth. I don't know a lot about root lodging. I can tell you one really interesting thing that may happen in the future is Or Teva as well as other companies.

Blake Armstrong: I'd love to hear it.

Nicholas Syring: I know Bear is doing this. some companies are trying to make corn shorter. Yeah. So

Blake Armstrong: no more knee-high by July.

Nicholas Syring: It's usually actually a lot higher than that, but, yeah, just trying to make the plants themselves actually shorter without making them a lot smaller. So, keeping it,…

Blake Armstrong: Right, the ear.

Nicholas Syring: keeping the leaves pretty big, but kind of making this stock shorter not skinnier,…

Blake Armstrong: Sure.

Nicholas Syring: but just overall shorter. that's, of course, controlled by a lot of genetics. And it's a pretty challenging thing to do.

Blake Armstrong: Right.

Nicholas Syring: But yeah, there is a lot of efforts especially in sort of the Great Plains in the middle of the United States, Wind and…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: Wind Defense cause a lot of damage and loss for corn. And so that's something to keep an eye out for maybe in the next decade or so, you'll be driving by cornfields and…

Blake Armstrong: Interesting.

Nicholas Syring: you'll be wondering why they look so darn short.

Blake Armstrong: I mean, we were able to get small dogs, pretty quick. Maybe we'll be able to get small pretty quick. More weather stuff unrelated and…

Nicholas Syring: Could be.

Blake Armstrong: I'm sure fascinating to all of our listeners out there. Did you guys get those crazy flash floods yesterday?

Nicholas Syring: No, out in Iowa. No, no,…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: We really have had hardly any rain at all. So

Blake Armstrong: Every time we get rain, we've been getting absolutely hammered. Yeah, but you…

Nicholas Syring: Wow.

Blake Armstrong: it's okay. Back to the interesting things. What would you say has been the most rewarding experience of your research career?

Nicholas Syring: and it's kind of funny because I'm sort of the typical introverted kind of person in STEM. But I still think that the most rewarding experiences are

Nicholas Syring: teaching and mentoring younger people. and I worked in academia for five years. Before I transitioned back to the private sector work, and I just think, Teaching college students. It's such an interesting part of their lives when they're making decisions about their future. And they're often very stressed about making big decisions and it's probably some of the first time that they're making some kind of large life decisions about what to study, and what they're going to be when they grow up and connecting with them about statistics and applied science and just trying to


Nicholas Syring: Spark interest in some of them here and there about doing this kind of work in their lives. And so that's always been the most rewarding thing for me. And so as I've moved into the private sector, I've lost some of that but I've also still been able to teach and as I think I get further along, I'll be able to mentor as well. Yeah. But I think something that's different between academia and…

Blake Armstrong: What?

Nicholas Syring: private sectors. The pace of the work in private sector.

Blake Armstrong: Okay.

Nicholas Syring: There's always things to do and they always had to be done yesterday. so there's very little time rather

Nicholas Syring: Very easy not to set aside time for documenting your work and creating a very good record. And often I think companies struggle with having ways to train, new hires and cross train, folks and produce you teaching materials and that sort of thing. So my experience with teaching in academia, has carried over in interesting ways that I've been someone who's really championed documenting work and producing really good documents of record of what we do that can be used to teach other people and just be used as kind of a definition of what we do in our teams, especially in the BIOS statistics team of

Nicholas Syring: Just explaining to others, what our function is and how we do our jobs. so that's what I am really passionate about that teaching element.

Blake Armstrong: That's awesome. And it's so great to hear that that's carried over as well.

Blake Armstrong: What would you say has been the most challenging experience of your research career?

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, I mean I think that as someone in Acid academia. And someone who's producing research products publication is something that Is important, but it can be a very challenging process for people in academia, you need to publish. it's a metric by which your career is judged and by which, maybe you're continued. Employment is contingent on. so it's quite important to publish That's I think quite a bit different in the private sector and maybe depends on where I work now. Publishing is not a requirement. but,

Nicholas Syring: the publication process can be very long peer review intake. A long time. I have reviewed many manuscripts, it's not easy to do a good job and also there's not a lot of incentives to be a good peer reviewer.

