Back-to-school advice

Aug 17
Kelsey Litchfield, ACES Communications & Marketing

It’s that time of year – vacations are over and schools are back in session. August is probably one of my favorite months of the year. It almost feels like another fresh start – another New Year’s Day – but warmer!

While it was nice to have a quiet campus and not have to stand in line at Starbucks, I’m ready for the students to be back. As a young professional, I vividly remember moving back to campus when I was a student here in ACES. Between catching up with friends and preparing for classes, it was such a memorable time.

I’m now going on year two as an ACES alumna and I can’t help but wonder what advice I would give myself at the start of the school year. So here’s my two cents broken down by each year.

Freshmen: What an exciting time for you! You are starting a new chapter in life and ready to get the ball rolling for your first year of college. But don’t run too fast and get overwhelmed with your classes, your extracurricular activities, and your social life. Set a good routine and concentrate on your classes. You are here to get an education – everything else will line up behind that. Oh, and don’t forget to call your parents every once in a while.

Sophomores: You’re no longer the newest people on campus as you have a year under your belt. This is the year I encourage you to get involved in the organizations you’re really passionate about. Pick two to three RSOs and grow as a leader. Keep focusing on your studies too – don’t become lazy! Keep your GPA up as it’s important when filling out scholarship and internship applications.

Juniors: Oh, you’re an upperclassman now! This is a pivotal year as you really start thinking about post-college life. Stay involved on campus, but dedicate some of your time to perfecting your resume, job shadowing, and applying for internships if you haven’t already.

Seniors: Savor every moment because this is the year that will go by the quickest. Make a senior bucket list and check it off with your friends. Apply for jobs and internships as soon as possible. And most importantly, graduate!

Best of luck this year, Illini! Study hard and have fun. Keep writing your #ACESstory!

My first day picture from my senior year of college.

Commitment to research excellence in ACES

Aug 16
Brenna Ellison , Associate Professor, Agricultural and Consumer Economics

While many students are pursuing professional development opportunities, such as internships in the summer, this is also the time of year when many faculty members and graduate students are engaging with their professional networks at conferences. Conferences are a great way for ACES faculty and graduate students to present their research and get early feedback before publication. These are also important networking venues – you can meet new collaborators, see old friends, and for our graduate students on the job market, talk with potential employers.

Last week, the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) held its annual conference in Washington, D.C. The Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics (ACE) was well represented at the meetings, with ACE faculty and graduate students involved in over 40 research posters and presentations! In addition, two ACE faculty members were recognized at the AAEA Awards Ceremony. Gary Schnitkey, professor, was awarded the Distinguished Extension/Outreach Program for faculty members with more than 10 years of experience. Professor Scott Irwin and ACE alum Dwight Sanders were awarded the Bruce Gardner Memorial Prize for their research article “The Impact of Index and Swap Funds on Commodity Futures Markets.” Congrats to Gary, Scott, and Dwight on their achievements and cheers to the ACE department for their strong representation of the College of ACES and University of Illinois in D.C.!

It’s a small world

Aug 15
Stephanie Henry, ACES Media Specialist

Since coming to work as a writer for the College of ACES just over five years ago, the world has seemed a bit more of a smaller place to me at times.

In fact, it’s happened twice now.  

A few years back, I was waiting in line to tour a historical site in Dublin, Ireland. I noticed a man 10 or so people ahead of me wearing an unmistakable orange and blue, Illinois sweatshirt. I just had to go say hello, because what were the chances that an Illini fan and I would be in in the same line, at the same time, in Dublin? I said hello and introduced myself, mentioning that I work for the University of Illinois. He laughed and put his hand on the young lady’s shoulder in front of him and said, “This is my daughter. She’s a student at U of I.”

We shook hands and I asked her major. To my surprise, she told me that she was an ACES student in natural resources and environmental sciences, studying abroad for the semester in Ireland. And her parents and sister had come from the Chicago suburbs to visit her that week in Dublin! I couldn’t have been more surprised.

We ended up being assigned to the same group for the tour. Throughout the tour, we all couldn’t stop remarking what a coincidence it was that we were all there together.

But this was not the last time something like this would happen.

Just a few weeks ago, my family and I were wrapping up a wonderful week spent on Maui.  A crew member of the beautiful resort we stayed at noticed my family member’s Illinois ball cap.

“Hey, Illini fans,” he exclaimed. And then let us know that he had attended U of I in the early 2000s.

And, again, what are the chances?! He told us he had grown up on a farm in Illinois and came to ACES to study agronomy. His interests later turned to turf management, thus the move to Maui. We swapped stories about professors he knew and classes he had taken, etc. It seemed like such a small world all over again.

