Alumni Spotlight: Ben Millett

April 27, 2017

Plant Pathology Alumnus Ben Millett

Ben Millett
Ph.D. 2008

Advisor: Jim Bradeen

Current Position: Research Scientist, Data Science & Informatics, DuPont Pioneer

Tell us about your current research or work involvements and their impacts.

The Data Science & Informatics (DSI) Department of DuPont Pioneer provides technological solutions to the research organization. For example, breeders in the organization are asked to develop germplasm lines for a particular set of criteria, such as water usage and quantity of growing days. Other scientists in the organization have generated models that predict how certain germplasm lines will behave in different environments based on available data. By pairing the modeling results and their own knowledge of germplasm, breeders can make informed decisions for future products. The software development team of which I am a member in DSI has responsibility for facilitating this type of predictive agriculture. We are tasked with creating a user-friendly interface to the models with which the breeders and other research scientists can interact. The overall goal is to use predictions to inform our advancement decisions and prescribe the right management practices.

What's your passion? What do you love about your work and your field?

As a research analyst in DSI, I get to meet with people within the research organization who need software to make their jobs easier. Everyone has a lot to do and wrangling large Excel spreadsheets is not a good use of anyone’s time. Because DSI partners with all areas of the research organization (multiple crops across the globe), we encounter many varied implementations of protocols, if a protocol exists, as people just try to get their jobs done. I like helping produce software solutions that make processes more efficient and streamlines the work for the majority of individuals, but has just enough flexibility that it can also address the more complex situations.

I was involved with a mobile data collection software that was originally intended to send assay values for a set number of traits to a central database. This served the majority of the people collecting assay data. With how we built the software, however, researchers in other parts of the organization were able to use the same software to collect results for a different set of traits and store their data in a separate database. Because of an easy-to-use interface on a mobile device, the software was quickly and widely embraced. It makes all the work worthwhile when researchers go out of their way to thank you for making their jobs less stressful.

Why did you get involved with Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota? Tell us about your path to Plant Pathology.

My eyes were opened to the wonders of plant disease resistance a plant physiology class for my undergraduate biology degree. An internship the following summer at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center confirmed to me that I wanted to do graduate work in the field of plant sciences. As I learned about the myriad of ways that plants fight off pathogens, I saw how complex the processes were and wanted to better understand them. It also became more clear that improved disease resistance could reduce dependencies on environmentally-unfriendly, applied chemical controls while improving food security. I wanted to be a part of that effort to feed the world.

What's great about the Department of Plant Pathology?

The word “opportunities” comes to mind whenever I think of the department. Whether it was involvement in the Plant Pathology Graduate Student Symposium, serving in the graduate student organization and faculty hiring committees, or hosting a graduate student outing during the APS North Central meeting, there was never a shortage of opportunities to serve and to grow. Expertise across the department also presented opportunities to learn new techniques or use different equipment than you might have had in your own lab. The community of faculty, staff, and students made the department feel like you could tackle the impossible, because if you got stuck with something, a helping hand was only a few steps away down the hall.

How did your education at the U of M help prepare you for what you are doing today?

I appreciated the effort of the department to expand the curriculum to include a focus on molecular plant pathology. When I joined DuPont Pioneer, there was a need for someone with a molecular biology background for the particular software requested by the research organization. I’ve come back to that training as I’ve worked on subsequent projects, especially those consuming and displaying data produced in the genotyping labs.

In terms of practical skills, I am grateful to have participated in the departmental seminar series, for the guidance and training in focusing a presentation on a few key topics and not using unnecessary complexity to get points across. I am surprised by the number of posters that I have had to prepare for audiences across DuPont (for other DuPont companies, within DuPont Pioneer, and within DSI). The experience gained from preparing posters while in the department for conferences has been invaluable. Even though the topic of the posters might have been the same, each audience has had a different focus and the posters needed to highlight different aspects of the project that was being presented.

What advice do you have for current students (and future alumni)?

While my education has been critical for my job, my extracurricular activities were just as important. In my spare time outside of school, I coded my own websites and developed a WordPress plugin. That plugin was used by several people who solicited enhancements for their particular use cases. My interactions with them to understand their needs and then balancing those requests with the amount of time I had available to make those changes prepared me for my current job, as that is a large part of what I am doing now in a scientific setting. Also, look for opportunities to use what you are passionate about in and out of school.