Nicholas Syring: So, the peer review process is just pretty tough, as someone who consumes research products, I think almost everyone goes straight to the preprint sites, the most common one being archive.

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: So The only time I really read journals is for papers that are quite old. If I'm looking for something new and on the cutting edge, I'm finding it in the preprints because by the time it gets published it's probably like three or four years old. So, that's a struggle with. If you're in the publication game it can be frustrating to deal with the time frame and reviewers who are not really the best of I think the best feedback I usually get about work is from


Nicholas Syring: Years who are working on similar things who are looking to consume my work and then maybe apply it in what they're doing. and then I can have discussions with them about their perspective on things because it's really the people who go and consume that research work, who become most familiar with it much more familiar than the reviewers often become. And so ultimately it becomes a system where I think if you go and you present at conferences or if you're just well connected with people in your field who are all kind of consuming each other's work and using it, that's a good system for getting the feedback where the publication

Nicholas Syring: Peer review publication is kind of lagging, so that's tough. I think moving into the private sector. It's a much better relationship with journals because our philosophy we're going to publish something. When we think that we have something really important to say that is going to be a public service. so we kind of view publication As public service work as what we can contribute to the public. As long as we can do that without sacrificing a competitive advantage, in the business So, I think that's probably a better way of approaching publication than the position of most people academia.

Blake Armstrong: Have you found any specific challenges within the field of agriculture?

Nicholas Syring: I mean the scale of the work is a challenge. Because I think we talked about this a little bit earlier growing, thousands of varieties of just one crop in hundreds of locations year over year. It produces a huge amount of data that's and it takes a huge team of people to make those experiments happen. So I think scale the number of people involved across different geographies and countries that's a huge challenge.

Blake Armstrong: That's a lot of logistics, coordinating.

Nicholas Syring: yeah.

Blake Armstrong: does that fall on you guys that people just designing the experiments or who runs the logistics of that?

Nicholas Syring: logistics people, yeah. So that's actually another tour that I've been on was to see our warehouses, Basically where seed is packet is prepared and sorted and packaged for shipment which is largely internal, that's really used for, seed that goes from our seed production facility out to experimenters all over the world, who are planning it in experimental field plots.

Blake Armstrong: These experimenters are they for TEVA employees or the independent farmers. Who are getting paid as contractors. how does…

Nicholas Syring: And yeah. yeah,…

Blake Armstrong: if you know how that works?

Nicholas Syring: yeah, so the breeding programs those are courts, have a people. So we have our own land and facilities and research farms all over the world Occasionally even in Illinois. You might drive past one. It be might say a pioneer research farm or…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah, absolutely.

Nicholas Syring: research facility Oftentimes. They're pretty non-descript. So you might not even know what you're driving past, but yeah, they're all over the hundreds of them in the United States and all across the world where we have reading programs. Now, there is also some experimentation that goes on with farmers who buy our seed, we have…

Blake Armstrong: Okay.

Nicholas Syring: what we call field agronomists who work with

Nicholas Syring: Farmers. Who are our consumers? they're Our customers. And I am not involved with that those types of data sets or data collection or experiments. But we do have Some types of experiments that go on with farmers. what I would say about that is why we don't do more of that or why that's not primarily what we do is that if you're working with farmers you have a lot less control, The farmer is in control of their farming practices,…


Blake Armstrong: Right. Right. Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: so different farmers do things quite a bit differently. And so when you're dealing with data that you have so much less control over how it is produced,

Blake Armstrong: Could you make the comparison of that being in vitrovers and vivo or a lab ament versus a real-world application, though? Do you think that data would be useful?

Nicholas Syring: Yeah. And that data is definitely useful. But yeah, that the difference there is what we would call controlled experiments. So our field experiments are largely what we would call randomized controlled trials which is something you hear,…

Blake Armstrong: Yep.

