UF/IFAS researcher hopes to help Florida farmers protect their soil

Posted 8/22/23

Basketball took center stage for Nikos Tziolas as he grew up in Greece.

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UF/IFAS researcher hopes to help Florida farmers protect their soil


GAINESVILLE — Basketball took center stage for Nikos Tziolas as he grew up in Greece. It shaped him into a team player, a trait he took into his career as an agricultural engineer.

His team even earned second place in the Greek adult (17-18 years old) national championship.

Even though his hoops glory days are behind him, you can still find Tziolas on the basketball courts, relishing the chance to play with students at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center, where he’s an assistant professor of soil, water, and ecosystem sciences at SWFREC.

“These days, tennis also appeals to me, and I’m on exploring hiking opportunities,” he said.

Agrarian background

As a child, he knew he was interested in helping farmers.

Tziolas went to primary, middle, high school and college in Larissa, the biggest agricultural plain in Greece. Not only did he live in an agricultural mecca, Tziolas’ father, Vassilis, is an agriculturist, and his mother Chrysi, is a forester.

“What truly resonated from my parent’s experiences was their commitment to serving end-users and recognizing their needs,” Tziolas said. “Growing up, I absorbed their insights about developing solutions that align with a sustainable future. This perspective has been a guiding light throughout my educational journey and career choices.”

In addition to his parents, many former mentors and colleagues influenced Tziolas to arrive at UF/IFAS, where he uses artificial intelligence technology to test if farmers’ fields are healthy or not, what they need and explain the reason behind these decisions. He also helps growers understand and interpret predictions made by their machine-learning models.

“These factors range from the enriching working environment surrounded by amazing colleagues in Greece (Elli Kalopesa, Nikos Tsakiridis, Kostas Karyotis and Nikiforos Samarinas) to successfully establishing a thriving lab in Europe nearly from scratch, which now has over 25 researchers,” Tziolas said.

Great mentors

Along the way, Tziolas said he had exceptional supervisors. He cited George Zalidis and Lammert Kooistra, who helped him with his bachelor’s and master’s studies, respectively, where he delved into remote sensing. During his doctoral studies, Tziolas had remarkable teachers in AI, including John Theocharis, and in soil spectroscopy, Eyal Ben Dor.

While learning from those mentors, Tziolas earned a bachelor’s in agricultural engineering from Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, a master’s in geoinformation from Wageningen University in The Netherlands and a doctorate in soil science and artificial intelligence from Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Southwest Florida

Tziolas started at SWFREC in February. There, he works very close to those who need his data and knowledge.

“SWFREC presents an excellent environment to bridge the gaps between the research and innovation developers and the whole society (not solely agricultural),” he said. “Having the end users just in a radius of few miles, SWFREC can serve as a ‘one-stop-shop,’ facilitating the creation, exchange and integration of knowledge and new tools to address tangible needs.”

AI, satellites, drones and all the new technologies can provide many answers to growers. So, Tziolas and his team are developing hundreds of rows of coding to analyze information so growers can make stronger, data-backed decisions.

“We also use novel tools to help farmers make informed decisions on questions such as when and why their crops might be ‘hungry’ for nutrients,” Tziolas said. “They can find those answers through information generated by new technologies. However, as we address the needs of the present plants, it’s wise to ensure we reserve something in the ‘refrigerator’ of resources for the ones to come.”

Nikos Tziolas, agriculture, soil, water, ecosystem