Diverse department finds solutions for diverse problems

Nov 28
Jeff Brawn, Head, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences

When asked to describe the Department of Natural Resource and Environmental Sciences (NRES), I often respond, "If NRES had a department color, it would be plaid." I say this because our programs include an unusually wide spectrum of disciplines and educational opportunities with a faculty of applied ecologists, soil and water scientists, and environmental social scientists. 

Why does the department have such a mix? The answer is easy. We mirror the complexity and multifaceted nature of today's environmental problems. These problems range in scope from the possible effects of global climate change on agricultural production to the restoration of local prairies in Champaign County to the effectiveness to conservation spending in preserving tropical forests.

Growing demands on land and water resources require an interdisciplinary approach in the field, at the lab bench, and in the classroom. Moreover, technological advances are allowing NRES scientists and students to gather information and data that were formerly just a dream. Examples include studies where invasive species are detected by looking for their DNA in the environment and crop productivity models that are data rich and highly accurate with the use of remotely sensed satellite data. 

NRES also recognizes that people matter in the practice of environmental science and the conservation of natural resources. A biologist can study an endangered species or threatened ecosystem and come up with a well-reasoned conservation plan; however, the prospects for this plan will be far brighter with input from stakeholders and local communities.

Accordingly, NRES has a strong program in environmental social science – a discipline that includes political science, psychology sociology, and economics. As stated to me once by a long-time Illinois environmental expert, "Effective conservation and environmental science is 10% biology and 90% people." A great example of this is a core principle of sustainable agriculture (also a major program in NRES) that regularly engages farmers, consumers, and business-community groups. 

The undergraduate curriculum and educational programs in NRES closely adhere to the complexity of today's environmental problems. Through coursework, undergraduate research, and study abroad opportunities, we seek to provide students with a skill set that prepares them for a wide range of employment and post-graduate educational opportunities. 

The ACES Gym

Nov 27
David Gerstenecker, ACES Director of Information Technology

I realize that Campus Rec Center East, aka CRCE, is a University building. But I like to think of it as another ACES building.

I just returned from exercising over lunch. On any given day that I am there, I will likely chat with a department head, an associate or an assistant dean, an alumnus of the college, or a current ACES professor or student.

I am very thankful that CRCE is only a short walk from my office in Bevier Hall. I am able to get my heart pumping for a healthier me – AND I get to enjoy the comradery of exercising with my ACES family.

Stop by for a visit sometime. If you see me running around the track or swimming in the pool, be sure to say “Hi” and chat for a bit.

10 things for which 4-H members give thanks

Nov 22
Judy Mae Bingman, 4-H Media & Marketing

We asked 4-H members and leaders the things for which they were thankful. Their answers make us smile during this time of Thanksgiving.

1. Life Skills

Take your pick which skill you most attribute to your 4-H experience. Public speaking. Organization. Time Management. Teamwork. Problem solving. Recordkeeping. Teachers and employers say they can pick out employees with 4-H experience just by their work ethic and personal integrity. 4-H did that, or so our members say. More than anything else, 4-H empowers and prepares young people for a life of success. "Thank you, 4-H, for teaching me integrity, patience, and the value of hard work." –Renae Spannagel, Camarge Champs 4-H of Moultri-Douglas 4-H. Age 18.

2. Joyful Living

Oh, it was expressed in many different ways, but the bottom line is, 4-H makes people happy. Through their accomplishments, 4-H members believe in themselves. They build bonds of friendship which last a lifetime. They travel to new, exciting places. They spend time together as a family. They laugh, a lot. "Thank you, 4-H, for giving me joy." –Quentin Meredith, Watseka Wild Clovers 4-H of Iroquois County, Age 11.

3. Caring Leaders

We never forget them. 4-H leaders are like second parents who may not tell you to clean your room, but will hound you to finish your record book. More than 15,000 adults assist with the Illinois 4-H program each year. Some come for a year; others stay for a lifetime. "Thank you, 4-H, for all the volunteers who work to put on activities and workshops and help with projects. Thank you to my former leader, Eleanor Markwell, who has volunteered for over 50 years! She inspired me to become a leader." –Angela Zellers, Morriah Go-Getters 4-H of Clark County. Adult.