Nicholas Syring: that's something you probably hear associated with pharmaceutical industry but that nomencl

Nicholas Syring: Really comes more from agriculture. we can control where the fields, are what we planned when we plant, whether it's irrigated or not how it's farmed, how it's managed. So we control a lot of things about that farming process and, randomization where different plants are planted in the fields, all of that, we can control. Whereas the data that we are getting from farmers, is what we would call observational data. We can get observations from them, we have basically no control over how the data is generated.

Blake Armstrong: What are you most excited to be pursuing currently?

Nicholas Syring: Yeah. I mean I think it goes back to the drone data is one of the biggest things that's happening right now. That's going to change a lot about our current practices the more and more that we incorporate that kind of data. I would say most of the traits about plants that we measure now are only measured one time of course with yield that's measured at harvest but there's a lot of other traits having to do with disease response or other traits of plants that

Nicholas Syring: Would be measured many times. ideally, we could fly drones really often and kind of record the entire growth cycle of individual plants. that could happen in some future state. We could actually get individual plant level data and that's a point that I probably should have emphasized a long time ago in this conversation, plan when we're talking about field data, the data is really aggregated to what we call plots.

Nicholas Syring: So up,…

Blake Armstrong: Sure.

Nicholas Syring: a plot has a certain dimension and depending on the size of the plot and the crop and the planting density, it's going to have a Approximate number of plants in it, but the data that we collect is not data from just one plant, but it's data from a bunch of plants that's aggregated together and that's one data point. And so,…

Blake Armstrong: Okay.

Nicholas Syring: even a really big field, might be, I don't know 50 by 80 plots and…

Blake Armstrong: Wow.

Nicholas Syring: something like that. But that's each one of those plots might be, many plants. So it's,…

Blake Armstrong: Right.

Nicholas Syring: it's not. And this is probably what people, wouldn't really.

Nicholas Syring: Wouldn't really know about. We don't have plant-level data on very many experiments, …

Blake Armstrong: Sure.

Nicholas Syring: plant level data would mean, a human has to look at every single plant, right? And so we don't really do that.

Blake Armstrong: Yeah. Sure.

Nicholas Syring: But that is something, the way technology is going that could eventually happen where actually the amount of data that we have explodes because of the ability to correct to collect data in a much more automated fashion using and…

Blake Armstrong: Sure.

Nicholas Syring: it's not just flying drones. There are drones that walk or roll through fields

Blake Armstrong: Yeah. I was thinking of instead of a normal camera, you fly a drone with some lidar on there, it all sorts of data plant level,

Nicholas Syring: Yeah that we already do that. Yeah yeah we have cameras that are not just the visible spectrum but all sorts we also have there's ground penetrating radar.

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: There's all sorts of really cool stuff that I think is going to vastly increase the amount of data that we have that's going to create a lot of opportunity for us to figure out how to extract usable information from that data. And then how do we have to change the statistical models that we use to accommodate all of that data? And even how do we have to change in the debt way down to the nitty gritty of the computer code, how do we write fast executable computer code to


Nicholas Syring: To actually make all of these models happen to process, all of these models and data and to do it fast because one of the things I mentioned before was, we get to harvest and we have to do it. Now, we have to generate all of these data summaries for the breeders so that they can make decisions in a timely fashion and so we don't have time to waste. So yeah, those are just future things that are coming that we're going to be dealing with and…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: making I think huge improvements to agricultural science.

Blake Armstrong: Too bad. the room ature. Super conductor material, didn't really work out. We would have quantum computing ready for you guys next week.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, Yeah, we'd love to get some of those quantum computers. Sure but yeah, I don't think we can wait for that.

Nicholas Syring: I think And for some of my rice experiments will have mid-season traits in a few weeks.

Blake Armstrong: There you go. what advice would you give to young people who are interested in a career in science or statistics?