It’s been fun, experiencing the surprise and sense of, “what are the chances?” when meeting members of the ACES family in unexpected places. But I guess it shouldn’t come as such a surprise. It’s what we do after all. We train students and send them out to make a difference in the world.

Looking forward to more traveling adventures, and chance meetings with our ACES family.

Adventure Awaits!

Aug 13
Brianna Gregg, ACES Coordinator of Transfer Recruitment

Summer is almost over and fall classes are right around the corner. We are saying goodbye to our August graduates and hello to our new students. The phrase that continually plays on repeat in my mind when thinking of these groups is ‘You’re going on an ADVENTURE!’ (Cue Bilbo Baggins running across the Shire with signed contract in hand.) It’s exciting, no matter what part of life-- new job, new school, heck even new research endeavor- you’re about to begin (or continue) the adventure. So get excited for your adventure ahead – it is bound to be story worthy.

ACES grads making a difference

Aug 3
Marise Robbins-Forbes, ACES Director of Development, Crop Science and NRES

What makes my job so rewarding? It’s hard to summarize that with just one thing – but Monday’s visit to Momence, Illinois, to tour Van Drunen Farms (VDF) and its sister business, FutureCeuticals, is a wonderful example of why I enjoy working for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES). Our graduates go on to make a difference in this world and the impact of their efforts are far-reaching. Stories like theirs fuel my passion for this college and the role I play within it.

Van Drunen Farms is an international company based in Illinois with a rich heritage of leaders educated right here in the College of ACES. The company’s president, Kevin Van Drunen is a 1987 ag economics alum, and co-founder, Edward Van Drunen received his bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture in 1958 and his master’s degree in 1959.

This family-owned company has its roots in agriculture and ingredient supply, dating back 130 years! They opened their first processing plant in 1980. And, today, they have five high-capacity facilities in the Midwest and one in Serbia. In addition, they have a 1,600 acre Illinois farm and are one of the largest suppliers of freeze-dried ingredients in the United States and one of the largest food ingredient suppliers in the world. Their focus is on culinary, all-natural and functional food ingredients, specializing in fruits, vegetables, and herbs. They work with 35 fruits, 50 vegetables, and 17 herbs and spices!

We also toured FutureCeuticals, Inc., a family-owned sister company to Van Drunen Farms. They provide cutting-edge product development for the dietary supplement, functional foods, and cosmetics industries. With VDF having operations in Illinois, Indiana, California, and Serbia, and FutureCeuticals’ Illinois and California presence, these two companies offer broad capabilities and a substantial portfolio of nutritional products, including probiotics, grains, and fruit and vegetable powders and extracts. 

As we were introduced to the brands and products using VDF and FutureCeuticals ingredients, I was intrigued to find out that my family uses at least a dozen of these products (including vitamins, salad dressing, cereal, dried fruits, protein powder for smoothies). Staff we met exuded pride of workmanship, a commitment to quality, and dedication to this company that clearly values its employees.

We were grateful to our hosts Christie Smit, Jason Paarlberg, Nathan DeBoer, Amanda Graf, and Ed Linquist of Van Drunen Farms for a lovely afternoon seeing their basil production from start to finish. Joining me from ACES were Dean Kim Kidwell, Interim Director of Extension Shelly Nickols-Richardson, crop sciences faculty member Sarah Taylor Lovell, Assistant Director of Food and Bioprocessing Pilot Plant Operations Brian Jacobson, and my colleagues in the Office of Advancement, Pedro Fernandes da Costa and Jennifer Smith. We also were joined by Randy Graham, president of Illinois Specialty Growers Association. 

It’s truly amazing where a degree from the College of ACES can take you.

A beautiful day for a tour at Van Drunen Farms.

Touring a basil field.

What’s bugging you?

Aug 3
Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

by Matthew Mote

“Why spiders? Why couldn't it be ‘follow the butterflies?’”

― Ron Weasley, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

It’s been two years running, and I still love my internship. I work for Kelly Estes in the Illinois Cooperative Agriculture Pest Survey (CAPS) program at the Illinois Natural History Survey, and it’s been a wonderful experience.

How exactly did I score this great opportunity? I actually found this internship by chance. I didn’t know Kelly before I started working, but one of my ABE peers, Emma Sementi, worked for Kelly between her senior year of high school and her freshmen year of college. She mentioned it offhand when we first met at orientation, and it stuck in my head.

As a freshman in college, finding an engineering internship can be challenging, and by challenging, I mean almost impossible. Around February of my freshman year, I asked Emma how I could get in contact with her summer boss to see if there was still a position available. Lo and behold, there was! After email and a subsequent interview, I had my first internship set up for the summer after my freshmen year of college. I couldn’t have been happier! 

