Nanning Cao: From Math & Science Enthusiast to Instrumentation & Data Scientist

In high school, Nanning Cao loved math and chemistry, so she decided to pursue a major in college that would allow her to explore her interests to the fullest degree.

Cao found Food Science & Engineering and didn’t look back. She enjoyed the problem-solving opportunities that biochemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and food chemistry could give her — and the extra engineering classes fed her inclination for numbers and calculation.

After Cao finished her Bachelor’s degree at China Agricultural University, she stayed on at the same institution for a Master’s degree to study Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) in Agricultural Products. “[NIRS] is a fast-analytical method widely used in different industries, including food and agriculture,” explains Cao.

After Cao finished her Master’s, she moved to the U.S. for a Ph.D. at Iowa State University, where she would research NIR calibration optimization on post-harvest grain products in Professor Charles Hurburgh’s Grain Quality Lab. “I researched different types of NIR instruments and sample selection, calibration standardization, and temperature compensation,” explains Cao.

The work Cao did during her Ph.D. afforded her opportunities to attend professional conferences and work on real-world projects for instrument companies. She got her first job from one of those projects, an application scientist position at Unity Scientific. Cao also attended her first Cereals & Grains Association annual meeting during her Ph.D., after learning about it from fellow students and Professor Hurburgh, a very active member of the association. “Charlie is definitely one of the most important mentors in my life who influenced my studies and my career today,” says Cao.

Hurburgh and other members of his lab helped develop the AACC NIR Methods and were able to introduce Cao to Technical Committee leaders at Cereals & Grains Association. One of those people was USDA Scientist Steve Delwiche, who was the Chair of the Spectroscopic Methods Committee. When he was looking to step down from Chair in 2020, he recommended Cao for the position. Cao is also on the Cereals & Grains Association Statistical Advisory Committee.

Since 2015, Cao has worked at Ardent Mills where she is a senior instrumentation and data scientist. She oversees the company’s NIR instruments — spread across more than 30 facilities — and her contributions to Ardent Mills greatly bolsters the company’s success. “On the data side, I lead predictive analytics projects and help build data-driven systems to influence business decision making,” explains Cao.

Cao sees being involved in Cereals & Grains Association as a way for her to make a contribution to the grain industry and push major advancements in the techniques associated with NIRS and its application. She says, “It helps us stay on top of technology and promote real industrial application. Also, it provides great opportunity for me to practice my leadership skills.”

Cereals & Grains Association members like Cao make our community stronger by contributing their expertise towards the work of fostering food evolution worldwide.

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