Nicholas Syring: yeah so I think one thing I would say is yeah and this is definitely something that I circled with when I was maybe late high school and into college I think young people tend to approach these decisions about what they're going to study with a sense of Finality. I'm gonna pick this major that's biology. And then that means I'm gonna do biology for the rest of my life and I don't know if maybe I like chemistry more but if I pick biology I won't get to do chemistry, So I think that young people they put a huge amount of stock into these decisions, but I think, what,

Nicholas Syring: What you find in practice is that people's career arcs can change a lot and…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: people's careers can kind of become what they make out of them? And, you…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: that doesn't mean that the degree. They get doesn't make any difference at all. It certainly does. But I think the degree it's a way of opening a door, but then once you go through the door, There's a lot of ways to proceed from there. And so, at Cortiva we have analytical chemists who become project managers. we have people in software development who go on to do Cybersecurity or we have people in

Nicholas Syring: Plant breeding who move into regulatory. and especially if you join a large organization, there's gonna be a huge number of opportunities and you'll find that, the first thing that you studied is not going to be

Nicholas Syring: 10 years into your career, the most valuable thing that you know about it's gonna be all of the stuff you learned. Since you got there and…

Blake Armstrong: Yeah.

Nicholas Syring: the relationships that you build and your industry knowledge and your company knowledge is going to be what makes you valuable and people are gonna probably want you to stick around and so, you can work with your managers and find the right way for your career to move forward. So I guess what I would say at a young people is definitely study what you're interested in study, what you're good at study, what you think that you will want to be doing for five years, but don't worry about what you're gonna be doing in 10 or 15 years. and don't think that what you're committing to is the end all be all because things are gonna change.


Blake Armstrong: Your entire industry could evaporate.

Nicholas Syring: hopefully positive change but

Blake Armstrong: that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, yeah. that's true too. You never.

Blake Armstrong: Dr. Nick, if people wanted to get in touch with you about your methods of documentation, or your mindset that you pulled from academia into the public sector or just want to drop a line and say thanks for a great entertaining and interesting podcast, where can they find you?

Nicholas Syring: I mean you could email me at Nick and I c K that Syrian syringe at Corteva.com Cortez C o R T E. V A

Nicholas Syring: But …

Blake Armstrong: just,

Nicholas Syring: you can also look me up on LinkedIn. That's fine. And if you want to learn more about corteva, probably their Twitter feed. Honestly, for as long as Twitter's still remains viable, is it,…

Blake Armstrong: Sure.

Nicholas Syring: is it pretty decent place to go Probably a company. Most people have never heard of. It's part of that is…

Blake Armstrong: No.

Nicholas Syring: because the merger is only about five years old. So, it hasn't been around that long and it's current form. But yeah, go ahead and follow corteva. look up some of the similar companies like Syngenta Basf Upl Bayer Crop Science. They're all doing similar. Things just not as good but yeah.

Blake Armstrong: That's great. I am gonna have to have you go down to the Bug lab and get me some chatty bug scientists…

Nicholas Syring: And I don't know. I can definitely point.

Blake Armstrong: because I would love to talk to those folks. It

Nicholas Syring: Yeah, I will definitely point you in their direction, but I'm not gonna go back there. I'll just email them. I don't think I want to go back into that, that's facility.

Blake Armstrong: you sleep great creepy crawlies in your dreams.

Nicholas Syring: It really hits home when you go in there and the number of airlocks you walk through because bugs are really good at getting places. You don't want them to go if they get out. So yeah, so you really know you're in it when you've gone through the fourth, a lot.

Blake Armstrong: Yeah that would be. I would love to talk to those folks and the plant scientists the chemists. It sounds like you have a wonderful team of very interesting people over there.

Nicholas Syring: yeah yeah it's pretty cool. When you go in, everybody's a PhD you definitely know that the places in good hands.

Blake Armstrong: Yeah, All right, thank you for your time. And for this wonderful podcast.

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Blake Armstrong