Each year, the InnovationX program awards grants of up to 20 thousand dollars to support faculty who form research teams of students from different majors and disciplines. Emily Finbow, Assistant Director of LAUNCH, said this experience is invaluable for many students who may not have had the opportunity to meet students outside of their own majors.
“It’s a program where faculty and students from all sorts of different majors and disciplines work together on teams,” Finbow said. “We want you to work with faculty and students you otherwise would not have gotten to meet.”
Dr. Leslie Ruyle, Research Scientist at the Bush School of Government and Public Service and an InnovationX team leader, has been a proponent of multidisciplinary research for years. So, when she partnered with Cheetah Conservation Botswana to help farmers and ranchers in Botswana protect their livestock from lions, leopards, wild dogs, jackals, and cheetah; forming a diverse team of students was the first goal. Dr. Ruyle, Professor Rodney Boehm, Director of Engineering Entrepreneurship and Associate Professor of Practice at the College of Engineering, and Dr. Catharina Laporte, Instructional Associate Professor from Anthropology, applied for an InnovationX grant for this project.
In 2020, they received the grant for their “’Farmers Fight! Farmers Fight!’ Creating Solutions for Human-Wildlife Conflict in Botswana” project. Jack Bolick, a junior supply chain management major and a speaker on LAUNCH’s panel, was one of 18 students from six colleges across the university whose applications were accepted to participate on this team. The 18 students were split into three teams to work on three different solutions. These solutions were proposed by the students: a device to track livestock and two devices using sound and light to deter predators. Jack described his experience working on a tracking device.
“I came into this project wanting to work on international problems,” Jack said. “What this program gave me is a real look into a world of people who are actually doing that and in all different disciplines such as conservation and policy. The traveling team was me, an aerospace engineer PhD, and a Bush School master who had gotten her undergrad in animal science here at A&M.” Dr. Ruyle and Professor Boehm’s team began work in Fall 2020. Dr. Ruyle coordinated meetings for the entire InnovationX team to gather via Zoom every other week throughout the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters, and Jack’s team continued to work outside of those scheduled times to advance the project’s progress.
“It is real work,” Jack said. “It’s the kind of work where it’s on your plate. You have freedom, you have creativity. This is InnovationX right, the innovation comes down to the students. You have all these resources like your team and your professor, but it comes down to you.”
Team Predator worked to develop a GPS-tracking ear tag for cattle. It is designed to send the tag’s location directly to an app on the rancher’s phone. His team developed the idea and continued work on it for over a year.
“We started working on this throughout an entire year and we got pretty far along,” Jack said. “Then we found an Australian company that had created this idea during the same span of time, but with venture capital from a bank. So it’s like wow, we really were onto something there.”
After partnering with the company, mOOvement, Jack said he and his team worked with Cheetah Conservation Botswana and a rancher in Botswana to create a plan for the ear tags. Although there were many delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Ruyle, Jack, and three additional team members finally traveled to Botswana in March 2022 to deploy their prototypes.
“After a lot of brainstorming we went and applied this and worked with a rancher and came up with a solution to help them track their pregnant cows and when they give birth, find those vulnerable calves out in this massive expanse of bush,” Jack said. “There is no line of sight anywhere. So this is a solution that’s helping them out and as far as we know we’re the first people who have done this for conservation. And that’s something that we were only able to do thanks to all these different points of view coming together.”
In addition to Jack and his two team members, the group also delivered “predator eyes,” a solar-powered light designed to mimic eyes to deter other predators from coming near them. The team is developing monitoring and evaluation plans to measure the success of both projects.
InnovationX has sponsored many successful multidisciplinary projects, and Dr. Ruyle is a leader in many of these projects.
“Faculty members who get into it play well with others,” Finbow said. “Dr. Ruyle’s name is on three or four applications right now.”
Dr. Ruyle plans to continue her work with Cheetah Conservation Botswana and has submitted another proposal with InnovationX to continue work on this project.