Americans enjoy rice. We consumed around 4.6 million metric tons of the popular dish last year, which may disappoint carb-free dieters, but is great news for Arkansas. After all, rice is Arkansas’ top agricultural export.
When observed on your dinner plate, rice seems simple enough. The science of rice, however, is fascinatingly complex and requires more than a green thumb to maintain profitable yields. Arkansas has long turned to the research community to develop science-based solutions to challenges facing the rice industry. In 1923, the Arkansas General Assembly authorized the creation of the Rice Branch Experiment Station in the “center of rice production” with a general mandate to investigate “problems of rice farmers.” That center continues to serve our state today as the Arkansas Rice Research and Extension Center, a center within the University of Arkansas’ Division of Agriculture with a mission to investigate, validate and disseminate the best practices for sustainable rice production for Arkansas farmers.
Many of today’s challenges to Arkansas’ rice production are global concerns. For example, it may surprise you to learn that nighttime temperatures significantly impact yields. As nighttime temperatures have increased worldwide, rice yields have taken a hit, a condition that could result in a significant economic loss for Arkansas.
One solution is to develop heartier genetic strains of rice that resist higher nighttime temperatures. Dr. Argelia Lorence, professor of Metabolic Engineering at Arkansas State University, leads a team at the Arkansas Bioscience Institute that has optimized protocols to characterize the responses of plants growing under normal and stressful conditions. Meanwhile, at UA Little Rock, Dr. Mariya Khodakovskaya uses carbon nano materials to enhance plant growth. Incorporating these nano structures enhances the ability of the plants to intake and utilize nutrients. The research conducted by Drs. Lorence and Khodakovaskaya – in addition to science conducted by the Arkansas Rice Research and Extension Center – will help protect Arkansas’ $6 billion rice industry.
The “Science of Rice” is only one chapter in the Arkansas Research story I’ve had the privilege to tell during my five years working with Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA). Drs. Lorence and Khodakovaskaya, both members of the ARA Academy of Scholars and Fellows, work to improve not just our state’s rice industry, but the world’s food security as well. It’s an important story to tell, if only so that more people appreciate Arkansas’ vital role in feeding a hungry planet and improving the world’s quality of life.
Before I joined the ARA team, these stories were largely unknown to me. After all, my perception is that Arkansas is a state known for rolling up its sleeves – not lighting a Bunsen burner (or plant phenotyping and nanochemistry). However, as Arkansas expands its footprint in what is known as the innovation economy, our work in the lab will become just as prevalent as our work in the field or on the production line.
The pieces are already in place. Within several research facilities located in every corner of the state, Arkansas has made inroads in artificial intelligence, drug discovery, medical engineering, brain imaging, agricultural science, quantum computing, data science and more. In my role as communications director for ARA, I tell these stories every day. My audience nearly always raises an eyebrow when it learns just how deeply Arkansas is invested in innovation. Arkansas is home to researchers creating infection-resistant, artificial bone and physicists unlocking the power of quantum computing, among other extraordinary advancements. This is jaw-dropping stuff!
I have a challenge for all of us: Make research part of Arkansas’ story. Become our innovation ambassador. When talking about our state, mention our natural beauty and our can-do spirit, but also speak of our contributions to science and discovery. Many examples can be found at arkansasvoices4research.com/discovery-economics.
Until then, I remain your friend in revealing Arkansas’ potential.