WSU and Heritage University scientists to share research at March 31 symposium

Closeup of a stereo camera that takes pictures of cherry trees.
Martin Churuvija uses stereo cameras such as the one pictured to scan cherry trees and build 3D images.

Scientists at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC) will share their research alongside Heritage University undergraduate students during the Honoring Undergraduate and Graduate Scholars Symposium (HUGSS) this Friday, March 31.

The event, set to take place on the Heritage University campus in Toppenish, Washington, represents an ongoing alliance between the two universities while helping graduate students improve their mentoring skills. 

“The symposium allows students to present research results and enables WSU to reach out to more Heritage University students, encouraging them to work with us in the coming summer and beyond,” WSU IAREC Director Naidu Rayapati said. “HUGSS also demonstrates the value of WSU’s mutually beneficial partnership with Heritage University.”

Because of its casual atmosphere and relatively small number of participants, HUGSS helps undergraduates build their confidence as they ask questions, learn about different fields of research, and interact with graduate students. It also provides a pathway for students from underserved communities to enhance their education, which could lead to more job opportunities. 

“The symposium offers an atmosphere where undergraduate and graduate students can talk to each other and build peer mentoring relationships,” said Rayapati. “Hopefully this will inspire many undergraduates to seek higher education.”

Martin Churuvija, an agricultural automation engineering PhD student in WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering, is one of several researchers presenting at HUGSS.

Churuvija is studying tree pruning process automation in cherry and apple orchards. He uses stereo cameras to scan trees, building 3D images that help robots understand their structure, and determine which branches need to be pruned.  

“There’s still room for improvement, but I believe we’ll see collaboration between machines and humans in these activities,” he said. 

Churuvija thinks that HUGSS can help younger students envision new possibilities for themselves. 

“An event like this opens doors for students, inspiring them and showing them what they can achieve,” he said. “It also shows them that PhD researchers aren’t necessarily geniuses — they’re often average people with unwavering determination!”

Juan Munguia, who is pursuing a master’s degree in horticulture at WSU, hopes that HUGSS will help undergraduates develop an interest in the agriculture industry. 

“It only takes one idea to spark someone’s imagination,” he said. “This is a great way to encourage students to become future researchers and get them interested in agriculture. This could really help the agriculture industry.” 

Munguia will present his research on calcium disorders in Cosmic Crisp® and Honeycrisp apples. Both varieties are highly susceptible to calcium deficiencies, which can lead to substantial crop loss. 

Historically, growers have added foliar sprays to increase calcium, but the method has proven to be ineffective. As a potential solution, Munguia is testing plant growth regulators that manipulate the growth of the tree by temporarily inhibiting shoot growth or shifting the movement of calcium from the shoots to the fruit.

“If we can reduce calcium deficiency disorders, we can potentially reduce the price of the apple, making it better for consumers and growers,” Munguia explained. 

Salik Khanal, a post-doctoral researcher at WSU’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, hopes his HUGSS presentation will help motivate the students who attend. 

Khanal’s research focuses on 2D and 3D image processing and its use in robotic field operations in agriculture. Detecting and measuring tree fruits such as apples is necessary for robotic harvesting. Similar image processing techniques are also used in orchard operations like thinning, pruning, and harvesting. 

Claire Castillo, a PhD student majoring in land, air, water resources, and environmental engineering, will present her efforts to develop a methodology for finding the minimum irrigation system design capacity using historical evapotranspiration and its variability. Castillo is trying to determine how irrigation systems can provide an optimal amount of water to crops, avoiding crop stress yet ensuring adequate and economical irrigation design capacities.

Castillo is excited to attend HUGSS so she can see what fellow scientists are working on and share her research with others. 

“The event will expose me to other current research and trends,” Castillo said. “It will help me learn about topics that can be studied in the future.” 

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