4. Paths That Lead to Better Futures

4-H is a safe place for youth to explore and discover. We know that 17 percent of 4-H members already have a career related to their project when they graduate from high school. "Thank you, 4-H, for helping me develop the skillsets to prepare me for a job and for college. Thank you for your scholarship generosity. Thank you for building tomorrow's leaders." –Michelle Gorrell, Triple T 4-H of Clark County. Age 19.

5. Compassion

4-H clubs create opportunities for youth to practice service. In the rush of daily living, we sometimes get so busy doing for ourselves; we forget to do for others. 4-H forces us to stop and intentionally commit to service projects so that a generous spirit becomes our true nature. Research shows that 4-H members are four times more liking to be involved in their communities than their peers. "Thank you, 4-H, for showing me that there is always a way to make a difference." –Katy Beaber, Liberty 4-H of Bureau County. Age 13.

6. Exploration

Exploration takes courage, and 4-H builds confidences which allow youth to step out into the unknown. Whether it's trying a new project or traveling away from home for the first time, 4-H instills an adventurous nature in members who feel supported by caring leaders and staff. "Thank you, 4-H, for helping me express my personal style and helping me find what I'm good at." –Liz Reardanz, Woodworth Kountry Klovers of Iroquois County. Age 12.

7. Friendships and family

4-H is all about relationships. In 4-H, boys and girls learn together, and families are welcome at every gathering. The hard work of showing at the fair doesn't seem so bad when your friends are all there with you. Shared interests create lifelong bonds of friendship. Winning is good, but seeing friends win is even better. 4-H members know the best part of the day isn't receiving the championship trophy, but helping an 8-year-old reach their goal. "Thank you for being so nice and being a second family to me." –Sophie Barnhart, MCML 4-H of Union County. Age 9

8. Responsibility

Nothing teaches responsibility like getting up at 6 a.m. every morning to feed livestock or being in charge of a 4-H field trip. 4-H members know that if they don't do their work, no one else will. It begins with simple tasks, such as bringing refreshments or welcoming visitors. Over time, the tasks get harder and the consequences for failing grow. Employers want workers who complete tasks and are responsible for the consequences. "Thank you, 4-H, for teaching me to never give up!" –Autumn Dottie, Guilford Gainers 4-H of Winnebago County. Age 12.

9. Solid Foundations

4-H is built on the solid foundation of research-based information which local staff turn into hands-on learning activities. No here-today, gone-tomorrow fads. No tricks. No fake news, only rock-solid information you can trust from people you trust. Our foundation is the research of University of Illinois College of ACES. "Thank you, 4-H, for helping me learn new skills and discover new interests." –Kaitlin Udelhofen, Leroy Commandoes 4-H of Boone County, Age 16.

10. Traditions

4-H feels like home. Once you pledge your head to clearer thinking and your heart to greater loyalty, you enter a family 6 million strong. You understand what it means to live each day making the best in you better. "Thank you for parents that encouraged me to join 4-H and the many years of being a 4-H Family." –Georgia Green, Atlanta Town & Country 4-H Club of Logan County, Age 76 and 45 years as a leader.

4-H changes people.

"Thank you, 4-H, for making me a better me." – Alicyn Olson, Liberty 4-H of Bureau County. Age 18.

"Thank you, 4-H, for teaching me to be fair, strong, and not self-centered." –Grace Stapf, Prairie Kids 4-H of Piatt County. Age 13.

"Thank you, 4-H, for helping me learn about my mistakes from my projects." –Audri Green, Prairie Pals 4-H of Crawford County. Age 9.

"Thank you, 4-H, for teaching me to do stuff without complaining." –Karli Yotter, Bunker Hill Livewires 4-H of Macoupin County. Age 13.

"4-H can lead you to the stars. I was a 10-year 4-Her. I am a contract manager for Boeing. My project is the space mission going to Mars. Never did I think my aerospace project would actually lead me to Mars." – Bill Hallett, Liberty Hill Rangers 4-H of Cumberland County. Adult.

Thankful Note

Eye of the beholder

Nov 14
Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Chad Yagow, ABE alumnus, shares his #ACESstory!

