Legacy of leadership and mentorship for retiring professor

Happiness is more important than pride. That’s one of the main lessons Claudio Stöckle has learned over his 31 years as a professor at Washington State University.

“The most important part of any job is to do your thing, and be happy about it,” said Stöckle, who chaired the Biological Systems Engineering (BSE) department for 15 years and was praised by colleagues for his ability to balance research and leadership.

“My leadership style was always giving direction for where we need to go with key points, where we need to take action and gain success. I focused on the big picture,” Stockle said.

portrait of Claudio Stockle.
Claudio Stöckle

He always empowered his staff to make their own decisions.

“What I saw was calm leadership as the chair of the department, coupled with the energy and passion of a researcher,” said Ralph Cavalieri, WSU emeritus Professor and another former BSE chair.

During his time as chair, Stöckle pitched the idea of eliminating the undergraduate program due to dwindling numbers in order to focus the program on graduate students interested engineering agricultural and biological systems.

“Under his leadership, our graduate numbers increased from around 15 students to nearly 100,” said Cavalieri.

Kirti Rajagopalan was one of Stöckle’s graduate students, and he served on her PhD committee.

“He’s one of those people who is really hands on and likes to have a good understanding of what you’re working on,” said Rajagopalan, now a BSE assistant professor. “He has to invest a lot of time, but I always appreciated the fact that he was willing, ready, and available to do that for us students.”

Stöckle was instrumental in organizing WSU’s first Digital Agriculture Summit, which took place virtually in October 2020. The inaugural event was created to bring together partners in agriculture, industry, academia, and policy to learn about the challenges and possibilities of digital technology in agriculture.

“He’s definitely been one of those people who’s been involved regularly in these larger interdisciplinary projects, where you have collaborations across engineering disciplines, economics, social sciences, horticulturalists, and agronomists,” said Rajagapalan. “Not everybody works that way.”

Internationally renowned for assisting with the development of the Agricultural Crop Systems Modeling Software (CropSyst), Stöckle focused his career on building digital analytical tools to study and evaluate the economic and environmental effects of soil, weather, and crops.

“We have so many different types of sensors available today. It’s not just about the algorithms and the models, but connecting that to data you can collect. With modeling, we want to be able to predict what will happen,” said Stöckle.

This July, WSU was awarded a $20 million USDA-NIFA grant to lead a research institute to develop artificial intelligence solutions that help with challenges in agriculture related to labor, water, weather, and climate change. The team includes Stöckle, Rajagopalan, Qin Zhang, Lav Khot, Manoj Karkee, R. Troy Peters, and Sindhuja Sankaran from BSE.

“Claudio is one of those visionaries who was able to see the important role of computing in agriculture early on,” said Ananth Kalyanaraman, professor of computer science at the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture and director of the new AgAID Institute. “His efforts will have a long-lasting impact on WSU’s research leadership in digital agriculture on the global stage.”

“In the future, agriculture is going to be a different beast, and we have to start preparing now,” said Stöckle, who intends to continue work with the grant as he enters a new chapter of his life.

“He is somebody who has built strong foundations in our program, grown our faculty numbers, and his influence goes beyond the borders of WSU,” said Manuel Garcia-Perez, professor and current chair of BSE.

Stöckle has served as a visiting professor at institutions in Italy, France, and Spain. Though he hails from Santiago, Chile, he and his wife call Pullman home.

“We haven’t found anywhere we like living better than right here in Pullman,” he said.