Beneath the Southern Cross

Jun 27
Richard Vogen, Director, Planning and Research Development

Guiding navigators for millennia, the Southern Cross is a bright constellation in the southern sky.   Cultures of the southern hemisphere adopted it as their symbol, and the stars of the “Crux” feature prominently on several national flags. Sometimes known as sons and daughters of the Southern Cross, pioneers made their way to Aotearoa, the Maori name for the island nation of New Zealand.

Beneath the Southern Cross in the middle of May, twenty of our finest Illini landed in Queenstown on the south island, framed by the soaring peaks of the Southern Alps. International business immersion was the reason for the journey – with agriculture, food, and fiber as the frame. To illustrate New Zealand’s innovative approaches to agribusiness, the students traveled value chains ranging from Merino wool, to grass-fed lamb and beef, to Kiwifruit, to dairy.

Directly engaging students with the professionals who lead important industry segments is a primary goal of the International Business Immersion Program (IBIP), and for two solid weeks that happened every day. Real-world interactions with people who live and work in a culture greatly enrich the study abroad experience. In New Zealand, the Illinois students also met ACES alumni, like Jack Cocks, who operates the Mt. Nicholas high country sheep station with his wife, Kate; Jo Stevenson, an expert in business resiliency in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake; and Trent Jesso, a former IBIP participant who is making his career and life down under in transportation logistics.

From a Maori cultural evening, to an afternoon in “Middle Earth”, to super rugby competition between the Auckland Blues and the Waikato Chiefs, a taste of the Kiwi nation whetted the students’ appetites for more international adventures. Upon reflection, they said things like this.

“I have grown more as a professional, and I am now more than ever, ready to go out into the world of business.”

 “While we went to New Zealand to seek answers, I felt that I learned much more about asking questions and looking at situations from different angles.” 

“This trip pushed me to step out of my comfort zone by interacting with intelligent individuals in a professional manner.” 

“Participating in the International Business Immersion Program taught me so much more than I could have ever imagined…I can say without a doubt that traveling to New Zealand has made me a better student, agriculturalist, professional, and person.”

In IBIP, students critically evaluate important opportunities, constraints, and drivers for businesses in their international contexts.  For this class, student teams gathered primary data to inform their research about innovative responses to consumer demand, disruptive natural events, and growth of tourism, as well as innovative uses of advanced technologies and competitive advantages of pastoral livestock systems.  As an overarching bonus, students discovered new ways of creative thinking at the heart of New Zealand’s culture of innovation in food and agriculture.

After the ACES Career Fair in October, this group of budding professionals will share their stories from beneath the Southern Cross.

“When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you understand now why you came this way.…”

Crosby, Stills, and Nash

students in New Zealand
Richard Vogen and his students enjoy the scenery in New Zealand.

For Better Crops

Jun 26
Germán Bollero, Head, Department of Crop Sciences

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that food production will need to increase by 70% to fulfill the requirements of 9.1 billion people by 2050. More importantly, food production will have to double in the developing world. Much has been said about these goals and the need to achieve them by reducing agriculture’s environmental impact. In synthesis, agriculture is challenged one more time to continue producing abundant and nutritious food while protecting the environment. 

Arguably the most exciting challenge for future generations of students interested not only in food production, but also in biology, environmental sciences, genetics, bioinformatics, and data analytics. If you want to make a meaningful impact that will benefit billions of people, join the Department of Crop Sciences. Through education, research, and outreach we have been solving the food production challenge locally and globally since 1867. Since then, a multidisciplinary group of scholars in plant sciences have been passionate about advancing our knowledge of crop improvement, cropping systems, and plant protection.

The history and future of the University of Illinois are intimately connected with our department. In 1870, Thomas J. Burrill became the first professor of botany and horticulture at the University of Illinois. Dr. Burrill was a pioneer in bacterial diseases of crops. In 1896, P.G. Holden was the first professor of agronomy in the United States. The oldest continuous research fields in the U.S. were established in 1876 by M. Miles, C.W. Silver, and G.E. Morrow. In 1896, Cyril G. Hopkins started the longest on-going genetic selection program in plants (The Illinois long-Term Selection Experiment) to modify levels of protein and oil in corn. These are just a few examples of forward-looking scholars that established basic and applied sciences as the foundation for improving agriculture. 