To be completely honest, I had no clue what I would be doing until about a week in. I just knew it involved bugs and driving, and I was happy I had the opportunity to stay on campus and do research for the summer instead of going home and working at Dairy King. (Yes, I spelled that right. It’s a hometown specialty restaurant with great food, and I recommend you check out one of their two locations if you’re ever passing through southwestern Illinois).

The pest survey covers multiple regions across Illinois and several agriculture industries including forests, orchards, vineyards, and corn and soybean fields. And how do we catch these illusive pests? What would you say if I told you we run into fields with comically large butterfly nets and beat long grass and bushes hoping for the best? Because, in fact, that’s how we do field and ditch sweeps. Of course, it’s more technical than that; there is proper form and number of sweeps to accomplish per field along the exterior and within the interior, but that’s the gist of it.

The nets are then emptied into sample collection bags, brought back to the lab, frozen, and the number and type of bugs are recorded. Based on those numbers, we can estimate population density across the state. While we’re in the fields, we also look for corn and soybean diseases and even a few nematodes. The soil samples and plant diseases are not quite within our scope of expertise, so we send suspect samples to experts in their fields (ahh, see what I did there?) to verify our diagnoses. The process is roughly the same for the traps set in fields, forests, vineyards, and orchards, though instead of running around with nets, we set the traps and check back every two weeks.

If you have any questions about a position like this (or ABE or U of I in general) feel free to email me at I will be happy to get back to you to tell you what I can.

Matthew Mote is a junior in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. 



We are waiting for you

Aug 1
Judy Mae Bingman, 4-H Media & Marketing

The building is empty. Completely empty.

It’s before the chaos, and I just stare at the emptiness for a moment. At 57, it’s a little harder to get excited about the work that has to happen to transform the emptiness into the Illinois State Fair 4-H Show. But then, everything is a little harder at 57.

I stare at the emptiness and smile. A lifetime of summer show preparation has taught me one thing; the exhaustion fades the moment the first 4-H member walks in the door and runs to show me what they’ve made. Then I remember why I do it, why we all do it. We do it for the kids.

The building is empty, waiting. So much has happened outside these walls before today. Nearly 100 different county 4-H fairs around Illinois have been completed. Hundreds of staff members and thousands of volunteers have put 4-H first. Together you’ve cleaned. Together you’ve built. Together you’ve worked. And, together you’ve celebrated.

The building is empty, waiting. At 8:01 a.m. Friday, Aug. 10, the wait will be over and more than 3,700 4-H members will carry their projects across the fairgrounds to be evaluated by professionals in the project area they’ve studied.

We hope for the best, knowing there will always be kinks. The year it rained and washed out the parking. The time a 5K race took up all the parking spots. Lost tags, traffic jams, late judges, no power, I’ve seen it all (I think).

So as we prepare for our 2018 edition of the Illinois State Fair, let’s remember this:

It's never about winning; it's about being part of something more than yourself.
It's never about being perfect; it's about being your personal best.
It's never about beating someone else; it's about beating your last effort.
It's never about losing; it's about learning what you can to keep from losing the next time.
It's never quitting, never giving in or giving up, never selling out, or selling yourself short.
It's learning to lose gracefully and win graciously in the ring or in life.
It's learning that sometimes the break goes your way and sometimes it doesn't, and there's nothing you can do about it but play the game you are there to play.
It's about respecting your competitor and respecting the rules of the game and knowing the minute you stop either one, you've lost.

The building is empty, but our hearts are full as we anticipate your arrival at the Illinois State Fair.

Part of ACES

Jul 31
Angie Boesche, Web Content Strategist

Hi, my name is Angie Boesche (and I’m a member of the Afton 4-H club). Blame it on the 10 years of public speaking competitions but, to this day, I can’t introduce myself without, “and I’m a member of the Afton 4-H club” humming in the back of my mind.

It’s funny how the organizations we become a part of, also become a part of us. My 4-H experience turned me into a fearless public speaker, over a decade of music involvement programmed me into thinking it’s perfectly normal to start singing Christmas music in September, and my years in FFA made me overly sensitive to meetings that don’t follow proper parliamentary procedure.

We aren’t bystanders in being influenced by these organizations though. We decide how they influence us by the way we choose to participate.

When I came to the College of ACES as an undergraduate, I already knew I wanted a career in agricultural communications. I trusted my core classes to turn me into an effective communicator but I wanted to immerse myself in the subject matter I hoped to focus on one day.

So I joined the dairy club, I took classes in crop sciences and horticulture, I worked in a laboratory, I chose to minor in animal sciences, I traveled to Greece to learn about EU agriculture, and most of all, I talked to people.

By choosing to immerse myself in nearly everything my college had to offer, I allowed the best part of ACES to become a part of me: passion.

Pretty much everyone you meet in ACES is passionate about their work. They want to do groundbreaking research, be leaders in their field, inspire others, and excite interest. When I graduated, I took that passion with me.

