For the Love of Data

Lori Abendroth sees everything as data.

“Whether it’s project management or research data,” Abendroth says, “that’s how my mind works.”

As manager for the Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project, she manages 140 scientists, graduate students and extension educators working in different scientific disciplines in 11 institutions and 8 states. It’s her job to help them work together to achieve project goals and objectives within five years.

She says management of big, “kitchen sink” projects is a good fit for her. The five-year, $20 million USDANIFA project began in 2011, is led by Iowa State University and is aimed at discovering strategies to increase the resilience and sustainability of Corn Belt agriculture in a changing and increasingly variable climate. “I thrive with complexity and I love data. The challenge of big projects like ours really excites me. And the people I get to work with are incredible and inspiring.” says Abendroth. Abendroth’s responsibilities include developing spreadsheets and other web-based tools that support long-distance teamwork. She co-developed and manages a centralized and complex research database, which houses field research data from 35 sites. Team members use the “Big Data” to analyze and publish results of tested cropping practices and to conduct predictive analysis using climate models.

Though the project ends in 2016, Abendroth leaves a legacy of data and methods upon which others can build. In fact, Abendroth and others on the project were recently awarded a $5 million USDA-NIFA grant, which will allow them to expand on the project’s research on drainage water management. Lois Wright Morton, the project’s director and sociology professor, says Abendroth is a catalyst for achieving the team’s vision. “She very much has a vision for what people can accomplish individually. And then she holds them to it in a way that causes them to exceed what they would normally do, which is very remarkable,” she says.

Abendroth was honored by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with the Professional and Scientific Excellence Award in 2014.

Describing herself as driven and focused, Abendroth says she works to stay “a few steps ahead of the team to identify potential gaps, bottlenecks and pitfalls that would limit the team from realizing their success.” “I think people always want to be successful. But there are things that get in the way and make it difficult. I strive to take out the roadblocks and make it as
streamlined as possible – so they can get their work done, feel successful and move on to their next task,” says Abendroth. Abendroth spent weekends and summers on her family’s farm north of Omaha, Nebraska. Her love of science and agriculture led to a master’s in agronomy at the University of Nebraska in 2004 and later a position in agronomy at Iowa State, managing a statewide research program in corn production.

In 2011 she began managing this program and last year Abendroth was admitted into the crop production and physiology doctorate program at Iowa State. “My goal is to become a computational agronomist and to continue to be a part of identifying solutions to the environmental and climate challenges Midwest agriculture faces now and will face in the future,” she says.