Meet Danielle: Bachelor of Agriculture (Honours) student

When she was considering what to study and where, Danielle Tang (China) knew the University of Melbourne was prestigious, that it offered a pathway to the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine through her chosen degree, the Bachelor of Agriculture, and that Melbourne was a liveable and diverse city.

“What I didn't expect when I entered this degree was the diverse range of subjects with a multidisciplinary approach, delivered by high-achieving scholars and industry professionals,” says Danielle.

“In particular, my mind was blown by how agriculture is transforming into a more sustainable industry with an increasing use of advanced technology. And now I am deeply intrigued by topics like sustainable production and precision agriculture.”

It’s not surprising, then, that after completing her Bachelor of Agriculture, Danielle chose to research how technology can be applied to challenges in the agriculture and food industries for her honours year.

She explored machine learning and how it can be applied to viticulture under the supervision of Associate Professor Sigfredo Fuentes, of the Digital Agriculture, Food and Wine research group. Her topic - modelling sensory descriptors of chardonnay and shiraz wines based on berry cell death using near-infrared spectroscopy and machine learning algorithms.

While her research sounds like more of a mouthful than a sip, Danielle says her knowledge from the Bachelor of Agriculture and the support of Associate Professor Fuentes and lab members Dr Claudia Gonzalez Viejo and Dr Eden Tongson helped her combine her interest in viticulture, machine learning and digital agriculture technologies.

“I indulged myself in the whole process, doing lots of literature reviews on what I was genuinely passionate about,” she says.

“I was dazzled by all the high-tech equipment that I could employ for my project, ranging from an Alcolyzer wine analysis system to a near-infrared spectroscopy sensor. Moreover, I was taught useful research skills like data visualisation and analysis, as well as how to think critically and produce quality scientific writing.”

Find out about Danielle’s experience in Honours in this student takeover video.

With more focus being placed on producing her own thesis, Danielle was given a lot of freedom and a very flexible schedule. She notes that with this freedom came the need for self-discipline, but also greater confidence from overcoming challenges with the support of her mentors and peers.

“I came to realise the things I learned during my four years as an agriculture student were not just the knowledge and theories from textbooks, but more importantly, the skills, the ways of thinking and the courage to deal with problems. This all helped to shape me into a more confident and prepared person, equipped with a practical skillset in my field,” says Danielle.

While her research faced interruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she and Associate Professor Fuentes were able to design innovative workarounds, like running a wine sensory panel for micro-vintages of wine she fermented in the lab remotely.

At the conclusion of her research, she also has a thesis that is a testament to both her effort and her ability as a scientist.

“The final outcomes of my honours project were pretty promising. A few feasible machine-learning models were developed to accurately predict sensory descriptors of chardonnay and shiraz wines from various inputs. With the involvement of advanced technology, this could help vineyard managers and grape growers adapt to the hotter and dryer environment brought about by climate change.”

Danielle's advice for anyone considering studying the Bachelor of Agriculture is that your limits are only those you set for yourself.

“Don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone, and always be grateful for people who have helped you along the way,” she says.

“I completed an exchange program in wine studies in New Zealand during my first year, volunteering for the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria and Food and Wine Victoria. During my Honours year, I have gained a more in-depth understanding of how it feels to be working in research, and it all started with self-motivation and enthusiasm about my interests.”

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