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,

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.

Managing stress in a pair of tap shoes

Oct 31
Stephanie Henry, ACES Media Specialist

First, I just want to say a big “thank you,” for taking the time to read the ACES blog. I know you’re busy and your time is important. We love getting to share our stories with you, so, thanks!

Actually, being busy is what I really wanted to talk about—being busy and feeling stressed. And I’ll get to the tap shoes in a moment.

Would you say you’ve been feeling stressed out lately? Maybe just sometimes? Or all the time?

This can be a really stressful time of year. My son is a senior in high school and we have been visiting potential colleges for next year. He is working on college applications, and the whole process is stressful.

Both of my sons are in school activities that require keeping up with performance dates, deadlines for fees, or papers that must be signed. So many papers to sign! I love seeing my kids grow in their talents and skills, and I love being there for performances, etc., but I have to be honest, trying to keep up with everything can be a little stressful. Especially when I add those things on top of a wonderful, but oftentimes busy, work schedule.

Sorry to vent, but I’m sure you can fill in the blanks of what is stressing you out in your own life. I’m no expert on stress management, but I’ve been learning a lot from some of our experts in ACES about stress, and the bottom line is: we have to find a way to manage our stress. The unfortunate truth is that stress is bad for our bodies and our brains if we experience stress for long periods of time. So we have to learn ways that work for us to deal with the stress we face in life.

One way I am tackling my own stress is that I started taking a tap dance class for adults. Every Tuesday night, I join a dance studio of other (probably also stressed out) women and we tap away our worries for 45 minutes. It is the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It is, literally, a stress eraser for me.

Need some ideas on how to deal with stress? Back in August, we hosted Chelsey Byers Gerstenecker, an Extension family life educator and Erica Thieman, assistant professor in the ACES Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and the Agricultural Education Program for an #askACES chat and podcast on stress. They are experts on stress and stress management. They shared both the effects of stress and ways to manage our stress. It was such a helpful conversation.

If you’re feeling stress, I encourage you to check out the podcast featuring our stress experts. Find it here


What made you choose University of Illinois?

Oct 30
Judy Mae Bingman, 4-H Media & Marketing

For me, University of Illinois was simply where one went to get the best education. It’s where my sisters went. It was close enough to get home and far enough away to not go home all the time. It was the only place I applied and where I was meant to be.

So, what was your reason for choosing Illinois? Did you visit the campus for a camp, conference, or event? Did you receive financial assistance? Are you continuing an Illini family tradition?

Here’s how Illinois 4-H is helping youth choose Illinois.

Showcasing U of I

Illinois 4-H brings prospective students to this campus for 4-H events. 4-H Road Trip brought nearly 200 youth to explore campus as they marked items off their Illini bucket list … a picture with Alma, a cookie from Bevier Café, a photo in front of Follinger, and a visit to Morrow Plots.

Are you one of the thousands of students who came to campus over the years for 4-H Illini Summer Academies? Youth study with University instructors, work in University labs, and stay in University dorms as they get their first glimpse at what it means to be an Illini. We offer financial assistance to first generation youth who never thought Illinois was an option for them.

Illinois 4-H teams up with ACES Animal Science staff and students for annual state contests in the area of livestock judging, poultry, and equine science. The prospective students attending these 4-H events dream of one day standing in those same spots as they earn degrees which will change their future.

Extending research

Every time we say Illinois 4-H, we couple it with University of Illinois Extension. There is not 4-H without Extension, and there is not Extension without University of Illinois. Extension’s role in Illinois has never wavered; take unbiased research knowledge of the university and extend it to the people who use it to improve their lives.

So when HDFS defines best practices for improving families, we use it with the 200,000 kids we meet each year. When there’s a new way of feeding baby pigs, we use our social media platforms to tell the world. When a better way of improving crop yield is found, we make sure we tell our 4-H crops project members and their families.

Extending Knowledge, Changing Lives isn’t just a tagline. It’s our daily ‘to do’ list.

