Meet the Scourge

IT IS AN INSECT LITTLE BIGGER THAN A GRAIN OF RICE. But the invasive emerald ash borer may as well be Godzilla for all the chaos it has brought to the Upper Midwest’s forested landscapes.

The borer has already laid ruin to the ash that dominated urban and lowland forests in Michigan, where it first turned up near Detroit in 2002, likely a hitchhiker on wooden shipping pallets from China. And in dozens of Wisconsin villages and cities, street terraces are marked by the stumps of ash trees already removed because of infestation.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says the borer has killed more than 50 million ash trees and is now found in a dozen states, including more than 30 counties in Wisconsin. Though it is not a threat to human health, the ash borer’s inevitable spread is likely to dramatically change the face of both urban and state and national public forests. The insect has already cost Wisconsin communities millions of dollars as they prepare for its assault and as they begin to remove and treat infested and threatened trees.

And it has proven a massive challenge to researchers—including entomologists at CALS—as they bring science to bear on understanding and slowing the march of the tiny, tree-killing insect and reducing its impact where it is established.

CALS entomologist Chris Williamson, who has studied the insect since 2003, says the word “cataclysmic” is not too strong to describe the eventual devastation that will be wrought by the emerald ash borer.

“The emerald ash borer means the demise of ash trees in North America,” says Williamson, who is also a UW–Extension specialist.

His colleague, CALS entomologist Ken Raffa, has researched and introduced parasitic wasps as potential predators that might help at least slow the insect’s steady march across the continent. But Raffa also said there is little doubt that such efforts are mostly holding actions against a foe that cannot be stopped.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Raffa says.

Even so, in the face of what seems to be nothing but bad news, research at CALS and elsewhere has provided weapons that are proving effective at slowing the insect, giving communities time to plan and homeowners the ability to treat and possibly save treasured trees with insecticides.

In fact, Williamson, surveying a stand of ash trees he has treated and studied at Warner Park on Madison’s North Side, says he actually gets irked when someone says there’s nothing that can be done to save an ash tree. He has spent long hours in the field, testing various insecticides. And he has found that treating an ash tree early enough and repeating that treatment every couple of years can save even large, prized trees that homeowners want to protect. Insecticides such as emamectin benzoate, marketed under the brand name “TREE-age,” have also given urban foresters an effective tool to slow the loss of ash and temper the impact on a community’s cooling leaf canopy.

Treatment has also been found to be less expensive than was originally anticipated. Experts with Arborjet, a company that has worked with a number of communities on treatment, says that an injection treatment, in which the insecticide is shot into the tree through holes bored in the bark, costs on average $50 to $60 every two years for municipalities. The cost is more for individual homeowners, according to Arborjet, but still cheaper than removal and replacement.

Research by Williamson and others has shown that when it comes to protecting an ash from the voracious borer, action must be taken.

“If you have an ash tree you want to preserve and you don’t treat it, it will die,” says Williamson.

WHAT MAKES the emerald ash borer, also known as EAB, such an effective killer?

First, it is an invasive species. As such, it arrived on our shores to find it had won the insect lottery—millions of acres of tasty ash, no natural enemies poised to make a dent in its growing populations, and ash trees with no natural defense against the feeding larvae.

Added to this deadly mix of traits, according to Williamson, is the insect’s near invisibility at the early stages of infestation. The flying insect is only about an eighth of an inch wide, he says, and it lays its eggs high in a tree’s upper branches. The larvae emerge within a month, bore through the tree’s bark and begin feeding on the soft wood beneath, creating a crazy map of looping trails. All of this—from the infestation by flying adults high in the tree to the burrowing by larvae beneath the bark—is nearly impossible to spot, Williamson says. The only way to detect an infestation is through a laborious process of peeling away the outer bark of a tree and looking for the telltale trails left by the gnashing larvae. Unfortunately, by the time such evidence is found, it is too late to save the tree.

This cloak of invisibility, Williamson says, has made the borer a particularly deadly foe. Entomologists have estimated that, based on the extent of the damage to ash stands in Michigan, the borer had been dining on trees for nearly a decade before its presence was discovered, notes Williamson.

In the interim, the larvae were fatally damaging the ash trees’ inner tissues, or cambium, the layers of the tree that carry food down to the roots and water and nutrients up to the leaves.

“It’s like me going to your house without you knowing it and destroying your plumbing,” says Williamson.

Williamson notes that if the tree’s cambium is significantly damaged as a result of the feeding larvae, treatment is likely futile. “They’ve destroyed the conductive tissues,” he says.

While Williamson has focused on the study of insecticides, Raffa has worked to find predators that might help slow the borer.

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture studying the insect in 2003 in its native China haunts found parasitic wasps that feed on the ash borer larvae, Raffa notes. Scientists narrowed their focus to three species that they concluded might be effective and would not attack native insects. Eight states released these parasitic stingless wasps between 2007 and 2010, and in 2011 Raffa, researchers from his laboratory, and members of state agencies cooperatively released specimens of the three species at Wisconsin’s Riveredge Nature Center, near Newburg.