Now I’m back, this time as an employee and I’m looking forward to seeing what new ways ACES will help me grow and change (aside from giving me an odd affinity for orange and blue color schemes).

So, allow me to introduce myself. Hi, my name is Angie Boesche, I’m perfectly comfortable giving a speech to a crowd, I sing Christmas music in September, I know Robert’s Rules of Order, I’m passionate about the work I do, and...we’ll see what comes next.

Advancing Our Mission

Jul 30
Kim Kidwell, Dean of the College of ACES

Last week, two of the proposals submitted by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences were selected for funding in the Provost’s Investment for Growth Program. Funding for this program is acquired through an internal reallocation process designed to invest in ideas that catalyze the development of innovative programs designed to increase enrollment and promote financial sustainability. The Provost’s Office will provide resources to build a new undergraduate degree program in Metropolitan Food and Environmental Systems (MetroFESt) and create a Center for Smart Agriculture on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus through a collaborative effort with the College of Engineering. The University of Illinois announced the selection of 14 projects campuswide to receive funding for the Investment for Growth program last Tuesday. Please see link to the announcement here for more details.

The success of these projects will allow ACES to continue to advance our mission of scholarly excellence while developing new sources of revenue to support our educational, research, and outreach priorities. These initiatives will create new opportunities for our college to contribute to the improvement of global health through the advancement of food and agricultural systems, including the development and implementation of novel technologies. 

Metropolitan Food and Environmental Systems (MetroFESt)

The MetroFESt major will focus on innovative, sustainable food production and environmental safety within urban settings. Students will engage in immersion-based, hands-on learning opportunities with industry partners to apply the content they are learning in the classroom to address real world challenges. 

In Illinois, we have access to several major metropolitan food hubs. Additionally, our University of Illinois Extension educators are already working throughout these areas to promote local foods, urban food marketplaces, neighborhood gardening, vertical farming, rooftop water reclamation, and city soil testing, among many other activities. By collaborating with Illinois Extension and other food-related partners, such as restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, grocers, city farmers, health inspectors, non-profit and non-government organizations, etc., we can provide students with a one-of-a-kind opportunity to apply systems thinking to address local problems related to food production and food access.

The Center for Smart Agriculture
The Center for Smart Agriculture will strengthen research, teaching, industrial outreach, and community education in agricultural sciences that interface with engineering. It will also provide experiential learning opportunities for students enrolled in the new Computer Science + Crop Sciences undergraduate degree program. The Center will engage in large-scale, interdisciplinary research initiatives that will expand our relationships with agricultural industries in Illinois.

Efforts conducted through the Center for Smart Agriculture have the potential to create tremendous benefits to society including improved food distribution, reduced hunger, increased sustainability, reduced environmental impact, and increased agricultural productivity. New datasets and algorithms can provide novel agricultural research methods that will redefine farm practices and business models. Development of new computational methods will help push the boundaries of the application of Computer Science innovations to the expansion of agricultural and allied disciplines.

On behalf of the College of ACES, I want to express my gratitude to the University of Illinois for providing us with this opportunity to strengthen our contributions to improve food infrastructure in the state and beyond while enhancing our participation in the advancement of data sciences.

Mumford Hall

First year in grad school

Jul 20
Lucas Neira, Animal Sciences graduate student

My first year in grad school is ending and it is time to make a reflection: How much my life has changed during this time?

Before I started my master degree, I wondered: What do I know about research? I have some great mentors in my life as my sister and friends followed in this scientific pathway, so I just went out and started to ask, what is grad school like?

Most of the answers were scary: “You will have to spend hours and hours reading and writing.” Other people said, “You will go crazy inside the office.” Truth be told, they weren’t wrong, but it has offered me much more than I was expecting.

During my first year, I learned with my colleagues how important it is to improve and extend our network. We are a group of students where every individual depends on someone else for help. We need help to travel hours to a farm, to collect samples during the weirdest hours, to decide the best protocols and how to execute it, or just to go out, sit, and listen what we have to say.

Grad school taught me that feeling stupid is not always a bad thing. Doing our own research, we have the feeling that we don’t really know nothing about anything, and that it is okay, since we are learning something every day. It is like walking in a way that nobody has never walked, and at this point, the adviser helps a lot. They give us the confidence that we need to keep following our ideas and looking for the answers that they already knew since our first thought.

At this point, I already have a lot of people to thank -  my colleagues that share this great experience with me and my advisers that are always giving me the support so that I can keep following my dreams and learn more each day.

So, to answer the first question of how my life has changed - grad school is making me a better person. Even when I don’t understand something, I enjoy going out and solving those problems. I truly believe that I can help to improve the world with research.