Easing college costs

University of Illinois Extension and ACES is making it a little easier to choose Illinois by offering 54 $2,500 scholarships next year to incoming freshmen and transfer students choosing ACES at Illinois. Every ACES college-bound youth in every Illinois county may apply. And, for those who aren’t one of the lucky 54, the Illinois 4-H Foundation and local county foundations across Illinois provide thousands of dollars in college scholarships each and every year.

Making connections

We don’t think college is something you do alone. We are here to help. When you join 4-H, you join a family who cares about your happiness and success. ACES is filled with 4-H alums willing to help you find your place at Illinois. Ask us for help. Join the new 4-H campus student organization. Volunteer at 4-H events on campus. After all, we’re family, and you’re carrying on our Illini 4-H tradition.

Isn’t it time you checked in with your 4-H family? Visit us @

Garden gift honors family

Oct 27
Marla Todd, Associate Director of Advancement Communications

As a student, Jo Ellyn Downey (Media ’66) would walk down Lincoln Avenue to enjoy the serenity of the University of Illinois Arboretum. She often thought it would be lovely to, someday, have a bench with her name on it, similar to others seen throughout the arboretum. Flowers and gardens have always been a source of comfort and peace to Jo. Later, as she raised a young family in Champaign-Urbana, the arboretum became a source of many hours of family fun and reflection.

The University of Illinois Arboretum Sesquicentennial Garden, from above.

On Friday, October 13, the University of Illinois Arboretum Sesquicentennial Garden was dedicated. This garden, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the university, was far more than a simple bench Jo Downey had once pondered gifting to the arboretum. In remembrance of the many family memories made in the arboretum, Jo provided a gift to establish this new garden in honor of her children Jay, Jill and Jennifer and grandchildren John, Rebecca, Ashleigh, Michael, Jake and Kate. 

Although much time has passed since Jo visited the arboretum as a student and she now lives in California, the University and the Urbana-Champaign community are sincerely appreciative of her remembering us with this generous gift.  

Students, faculty, staff and the community are encouraged to visit the Sesquicentennial Garden often in the seasons to come. As you experience the stunning perennials and flowering trees, pause and allow yourself to dream about what you can give back to the University of Illinois. Your dream may be more attainable than you realize.

Jo Downey with several members of her family at the Garden Dedication event.


What we do and why it matters…

Oct 25
Jason Emmert, Associate Director of the Agricultural Education Program

We believe the children are our future, that we should teach them well, and let them lead the way…OK - that might sound a little familiar (and maybe a bit cheesy). But it actually encapsulates the mission of the Agricultural Education Program. Our world depends on teachers and leaders, who are an integral component of our most important and life-sustaining industries: agriculture, food, and natural resources.  

Demand for our graduates far exceeds the number of available students; in fact, the need for agriculture teachers in Illinois is so critical that the Illinois Legislature recently created an Agriculture Education Shortage Task Force. The worldwide need for skilled leaders is also critical. More than 80% of employers surveyed by the National Association for Colleges and Employers (2016) state that leadership is the top attribute they look for in new graduates.

So what are we doing about it? We prepare classroom educators, trainers, supervisors, program administrators, sales representatives, extension professionals, and community leaders. How do we do it? The secret is providing hands-on experience inside and outside the classroom – early and often. Ag Ed students learn from award-winning faculty and are pushed to find their full potential through experiences and internships in the real world. A typical student’s week might include collaborating with industry professionals on a client report, teaching a lesson in front of a classroom of students, leading a team of peers at a board meeting, and touring the local farmer’s market for a research project. Speaking of research, students in Ag Ed can team up with faculty and jump out on the edge of scientific discovery, asking questions like how do teachers remain resilient in the face of stress? How do young adults really develop leadership skills? How can students become more socially aware and ready for the global economy?

And the outcome of their learning? Well, graduates who become educators teach and mentor middle and high school students during a time of critical career interest development, and thus play a crucial role in the agriculture workforce pipeline. Other graduates become industry leaders and are often influential in policy, employee training and development, and public outreach.

Teach them well, and let them lead the way. It’s a good phrase for a song, but it’s an even better mission for a program!

Ag ed