Climate Science x Artificial Intelligence

The New York Botanical Garden teams up with Break Through Tech students nationwide on Kaggle, Google's Data Science Competition Platform


New York City, 1/2024 – The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) is embarking on an exciting collaboration that promises to push the boundaries of technology and botanical research. Today, nearly 500 students nationwide who are participating in the Break Through Tech AI program, an initiative of Cornell Tech, kicked off a semester-long effort that combines their technical abilities with NYBG’s expansive data and scientific expertise, together with the guidance of volunteer software engineers, the majority are from Google. The aim is to advance biodiversity research by leveraging ML (Machine Learning) to classify plant specimen images from the vast collection of 7.8 million plant and fungal specimens in NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. As part of today’s events, Dr. Emily Sessa, the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the Steere Herbarium, will moderate a panel including;  Dr. Liz Borowsky, Vice President of Information Retrieval at Google, Dr. Aditya Grover, UCLA Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Machine Intelligence Group lead, and Professor Dr. Sara Beery, Assistant Professor of AI and Decision Making at MIT and Biodiversity Lead for Climate Change AI. They will discuss leveraging tech for good and how emerging data science professionals can use their skills to help address societal challenges such as the climate and biodiversity crises.

The Kaggle Datathon is part of the Spring Semester AI Studio component of the 10-month Break Through Tech AI program. The program has three parts: a summer course training students on industry-relevant technical tools, Fall and Spring Studio (two experiential learning opportunities for students to apply the tools), and a career readiness and mentoring program that occurs throughout the student journey. This is the largest, most diverse program of its kind in the nation; it’s free for qualifying undergraduates, and the placement (paid internship or job) rate is 80%. 

NYBG recognizes the critical role that AI can play in advancing our understanding of the natural world. By providing powerful tools for data analysis, pattern recognition, and modeling, these applications will contribute to a deeper understanding of plant biology, ecosystem dynamics, and sustainable practices in the face of global challenges such as the climate and biodiversity crises. “Our botanists are thrilled to engage with Break Through Tech students nationwide and with the many technical volunteers on Google’s Kaggle platform. We aim to widen our capability to leverage data to further our mission and to inspire students to consider organizations like ours as they pursue their careers in the field, because we want to lead the world in understanding the role of plants and fungi in addressing the climate and biodiversity crises. We cannot do that without acknowledging the computational aspect of that ambition,” said Jennifer Bernstein, CEO and The William C. Steere Sr. President of The New York Botanical Garden.  

AI in botany extends beyond scientific research and into various aspects of our lives, influencing how we grow food, address environmental challenges, and interact with the natural world. “Everyone will benefit from these advancements through improved health, environmental sustainability, and a deeper connection to the ecosystems that sustain us. Our greatest line of defense is the people who are at the table solving these challenges on behalf of humanity; we are dedicated to training that pipeline of talent and thrilled that our students can work with the Garden, Google, and our incredible partners at Cornell Tech, MIT’s Schwarzman College and UCLA’s Samueli School of Engineering on such an important issue,” said Dr. Judith Spitz, Ph.D., Executive Director and Founder of Break Through Tech. 

Kaggle, the world’s largest data science community and platform, has worked with Break Through Tech AI students since the program’s inception. “ Googlers from all over the world were interested in volunteering for this datathon because they’re passionate about the intersection of technology, nature, and climate. We are thrilled that Break Through Tech brought us together again this year,” said Sarah (Hendo) Rosenberg, Senior Program Manager, Tech Education Outreach; by joining forces with NYBG’s advisors, Google volunteers will play a crucial role in supporting Break Through Tech students as they tackle this real-world challenge together.