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or that’s what they say. When you look at this picture, what do you see? Maybe the green hood of a tractor? Maybe a tilled corn field? Maybe blue sky and strips of brown and tan? 

Look closer. I see the beauty that lies in opportunity. I see specs of mud and dirt and a windshield wiper obscuring my view and an opportunity for glass coating technology that would repel dirt and water. I see an untilled draw and an opportunity for variable rate tillage to control the amount of crop residue left on the soil surface based on soil type and topography. I see a green field in a fall landscape and the opportunity for using cover crops to stop soil loss and retain nutrients and moisture. 

In short, I see opportunity for agronomists, soil scientists, and agricultural and biological engineers to work together to solve the biggest problems our farmers face, today and in the future, to sustainably feed, clothe, and shelter the people of the world. 

So as you drive through the fall landscape, maybe on your way back and forth from celebrating the bounties we have at Thanksgiving, ask yourself what beauty you behold through your eyes…

Chad Yagow is an ABE alumnus, an ex officio member of the ABE External Advisory Committee, and the manager of Agronomy Planning and Partnering for John Deere Technology Innovation Center.

The True College Experience: The Pursuit of Undergraduate Research

Nov 7
Lauren Quinn, ACES Media Specialist

My undergraduate research experience at the University of Montana was the starting point on my path toward a Ph.D. in invasive plant biology. I spent many long hours in the field and the lab, learning basic skills that would serve me well throughout my research career.

When I think about the 12 majors available in the college, it seems undergraduate students in ACES have almost limitless opportunities to get involved in research. Whether or not they go on to pursue graduate degrees in their chosen field, those students will be well prepared for whatever lies ahead.

Today’s guest blogger, Tanvi Majumdar, a sophomore in NRES and recipient of an ACES Undergraduate Research Scholarship, tells her #ACESstory.  

The True College Experience: The Pursuit of Undergraduate Research

By Tanvi Majumdar, Sophomore in NRES

In August of 2016, two packed suitcases sat in a corner of my room for three weeks; I was slightly prematurely ready for my first 11-hour drive from Maryland to Urbana-Champaign. I went into my freshman year knowing two things: I would be in the College of ACES, and I wanted to get involved in research. Even though I had spent an unreasonable amount of time fantasizing about college, it turned out that I, like every other bright-eyed freshman, had very little idea about what my college experience would truly be.

 Over the past semester of my sophomore year, I have finally come to certain revelations about what it means to be in the College of ACES and to be involved in research. I went into ACES simply because I wanted to pursue environmental sciences, but once you begin to delve into the ACES treasure trove, it is evident that the college has much more to offer, often attracting the envy of my friends in other colleges. Most importantly for my aspirations, ACES has encouraged and supported me in my quest to participate in research through its Undergraduate Research Scholarship Program.

This semester, I began working in Dr. Sarah Refi Hind’s lab in the Department of Crop Sciences. Working in her lab has been the highly involved, engaging research experience I had fantasized about. Dr. Hind’s lab is studying Xanthomonas bacteria, which inflict bacterial spot disease on tomato plants. Since non-motile strains of the bacteria go undetected by tomato plants, my project in the lab concerns evaluating the relationship between Xanthomonas motility and mutations in the protein (flagellin) composing the appendage (flagellum) that enables bacterial movement.

To fund some more expensive aspects of this project (involving protein analysis and microscopy) I applied for the ACES Undergraduate Research Scholarship. I earned a small but significant grant of $1,500, with additional funds for travelling to conferences and publication fees. With the support of this grant, I look forward to evaluating my hypotheses and potentially publishing my results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

This research is one of the most enriching and fulfilling, yet challenging, experiences of my short life. It took some time to adjust to being so hands-on in the lab and to realize that each step of the process is not as easy as it seems in theory. However, troubleshooting has become part of the excitement, and with each step forward, my motivation only grows. I have learned a lot, and there is a lot left to learn, but there is no greater satisfaction than trying to solve a real-world mystery. I intend to continue conducting research in this lab, and it will undoubtedly be interesting to see where this project takes me next. More importantly, I encourage others to not only get involved in research but to also explore opportunities in ACES. I am exactly where I want to be right now, and nothing is more rewarding than that.