I invite you to investigate how scientists continue to look forward and work on the next challenges in food production. Today, our department is excited to be part of the latest scientific advances in genetics, genomics, bioinformatics, crop production, plant protection, water quality, and sustainable food systems. Our undergraduate and graduate programs prepare our students to lead the teams that will tackle tomorrow’s challenges. Our newest major, a combination of Computer Science and Crop Sciences, targets the increasing need to integrate data analytics into food production. 

In 1911, C. G. Hopkins and other scientists wrote the book entitled “For Better Crops” where the future of soil fertility, cropping systems, and crop genetics is presented. This title, “For Better Crops,” is why we passionately believe in continuing to build the future of research, teaching, and outreach in crop sciences.

Scientist in the lab

Living and learning in Dixon Springs

Jun 22
Lucas Neira, Animal Sciences graduate student

Interning at Dixon Springs Agricultural Center (DSAC) has given me the unique opportunity to work on a research ranch that mirrors the real environment of a production ranch. DSAC functions like a real ranch: we have the same size, conditions, facilities and difficulties as any production ranch.

I had never been on the inside of a research farm before coming to DSAC. My point of view about how a research ranch works before was completely different than it is now. I had never thought about how hard it must be to keep track of different treatment groups, conditions, and instructions. Each project requires the technical team to give doubled attention just to keep up! Researchers know they can rely on our team to address everything with a scientific approach.

DSAC also supplies researchers with amazing facilities. The abundant pasture, where cattle can graze during the grass season, offers comfortable shade from trees. When the cattle need feed, DSAC has an on-site stock of feed so we can mix the feed rations according to the specific research plans. DSAC has 5 corrals equipped with scales so we can easily track and measure the progress of any research treatments.

One of the things DSAC offers that caught my eye when I first arrived were the four-wheelers. We use these “little horses” to handle the cattle to check on the necessary daily stuff. I was so surprised at how easy, fast, and efficient the work could be with the four-wheelers!

The opportunity to stay here and to work in these facilities and with the research crew has improved my skills and the way I look at research ranches. I’ve been enjoying this opportunity, and I can thank living and learning here for making my progress possible.

black cows

Engineering on earth, to the moon, and back!

Jun 20
Alan Hansen, Interim Head, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Since joining the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in 1988 as a visiting scholar, my understanding and appreciation has definitely grown for the remarkable record of ground-breaking contributions of ABE faculty, staff, and students. I’ll admit that my knowledge of ABE’s breadth of work and impact skyrocketed when I recently became interim head of the department. ABE truly embraces and lives out its mission to integrate engineering, technology, and life sciences for enhancement of complex living systems in global agriculture, food, energy, water, and the environment. ABE has a unique advantage in its relationship with not one, but two internationally recognized colleges--ACES and Engineering. This allows us to leverage opportunities for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaborations in furthering our mission as a department.

First, teaching—

ABE courses provide breadth and depth for students, not only for majors in our department but for the whole campus. For example, we have general education courses that address “Water and the Global Environment” and “Humanity and the Food Web.” On the engineering side, our curriculum meets ABET accreditation requirements, but provides flexibility to allow students to pursue many specializations from nanoscale biological engineering to large scale ecological systems engineering; from designing systems for optimal indoor environments to developing systems for addressing needs for outdoor environments; and from food and bioprocess engineering to renewable energy systems engineering. Appropriate scale mechanization is addressed through off-road equipment engineering. Our Technical Systems Management program was created in 1996, evolving from an agricultural mechanization program, providing a broader base related to the bridging of technology and business. Students acquire a strong foundation in the technology arena coupled with knowledge and skills to be effective managers.

