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, Intern at Dixon Springs Agricultural Center

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.


Dietetic internships: It's a match!

May 24
Justine Karduck, Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics

The Class of 2017 from the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition Didactic Program in Dietetics achieved a 100% placement rate with dietetic internships! On average, only 50% of dietetic students match with a dietetic internship (DI) nationally. The University of Illinois dietetics seniors achieved a match rate of 100%, meaning every senior that applied for a DI was matched with one, and within the first round of matching!

Graduating seniors will be spending the next 8 to 24 months completing their DIs and master’s degrees.  The students have already completed their first steps to becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) by completing the Didactic Program in Dietetics in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

The DI is the second step in the process to becoming a RDN and requires a minimum of 1200 hours of supervised practice in a DI accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. Many DIs are combined with master’s degree programs, including programs in dietetics, nutritional sciences, exercise science, public health, and business administration. Upon completion of the DI, a student must pass the comprehensive Commission on Dietetic Registration RDN exam, the final step to becoming a RDN.  

The DI matching process takes place biannually in April and November. Students prepare extensive application materials including a list of preferred DI sites. After the students submit their applications, the DI sites evaluate and rank the applicants. A computerized program then matches applicants to internships, ensuring both parties have a choice in the match. The first round of match results is then released to students, and they are allowed 24 hours to either accept or decline their DI offer. If students chose to decline, that spot is open for the second round of matching. 

The matched seniors from the U of I will be spread all across the United States from the University of Alabama in Birmingham, to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, up to Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.  

Congratulations Class of 2017 and best of luck to you in your future careers as registered dietitian nutritionists!  You are one big step closer to becoming future RDNs, the true food and nutrition experts! 

For more information about the University of Illinois Didactic Program in Dietetics in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, please visit our website.

Seniors in Graduation Gowns
The Class of 2017 from the Didactic Program in Dietetics is off to great things!

Wear blue, go for the gold

May 12
Courtney Walker, ACES Communications Graduate Intern

Every girl knows the importance of the classic LBD. The perfect LBD or “little black dress” can make you feel sassy, smart, and beautiful – no matter the occasion.
But for every Illini, there’s an even more important LBD to have in the wardrobe: the little blue dress. Or, more specifically, a little blue gown.

Most academic institutions follow the academic dress standards established in the Intercollegiate Code of 1895, which had its latest revision in 1960. The code outlines the cap, gown, hoods, and tassels worn for graduation ceremonies for higher education.

Traditionally, the graduation gown and caps are black – but at the University of Illinois, graduates wear a special hue of blue on their academic regalia, complete with orange accents. 

Every detail of a graduate’s attire is specifically tailored to represent the wearer’s academic discipline and degree. 

At the U of I, bachelor’s academic dress includes an untrimmed blue gown, a blue stole, a blue mortarboard cap, and a tassel colored to indicate the wearer’s respective field of study. In celebration of the sesquicentennial, this year’s bachelor’s graduates will wear a special orange stole instead of the traditional blue stole.

Master’s academic dress includes an untrimmed blue gown, a blue mortarboard cap with a black tassel, and a three and a half foot hood. The hood features blue lining with orange chevron. The outer edge of the hood’s cowl is trimmed in colored velvet to identify the wearer’s field of study.

Doctoral academic dress includes a blue gown with velvet trim down its front and velvet bars on its sleeves. Like the master’s hood, the doctoral hood features blue lining with orange chevron, but the colored velvet trim on a doctoral hood does not represent the wearer’s field. Instead, the colored velvet trim represents the wearer’s doctoral title. The four foot long doctoral hood also has panels at its side that lie in a cape-like fashion across the back. Doctoral graduates wear a blue mortarboard cap with a black tassel.

The U of I has adopted the Intercollegiate Code’s colors to represent the university’s different disciplines on academic attire’s tassles and trimings.

ACES graduates wear maize, a shade of gold reminiscent of the tasseled fields surrounding Champaign-Urbana summers. 

As ACES grads march across the stage this weekend, I hope those LBD’s work magic. I hope the confidence, joy, and celebration is worthy of someone who used their time at the U of I to go for the gold.

maize tassel
ACES bachelor's graduates wear maize tassels. Master's and doctoral graduates display the color on their hoods.

Thank You Mom

May 12
Kelsey Litchfield, Agricultural Communications senior

Most people cannot wait to get away from their parents when they go to college. At the start of my freshman year, I was excited to be two hours away from home but nervous because I was going to be two hours away from home.  I didn’t have a car so I couldn’t go home every weekend. However, no matter the distance, one thing stayed consistent in my life and that was my family, more specifically my mom. 

Whether it was a quick text asking how my day went or a Facebook message telling me about my cat’s shenanigans at home, there was rarely a day we went without communicating. These little correspondences comforted me and I knew I could continue on at school while being over 100 miles away from home. I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t for technology. Cellphones and the Internet have made it possible for my mom and I to keep in touch throughout the busyness of our lives. 

Every spring, my mom makes the trip down to U of I for Mom’s Weekend. This year, we went to the flower show, Alto Vineyards, and hung out with the other 4-H House moms. It was by far my favorite weekend of the year besides Dad’s Weekend. I truly treasure those moments, as my time at the University of Illinois is almost done. 

With Mother’s Day approaching this weekend, I look back on the past four years and reflect on how our relationship has grown stronger. College is a time where you figure out who you are, your values, and what you are passionate about.  My mom influenced all of these characteristics and is a dominant role model in my life. I know I will always be able to confide in her. Not only is she my mom, but my best friend. 

I could go on and on about my mom and how thankful I am of her support. No matter what season of life it is, I know I can count on her.  

So, thank you Mom. You helped me accomplish my dream of becoming an Illini and now I am graduating.

I hope this is the best Mother’s Day present yet. 

Kelsey and Mom

Pushing the boundaries

May 11
Steve Loerch, Head, Department of Animal Sciences

Our mission is diverse in the Department of Animal Sciences at Illinois, and our programs touch society in many ways. We are pushing the boundaries of knowledge in areas that affect human and animal health, human and animal well-being, bioenergy and the environment, as well as food production and food security. For example, our companion animal nutrition program has changed the way you feed your dogs and cats, improving health and quality of life for our fur-kids.

Did you know that pasture and rangelands comprise 27 percent of the world’s landmass, while less than 10 percent of our land is suitable for crop production (and this acreage is shrinking)? Animal agriculture allows the conversion of these vast forage resources into highly nutritious meat and dairy products. In addition, byproducts from the grain and food processing industries can be included in animal diets, allowing meat, milk, and egg production from otherwise wasted resources.

Advances in animal sciences research have allowed us to double food animal production in the United States during the past 30 years. Average milk production in Illinois dairy cows has gone from 14,000 pounds to 23,000 pounds/year. In 1980, one sow produced 1,900 pounds of pork/year. Now a sow produces over 5,500 pounds of pork/year! Similar advances have been realized in beef and poultry production. And even as productivity has increased, the environmental impact of food animal production has been reduced by 20 percent. Improved nutrition, animal genetics, physiology, health, housing, and management make these improvements possible. This is what we do in animal sciences.

Our discoveries and those of our graduates contribute to a safe, nutritious, sustainable, and affordable food supply and enhance the well-being and health of humans and companion animals. Our research also improves the eating quality of our food. I just read a PhD proposal from one of our meat science students that has implications for improved tenderness of those outstanding steaks I buy at our Meat Sales Room. Now that’s research I can sink my teeth into!
Illinois steak