Raffa felled four infested trees in 2013, sectioned the logs and searched for wasps. He found that one species had survived and thrived.

“We knew they had established a population,” says Raffa. “There’s no doubt they were killing ash borers because that’s all they feed on.”

Now more of the wasps are being released by DNR pest specialists. But Raffa warns that, with the rapid spread of the ash borer, it is too late to hope that the wasps will have an immediate impact. Rather, Raffa says, the wasps may multiply and provide control after this initial, destructive wave of ash borer activity. Once the ash borer destroys much of its food source, the wasps may have a better shot at keeping their numbers in check.

“Their numbers are inadequate to affect this first big wave,” Raffa says. “I’m hoping the wasps will be there to kick EAB when it’s down.”

Raffa adds that other researchers, including scientists at Ohio State University, are searching for and studying ash trees that survive the first ash borer attacks. Such trees may offer hope because of a natural resistance that, once understood, could be bred into a new borer-resistant strain of ash.

The problem, both Williamson and Raffa say, is that such science takes time. “And time is not our friend here,” notes Williamson.

Most effective in the short term at slowing the spread are DNR rules aimed at preventing the movement of firewood around the state. Raffa says the insect does not travel far on its own, and that the insect spread through the state is due mostly to its hitching rides on firewood.

A federal and state quarantine on counties where the ash borer is present requires tree nurseries and the wood industry to take precautions that prevent the spread of the borer in nursery stock or logs (see map on page 20). General public restrictions for bringing firewood onto state properties are posted here.

AT STAKE ARE extensive stands of ash that most communities planted in the wake of another tree calamity—Dutch elm disease. Often cited as being similar in impact to the emerald ash borer’s spread, Dutch elm disease first appeared in the late 1920s and moved steadily across the continent through the 1970s. Caused by a fungus and spread by bark beetles, the disease killed 77 million of the much-beloved American elms between 1930 and 1989. Lost in that disaster were the beautiful urban tree stands that graced so many city and village streets, creating cathedral-like arches of shade.

In the wake of that loss, urban foresters planted millions of green
and white ash trees. They grew fast, adapted well to urban growing conditions and resisted droughts. Madison’s streets, for example, are lined with ash. The city’s forestry department estimated that 21,700 of its publicly owned trees are ash. Thousands more are found in parks and on private property. Milwaukee has more than 30,000 ash trees lining its streets.

Statewide, Wisconsin has more than 770 million ash trees, according to the DNR’s forestry division. That’s 7 percent of the total tree population, and they dominate lowland forests. In the state’s urban areas, according to the agency, 20 percent of street trees are ash.

Wisconsin ecological pioneer Aldo Leopold observed that disturbing one part of an ecosystem often has powerful and far-removed consequences. So it is with the loss of the state’s ash trees, according to forestry experts. The loss of a large percentage of a community’s tree canopy can lead to everything from more flooding to increased energy bills for homeowners, according to Marla Eddy, Madison’s city forester.

In a 2004 study of urban trees in Minneapolis, researchers with the U.S. Forest Service found that the benefits of landscape trees dramatically exceed the costs of planting and care over their lifetime. Each year, the study found, 100 shade trees catch about 216,200 gallons of rainwater and remove 37 tons of carbon dioxide as well as 259 pounds of other pollutants.

The researchers calculated that one well-placed large tree provides an average savings of $31 in home energy costs each year. And trees add value to a home, according to the study, which found that each large front yard tree adds 1 percent to the sales price of a house. Big trees can add 10 percent to property value.

So losing such a large percentage of the tree canopy in a community is about more than just appearances. That’s why Milwaukee has chosen to treat as many as 28,000 of its 33,000 trees—to slow the loss of ash and keep as much of the canopy in place as possible as infested trees are removed.

In communities that were hit early by emerald ash borer, saving trees has been more difficult. In Oak Creek, just outside Milwaukee, EAB was discovered in November 2009, making it ground zero for the borer’s assault on Wisconsin. In the absence of tested pesticides at the time, the city started an ambitious removal and replacement program aimed at getting new trees up as soon as possible, according to Rebecca Lane, Oak Creek’s urban forester.

In fact, Lane, in anticipation of the insect’s arrival, had already been taking steps to protect the canopy. “When we heard about EAB, I almost immediately stopped planting ash trees,” Lane recalls. Of the city’s 10,000 street trees, 1,500 were ash. Of these, 750 have been removed and 750 are under treatment. “As treatments became deemed dependable, we began to use insecticides for long and short-term ash treatments,” notes Lane.

Other communities, too, have been able to take advantage of insecticides that have proven effective, thanks to the work of Williamson and other researchers.

Madison is treating all healthy street trees 10 inches in diameter or larger, and anticipates saving as many as 60 percent of its street ash tree population, according to city forester Eddy.

“We have to think long-term,” says Karl van Lith, organizational development and training officer for the city of Madison. “We’re thinking about the tree canopy for the next generation.”