Turning to research—

ABE has a remarkable portfolio of projects with competitive and broad sources of funding, including federal, state and corporate. And, those projects have demonstrated impact not just on the local, national, and international dimension, but also extra-terrestrially. ABE has recently had an undergraduate research project to send a miniature greenhouse to the moon! Our technology research ranges from appropriate scale mechanization interventions in developing countries to robots, including drones, equipped with sensors that traverse agricultural fields collecting data regarding plant growth and physiological traits. Some of our researchers develop optimized indoor housing environments for livestock while others investigate the climate-water-food-energy nexus. We’re developing stored thermal energy systems for cooking without fuel, fire, or emissions while designing and building zero energy solar houses. An overarching research topic that is rapidly gaining momentum is data analytics. We are using the strong systems engineering core of our discipline to develop these decision-making tools.

Last, but not least, outreach—

Our extension and outreach efforts and local relevance are noteworthy. We have provided leadership in addressing agricultural safety and health, not only in Illinois but other states, for almost 30 years; drainage and soil conservation impacting nutrient transport to the Gulf; livestock facilities and manure management including certified training; and internationally recognized certified testing of agricultural fans.

Please visit to learn more about us.

rice seed planter in field
On a recent visit to Cambodia, I had the opportunity to operate a prototype rice seed planter that had been developed locally as part of the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium project, a sub-award under the Sustainable Intensification Innovation L

Agriscience Fair mentors coach young researchers

Jun 20
Courtney Walker, ACES Communications Graduate Intern

Each year, hundreds of students across the country get their feet wet in research through the National FFA Organization’s AgriScience Fair . Some of the nation’s most curious young agricultural researchers select, propose, and complete projects that highlight the science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) components of agriculture, including:

•    Animal Systems
•    Environmental Services/Natural Resource Systems
•    Food Products and Processing Systems
•    Plant Systems
•    Power, Structural, and Technical Systems
•    Social Science

To bolster these young researcher’s inquiry skills, the University of Illinois Agricultural Education Program piloted a researcher mentorship program this year. Erica Thieman, assistant professor in agricultural science education, matched research methods graduate students with high school agriscience fair participants through the research proposals process. The volunteer mentors and agriscience fair contestants focused on preparing posters and proposals to submit to the state competition. 

Abigail Petersen, graduate student in agricultural leadership education, explains why she volunteered to work with an agrscience fair participant this spring. “Mentoring students has always been a passion of mine,” she says. “Plus, it’s really fun to see what high school students are up to these days!”

Petersen adds that she hopes her coaching allowed her mentee to communicate his research’s proceedings and results more clearly at the state competition. “My student did some amazing work studying allelopathy in plants. Working with him to improve his research and writing skills will help him on his project and in his future in agriscience.”

Petersen, a pre-doctoral fellow in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences , understands the importance of clear communication in research writing. “Academic writing is very specific,” she says, “therefore, it is not easily done.” 

Petersen’s role as an agriscience fair mentor is to edit her mentee’s research paper to ensure the paper is both scientific and succinct. “Academic writing is a special type of writing that clearly discusses the process in which scientific research occurs and the findings and conclusions that come out of that process,” she says. “Mentors help teach these students how to communicate their research clearly and scientifically.”

According to Petersen, clearly communicating research is not an easy task. “Writing in an academic fashion takes practice and mentorship, which is where we come in,” she says.

Petersen knows the value of an academic mentor first-hand. “In the STEM field, there are specific checklists you have to follow to ensure sound scientific findings. It’s a very steep learning curve,” she says. “It helps if you have someone who’s gone through the process to coach you along the way.”

“Everyone goes through a time when they don’t feel as if they are smart enough or organized enough to be successful in a STEM field, but having a good mentor to help you along the way helps dissipate those doubts,” she says.

That’s why Petersen says she’ll continue to volunteer to mentor students. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentors who said they believed in me,” she says.

Last week, Illinois students in grades 7 through 12 competed in their age division and topic category at the state contest held at the Illinois FFA Convention. Those students who won in their division and category are set to move on to compete at the National FFA Convention in October. You can find a list of these winners on the Illinois Association FFA’s website later this month. 

agriscience fair dinner paper
Participants and judges in the 2017 Illinois Association FFA AgriScience Fair celebrated a year of hard work at a dinner Tuesday night.