The True College Experience: The Pursuit of Undergraduate Research

Working around Mother Nature

Nov 6
Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

ABE student, Anne Reardon, shares her #ACESstory!

How can agricultural and biological engineers help when parts of our country are affected by natural disasters? This fall, Hurricane Harvey devastated the southern US, causing billions of dollars of damage to communities.   The news covered the hurricane extensively, but the enormous damages caused to the agriculture industry were less publicized.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 1.2 million beef cows were in the disaster region of Hurricane Harvey.  Hundreds were drowned in the flooding, and even surviving cattle have health problems from stress, not eating for days and standing in water for long periods of time.  Loss of livestock, the cost of medicine, and replacement fees for structures and farm equipment took a huge financial toll on farmers. 

The cotton crop was also predicted to be the best yield in years before Harvey damaged at least one fifth ($135 million) of the crop.  In addition, rice can’t be harvested because the fields are still too wet to bring in machinery.  And these are just a few of the problems that Hurricane Harvey caused! This devastation is a prime example of how uncontrollable events can completely disrupt the systems we have built. 

So how can we help? Let’s build more adaptable systems!  Let’s design machines that work in wetter conditions.  Let’s continue developing new technologies such as vertical farming, hydroponics, or other indoor farming methods so food production isn’t affected by flooding or heavy rain.  Let’s join biological engineers crafting synthetic meat in labs to ensure food security regardless of the cattle supply and genetically modifying crops to be able to grow in greater water levels. 

Developing and embracing new technologies will be powerful tools to combat food insecurity due to natural disasters in the future, which is exactly why agricultural and biological engineering is so important.  We need to ensure that we can feed the world regardless of the challenges Mother Nature has in store.

Season of Thanks

Nov 6
Sara Tondini, Animal Sciences graduate student

Some of you may have stopped drinking the pumpkin spice lattes by now or even started playing Christmas music, but we still have one of my favorite seasons to celebrate before the garland gets hung. This season is all about giving thanks. I have many things to be thankful for so I’m just going to highlight a few. In ACES style, of course.

  1. Food – Animal Sciences Laboratory is a special, wonderful place where food magically appears sometimes and by “magically appears” I mean a generous person takes their time and money to brighten other people’s day by bringing popcorn or donuts or coffee to the office, and I’m so thankful for that. I enjoy the kindness of others to do something that seems small but could really change a person’s mood. Have you ever seen a sad person eating a donut?
  2. Coworkers – In grad school, your coworkers are also your classmates, your mentors, and your friends. Whether you need help weighing cattle, an extra set of hands for a lab procedure, or some comedic relief after a stressful day, we all have each other’s backs. We confide in each other and depend on each other through the ups and downs, and I’m extremely thankful for my crew. I would not have survived the year thus far without them.
  3. Knowledge – We take this for granted big time. I zone out in class when I’m tired or rush through homework assignments and don’t really think twice about it, but I’m so thankful for the chance to learn new things every day. Each day I come home with an interesting idea or cool new fact that I want to share with my family and friends. I gain new perspectives, challenge old ideas and expand my knowledge daily.

I’m thankful for the College of ACES and in particular my animal sciences community for all it has to offer. Take time to reflect on the things you’re thankful for and pay it forward this season.

Sara and friends in grad office

A True Homecoming

Nov 3
Kim Kidwell, Dean of the College of ACES

One year ago, I began my journey as the dean of the College of ACES. It has been an exciting adventure that has taken me from coast to coast across the country, from border to border in every corner of the state, and around the globe. The ACES family and the Illini Nation welcomed me home with incredible graciousness, support, encouragement, and hope, for which I am eternally grateful. The people I am surrounded by are spectacular and I end this year as I began it: truly humbled to have the opportunity to serve as dean.

Over the last 12 months, I have realized several important things that I was not aware of when I accepted this positon that have motivated me to make my best effort to lead the college forward and have inspired me to have tremendous hope for our future.

