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Another Piece of the Pi: Tech gives research automation edge

This Raspberry Pi device developed by former MU undergrad Brandin Grindstaff allowed members of the Chris Pires lab to remotely monitor their plants. | photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

By Mariah Cox | Bond LSC

What does an iconic American
dessert have in common with a credit-card-sized single-board computer? Well,
only its name.

Small but mighty, the Raspberry
Pi can be programmed for use in multiple settings and has been increasingly
used for tasks in research labs.

But it took a scientific
conference in Europe for one Bond LSC lab to tap into its usefulness. Makenzie
Mabry, a doctoral candidate in the Chris Pires lab, found herself with the
dilemma that she couldn’t monitor her research plants back home in the lab
across an ocean. This predicament sparked an idea in biology undergraduate
Brandin Grindstaff, who found the solution and the hands-on research
opportunities he was searching for.

“Ever since I can remember I’ve
been fascinated by biology and technology. Computer science is an important
component of biological research,” Grindstaff said. “Programming, specifically,
is a really powerful tool for a researcher and it can be indispensable for
collecting data or solving problems that might be impossible without it.”

While computer programming was a
foreign skill for Grindstaff, the unfamiliarity was a motivator. Grindstaff
proposed an idea for a small plant growth chamber monitor to Pires and Mabry
his final semester of undergrad and began development the following summer. The
Growth Monitor pi (GMpi) tracks the functionality of designated room
parameters, meaning if a light goes out or someone left the door open, it sends
a Slack message to all members of the lab.

Brandin Grindstaff
Brandin Grindstaff poses with some plants in a growing room. | Photo courtesy of Grindstaff

Without any prior experience
working on Raspberry Pi’s, electronics, or with the Python program language, he
spent a large chunk of time teaching himself.

“Every day was a new and
interesting challenge interfacing the sensors and camera with the Raspberry Pi.
I spent hours sifting through tutorials and Python and Linux documentation,”
Grindstaff said. “After a few weeks, we got the first iteration set up for
testing the growth chamber, but it would crash after only a few hours of
automation because something was causing the code to break.”

This hands-on participation in a
lab was hugely important to Grindstaff’s college experience. As a
first-generation college student, he often found himself struggling to navigate
higher education. Before his work on GMpi, Grindstaff spent time on other projects
but had a hard time finding his fit. At that point, Grindstaff was about to
leave the lab, but he saw the opportunity for the device and made his case.

“Chris and Makenzie took a
chance on me because I was passionate about research, not because I had the
best grades. The GMpi project would have been a tough sell to most mentors, but
they gave me a chance,” Grindstaff said. “Education and internship
opportunities need to be more accessible to everyone, especially
first-generation college students.”

For Mabry, his mentor, the
project was important because it was entirely led by one of her undergrads who
eventually was first author on a journal publication.

“It’s really rewarding when I
get my own stuff published, but to have someone that you’ve mentored be so
successful, it’s even more meaningful,” Mabry said. “The value of undergraduate
research is making sure people have those opportunities.”

Devices using the Raspberry Pi
are becoming more prevalent in research settings to streamline lab processes. The
core computer costs roughly $40 and GMpi’s attachments added up to $200. Other
systems that are used to monitor growing environments typically cost thousands
of dollars.

Grindstaff’s work in the Pires
lab earned him attention from businesses who’ve asked him to develop similar
devices. One year out of college, Grindstaff is still on the hunt for a job but
in the meantime, he’s working on an expanded monitoring system for use in a commercial
cultivation facility to track more environmental parameters and automate a
large part of the cultivation process.

“Devices like the Raspberry Pi,
open-source communities, and tutorial creators make this sort of technology
accessible to everyone. You don’t really have to know anything about computer
science to get started,” Grindstaff. “More than anything, I hope this project
makes researcher’s lives a little easier, or even inspires somebody else to
create something awesome.”

Grindstaff graduated from MU
with a degree in biological sciences in 2018. His research was published in the
Journal “Botanical
Society of America
” in Aug. 2019.

Article originally published on Decoding Science.