Seeing the unknown as opportunity

Jun 13
Sara Tondini, Animal Sciences graduate student

Since the start of my graduate school research project, I've been reminded each day of how little I know.

I use to be discouraged about what I didn’t know. I thought it meant I wasn't smart enough or I didn't learn enough or I didn’t pay attention enough. I'm starting to realize that not knowing is not a bad thing.

Not knowing means the new paths you've decided to take are being met with new challenges and chances to learn every day.

I didn't know how to collect rumen fluid (basically just cow stomach juice) a couple of weeks ago, but I do now. I didn't know what a spectrophotometer was (and I still don't really know) but I know how to use it.

I didn't know there were so many people waiting to help me out and support me on my new journey, but there are lots! So that's why I'm excited about the unknown.

There will always be new things to explore and research, and I think my main goal isn't to find the answers to everything: It’s to keep finding the unknown.  

Girl in lab testing samples

Perspective: Cast a different light

Jun 12
Debra Korte, Teaching Assistant Professor, Agricultural Education

Beauty abounds at the University of Illinois. The architecture of the buildings and the plant-life that surrounds us reflect the history of a campus steeped in the rich traditions of a land-grant university.

But sometimes in our daily encounters with familiar surroundings, we neglect to really see the beauty that lies within, often because we are taking the same path at the same time every day, not bothering to even consider the context around us. We are viewing things from a singular perspective. 

The same holds true for our interactions with people. Our impressions of a person or situation may change when we look at them from a unique perspective. This may be as simple as slowing down, deeply listening, or asking thoughtful questions about the other person’s life. Once we develop a habit of perspective-shifting, we often find characteristics in people that are in stark contrast to our initial impressions. The world around us becomes more interesting and more beautiful. 

There are times when we must take a step back from the situation, lean in to learn more, or cast a different light to recognize someone else’s viewpoint. Challenge yourself to take a break from “normal” paths and patterns.  What new perspectives can you discover that you hadn’t quite seen before?

windows at library

Restaurant lovers can rest easy

Jun 1
Courtney Walker, ACES Communications Graduate Intern

I love to eat at restaurants. Honestly, it’s probably my favorite hobby. I love the whole experience of dining out: the ambiance, the servers, and most of all, the food.

I’m not alone in my love of dining out:  according to the National Restaurant Association, Illinois consumers spend $25 billion in restaurants. And our dining options are virtually unlimited: You could eat at a different restaurant for every meal for the next 25 years without even leaving the state.
(Although I don’t know if your wallet would recommend tackling this challenge…) 

But with the joys of dining out also come some questions. How do I know my food has been properly handled? Should I trust the chefs and servers? Should I ask to inspect every kitchen before I order a plate? Is this safe?

According to Caitlin Huth, nutrition and wellness educator with University of Illinois Extension, 1 in 6 people get foodborne illnesses annually. The estimated 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. lead to roughly 3,000 deaths each year. Inadequately cooked foods, contaminated equipment, and poor personal hygiene can all contribute to the physical, chemical, and biological hazards that cause foodborne illnesses.  

Thankfully, people like Caitlin play a key role in preventing these dangerous risks. Caitlin and her U of I Extension counterparts educate foodservice employees on the do’s and don’ts of food preparation in the Food Service Sanitation Manager Certification (FSSMC) training course. 

FSSMC is required by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) of at least one manager in all commercial kitchens. IDPH requires FSSMC seekers to complete an 8-hour course, like Caitlin’s, and to pass an exam accredited by the Conference for Food Protection. Once the manager earns their FSSMC, their certificate is valid for five years. 

Out of curiosity, I sat in on one of Caitlin’s training sessions. Alongside managers from restaurants in Macon and Champaign counties, I learned about food preparation hazards and risk-mitigating strategies. 

Caitlin taught us about keeping an eye out for items labeled as potential hazardous foods (PHF).  A PHF label typically refers to a food that contains low acidity, high amounts of water, and protein. By adhering to specific time and temperature controls, food preparers can monitor the risks of a PHF. These time and temperature controls are often referred to as TCS. TCS varies depending on specific food items, but the general guideline is to avoid storing food in the temperature danger zone:  the temperature above 41°F and below 135°F. Temperatures below 41°F are too cold for most biological hazards to thrive and multiply. Likewise, temperatures above 135°F are too hot for biological hazards to reproduce. 