First, the statement “it is too expensive to go to University of Illinois” is misleading. Although the upfront costs might be higher than some institutions, being a degree-holder from the University of Illinois pays tremendous dividends. Our first-year retention rate* (94.7%) and four-year graduation rate (76.4%) are among the highest in the nation. Students who come to ACES tend to stay in the college and graduate in four years. Students at other universities may require one to four additional semesters to complete their degrees, which increases tuition costs and delays entry into the work force. ACES graduates earn 27% more over the course of their careers compared to people with similar degrees from other universities. We also distribute nearly $4 million annually in scholarships to ACES students that greatly reduces debt load. The value-added advantage of having an ACES degree is worth the upfront investment, which is a message I broadcast everywhere I go.

Second, the faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of this college are second to none. The term “Illini Pride” has come to life for me as I have met literally hundreds of people who live into the values of the ACES community through their actions. We are a resilient, loyal, dedicated, and diverse group of individuals who stand shoulder to shoulder in our commitment to take on the world’s greatest challenges to improve the quality of people’s lives. Our graduates are among the premiere change agents in their disciplines. Cutting-edge research discoveries are made in every ACES department that are changing the trajectory of success in agricultural, consumer, and environmental sciences around the world. The work our Extension and 4-H personnel do in partnership with local government and public agencies is transforming lives in communities across the state. The challenge we face is that not enough people are aware of what we do, why it matters, and how these efforts impact them. We are on a mission to create awareness around the great work we do in the College of ACES to improve our visibility and impact. We have a fabulous story to tell and I am deeply honored to have an opportunity to serve as the voice of ACES.    

Finally, there is no place like home. After a 31-year hiatus from the region, I am thankful to be back in the place I call home. I never imagined being in a situation where I would serve as the leader of the college that I graduated from or live 40 miles from the place I grew up. I am flooded with emotion time and time again, as I sink into the unbelievable opportunity being the dean of ACES has been to me both professionally and personally. This is the only university on this planet that offers me an opportunity to do the work that I love near the place that my family lives. Among the greatest gifts this experience has provided to me, is an opportunity to spend time with my family on a regular basis. Instead of talking about life with each other with 2,000 miles between us, we now live life together in real time. I will forever cherish this priceless gift.

I am grateful to the ACES community and Illini Nation for making my first year as dean nothing short of spectacular. I consider having the opportunity to serve as the dean of ACES to be my moment to give back to the place that has given so much to me. I look forward to working with all of you to continue on our collective journey towards extraordinary.

With hope and optimism,

*Source: http://dmi.illinois.edu/cp/default.aspx
Dean Kidwell's One-Year Anniversary

Not All Classrooms Have Four Walls

Nov 2
ACES Study Abroad

How Experiential Learning Impacted My Life
By Jenna Davis, Senior in ACE

During my senior year of high school, I made a seemingly meaningless decision to stop by the study abroad booth at Explore ACES. While in the Morgan-Caterpillar Room, I picked up a normal flyer, without knowing that it would change my life. When I read through it later, I learned about freshman discovery courses that took students abroad for two weeks over winter break to learn about different agricultural systems.

This is how I found myself at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, for the first of five times in my college career (although I had no idea then), to catch a plane to Guatemala. I thought it would be a fun way to learn something new and see a different part of the world. I had no idea the amount of impact this program would have on my life.

Traveling to Guatemala was my first taste of international agriculture. Two weeks of hands-on experiential learning taught me about different cultures, economies, and agriculture systems, as well as personal growth and development. I was exposed to crops different from the corn and soybeans of Illinois, and saw the differences in agribusinesses outside the United States. I wasn’t sitting in a classroom, but I learned more than I ever thought possible.

After Guatemala, I participated in the Agricultural Policy and Leadership Program in Washington, D.C., over spring break, again, because it sounded intriguing. This time I was exposed to a more formal, behind-the-scenes approach to agriculture, as my class met with congressmen and policy makers at many different agriculture and government organizations. I had never really thought about this side of agriculture before, which made me wonder what other aspects I had yet to experience.

Experiential learning had impacted my life twice in only a year. But I wasn’t done there. In September, I received an email from my academic advisor, with a couple sentences at the bottom mentioning that spots were still available to go to Morocco over winter break. I had loved my previous experiential learning programs, and was eager to go abroad again, so I jumped at the opportunity. It was outside of my major, I didn’t know the professor, or anyone else going, but that didn’t stop me.