Caitlin went on to discuss the details of physical, chemical, and biological hazards. Most of this material was new to me – I knew I should wash my hands before preparing food, but I didn’t know just how sick bacteria on unclean hands can make a person.

Although a lot of Caitlin’s session grossed me out, I was comforted to know that a FSSMC holder is posted in every one of Illinois’ 27,000+ commercial kitchens. 

And from talking with the managers at the training, these FSSMC managers not only understand the risks and preventative measures, but also appreciate the opportunity to learn. After all, food service is a service industry. The people in restaurants’ kitchens prepare food for customers because they love cooking and serving. And they’ll do everything they can to keep their product and their customer safe. 

Knowing that my favorite restaurants and those I’ve yet to try all have on-site FSSMC managers makes this happy eater rest a little easier.

chopping herbs

Changing seasons of life

May 26
Debra Korte, Teaching Assistant Professor, Agricultural Education

Who doesn’t love summer?!? Warm temperatures, baseball games, livestock shows, vacations, picnics, outdoor concerts, or whatever else you enjoy doing in this season. 

Along with a change in the weather, summer also lends itself to other forms of change. A change of pace. A change in activities. A change in lifestyle. 

In many ways, I feel as though the people I interact with are also “changing seasons” in life this summer.

Graduations, weddings, and new employment or internships are exciting changes. Often welcomed changes! 

But let’s face it, change often carries a slight bit of fear, too. Fear of the unknown. Fear of moving to a new location. Fear of fulfilling job responsibilities. Fear of meeting expectations from others.

For those who may be changing seasons in life… 

  • Trust the process. Let go of control. 
  • Growth is uncomfortable. Be willing to be uncomfortable. 
  • Realize you are capable of more than you previously believed or imagined.

Whether it’s your favorite season or not, changes occur during the summer months. Recognize opportunities. Embrace the unknown. Keep moving forward. 

Photo provided by Caseelynn Johnston, senior in agricultural education

A Brazilian experience

May 26
Lucas Neira, Animal Sciences graduate student

Every time I try to write about my experiences in the United States, I get lost in my memories. I end up traveling into the past as I remember the walk to where I am today. I have decided to share my travels with you in this blog.

I am a 28-year-old veterinarian from Brazil who has decided to leave my country, family, and friends to learn about cattle production. I arrived in Sidney, Montana, in February 2016 not knowing a single word in English. I knew it would take me time to learn. I started to work on the ranch, living a country life. I enjoyed my time riding horses, and branding and feeding cattle.

After a year learning English and a little bit more about cow-calf operations, Dr. Dan Shike gave me the opportunity to come to the University of Illinois to increase my chances to learn. It’s only been three months since I started as an intern at Dixon Springs Agricultural Center (DSAC), but I am living an amazing experience that I never could have imagined before leaving my country.

The weather, production systems, and research conditions here provide me a great opportunity to keep learning more and more. The technology at DASC allows us to analyze development and results in the pasture with high precision. DSAC also staffs amazing people who work hard to make the research projects work perfectly.

Every time I meet someone new at the ranch, I learn how important people are to achieving results. People can be the key or the bottleneck for a cattle operation, or for any business for that matter. To find someone with a skill and purpose for each job is necessary in order to reach your goals.

At DSAC, I had the pleasure to work with Greg, the head of the operational team. After 18 years working here, Greg is moving on to a new job, but the lessons he’s taught us and the special way he deals with everyone, always concerned and interested in teaching others, will remain with us here at DSAC.

I feel blessed to have this opportunity and I am thankful for every partner I have had in this journey. The people who have taken the time to pass some of their knowledge on to me have made all the difference in my experience here in the United States.

If you want to follow my travels, look for @lucastneira or #thisisthepajelife on Instagram. I’m looking forward to keeping you posted on the Voices of ACES Blog about my internship here in Dixon Springs.