It was pretty amazing that I was able to fearlessly jump into the unknown, completely confident that it would be a great experience. I started to seek out opportunities, not only because they seemed interesting, but because I saw their potential to provide knowledge and growth. Had I not previously participated in experiential learning programs, I would not have been able to truly understand the value of international programs, and how impactful learning outside of the classroom really is.

After traveling to Morocco, I was also accepted into the International Business Immersion Program to New Zealand, which I had heard many great things about. After going abroad, and participating in a professional learning opportunity, I knew combining the two would make for a very impactful trip. I was right again, and learned an immense amount about yet another agriculture sector, research, and myself. In class, we studied different agribusinesses within New Zealand, and then traveled to visit with them in person. While the background knowledge that class provided was great, physically speaking to companies in person was a priceless opportunity that you can’t achieve in class.

All four (and soon to be five, as I head to Brazil this winter) of these experiential learning programs have impacted my life in more ways than I knew to be possible. I continue to be amazed at how much more there is to learn about the world.  No matter how many times I go abroad, I still find new interests and admiration in other cultures. Experiential learning made me comfortable in challenging myself and seeking out opportunities for personal growth. I’ve had the opportunity to see a wide variety of agriculture sectors, conduct research, become a better public speaker, improve my leadership skills, and make valuable friendships along the way. Without participating in study abroad and experiential learning, I would have never had these opportunities. Through study abroad, I learned that not all classrooms have four walls, and that there is something to be learned in every opportunity, regardless of where you are.   

Jenna Davis, Senior in ACE
Jenna in the desert in Morocco in Jan 2017 with the HORT 298 International Horticulture Products winter break program led by Dr. Mosbah Kushad.

Working with Louisiana sugarcane farmers

Oct 31
Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

ABE researcher, Dr. Md. Abdul Momin, shares his #ACESstory!

As a post-doctoral research associate, originally from Bangladesh and currently in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, I work under the supervision of Alan Hansen, professor in ABE. My project involves harvesting machinery technology development for precision and sustainable sugarcane production.

In early 2016, substantial efforts to visit Brazil, the largest global producer of sugar cane, in order to carry out field tests and capture data for the project failed. Fortunately, an alternative sugar cane farm site for testing was identified in Louisiana, and arrangements were made to visit there from November 20-25.

After a long 12-hour drive, our team comprising me, Paul, Bau and Theja arrived in Thibodaux, Louisiana. The following morning we visited the sugarcane farm site near Edgard, Louisiana, to conduct the field experiments. The farmer, Brandon Gravois, and his team were appreciative of our help and welcomed us with enthusiasm and energy. We divided into two groups, one to collect data associated with the sugarcane harvester and another to fly a drone over the entire field to capture aerial images at different altitudes. This was my first experience working with sugarcane and with such a giant harvester – a John Deere 3520.

Sugarcane is a perennial grass, and propagation is carried out vegetatively, i.e., regrowth occurs from the leftover portion of the harvested stem. This practice is called ratooning. The sugarcane in this field was in its second ratoon. The harvester first cut the sugarcane at its base and removed unwanted leafy material from the top of the stem. Then fed the sugarcane into a chopper where the stems were cut into billets approximately 6 to 10 inches in length. The unwanted materials were removed by the extractor fans, and the billets were dumped into a wagon.

Harvesting operations in Louisiana generally consist of one or two track-type mechanical harvesters, a series of tractors pulling 6-12 ton dump wagons, and a fleet of 18-wheeler semi-trucks. The wagons are loaded by the harvester while traveling through the field and are then driven to a second site for unloading into the trucks. Each truck carries up to approximately 30 tons of harvested sugarcane billets to the mill for further processing.

Although my family and I missed each other during this Thanksgiving week, the Gravois family invited our team to dinner on Thanksgiving Day. It was a very interesting and enjoyable dinner party with all his family members. His parents were awesome, and we had a great talk with his uncle, a Vietnam veteran. All in all, this was a very fruitful trip, and we were fortunate to be able to work with a great sugarcane farmer and his family.