WHILE RESEARCHERS have provided some help for urban forests, the more dense stands of ash in county, state and national forests will be much harder to save, according to Andrea Diss-Torrance, a plant pest and disease specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.The chemical treatments used in urban forests require application to individual trees, which is impossible when you’re talking about entire forests. Williamson says some research has looked at the effectiveness of aerial spraying a specific strain of Bacillus thuringiensis, similar to a bacterial strain used to control gypsy moth caterpillars. The pathogen is sprayed over the canopy and kills flying adults.

The practice remains limited, Williamson says, and comes with its own set of problems, not the least of which is the potential environmental impact of widespread spraying, as opposed to the controlled treatment of individual trees.

The bottom line is that saving extensive stands of ash trees in Wisconsin’s public forests is going to be very difficult, acknowledges Diss-Torrance. “Our forests are going to be greatly changed,” she says.

Diss-Torrance confirms that, just as the loss of urban ash trees will have environmental impacts, the death of thousands of forest trees is likely to cause damaging changes to the state’s forest ecosystems.

Of special concern are lowland forests, such as black ash swamps. Research has already shown that the loss of black ash in these wetland areas can result in a rise in water levels because the trees are no longer there to soak up the water. That change, in turn, results in the growth of problem species such as reed canary grass, which muscles out other plants and so changes the wetland that it is no longer able to support its native cohort of plants and creatures, from amphibians to insects.

“You end up with very different communities,” Diss-Torrance says. The loss of black ash would be

keenly felt by several of Wisconsin’s Native American tribes, which have traditionally used the supple wood of the ash to make baskets for storing food.

“These baskets have always been a symbol of home and abundance,” Diss-Torrance says. “They’re central to the harvest and to Native tradition.”

In southern Wisconsin, green ash is prominent among the trees that line lakes, rivers and wetlands.

“We have a lot of lakes and a lot of wetland areas,” Diss-Torrance notes. “And they’re all dominated by green ash. Those trees help stabilize banks. What happens when they fall into the water?”

So the stakes are high as the battle continues against this tiny foe.

Williamson is spending less time on borer-related research but continues to spread the word about the use of insecticides—and he still spends a lot of time consulting with communities as they battle the insect.

In fact, Williamson says, with considerable misinformation circulating, the job of educating the public about the insect has been an important task of CALS scientists. He figures that between 2003 and 2013, he gave nearly 170 talks about the emerald ash borer.

One important lesson to come from the ash borer, Williamson says, is the need to diversify an urban forest’s population. It’s a lesson that should
have been learned after the spread of Dutch elm disease, he notes. Now the rule of thumb is that no single species should represent 10 percent or more of a community’s total tree inventory.

Both Eddy, the city forester in Madison, and Lane, her counterpart in Oak Creek, say creating that diversity in their plantings is a priority in the wake of the emerald ash borer.

Both also say that the disastrous spread of the insect has given them new insight into the touching connections between people and the natural world, especially their attachment to the beauty and solace of trees.

“That human factor is so much larger than I thought when I first started doing this,” says Lane. “I thought of this as mostly a technical career.”

But around Yahara Place Park, on Madison’s near East Side, neighbors have seen ash trees beginning to fall and have decided to mobilize to protect what trees they can, according to Paul Nichols, one of the neighborhood organizers.

He and others went door to door collecting money to pay for treatment of healthy ash trees in the park alongside Lake Monona. Storms have recently roared through and destroyed a number of towering cottonwoods. So the remaining ash trees—about 22—took on added significance. Nichols and others took advantage of the city’s “Adopt-a-Park Tree” program—which allows residents to pay for treatment of treasured park trees—to make sure that the ash got treated.

Why make such an effort? Nichols, strolling the park on a pleasant summer morning, pointed to the stumps of the removed trees and recalled the beauty of the big trees and their arched branches—old friends that were once visible from the front window of his home.

Nichols and others say they miss the trees and understand they may not be around when the ash that are saved grow to maturity. But, he adds, they know that others will someday know and appreciate the view of the blue lake framed between stately trunks, or the pleasure of sitting beneath a shady canopy on a lazy summer afternoon.

“What we’re really talking about,” Nichols says, “is doing something for the generations to come.”

To the Ends of the Earth

In April 2011, James Bockheim led a small team of researchers to a rocky spit of land called Cierva Point, a habitat protected by the Antarctic Treaty as a “site of special scientific interest.” Home to breeding colonies of bird species like Gentoo penguins, as well as a remarkably verdant cover of maritime plants, Cierva Point is also one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth.

Bockheim and his crew were beginning another field season on the Antarctic Peninsula, the long finger of rock and ice that snakes past Palmer Station, the United States’ northernmost Antarctic research station, and curls out in the Southern Ocean (see map, page 25). They’d been deposited onshore, along with their gear, by the Laurence M. Gould, a research vessel that wouldn’t return until late May. As the ship sailed back into the frigid sea, Bockheim turned his attention not to penguins or polar grasses, but to the ground beneath his feet.

Every year there was more and more of that ground as glaciers drained into the Southern Ocean, revealing soils and bedrock that had been covered in ice for millennia. Bockheim wanted to know what was going on underneath the newly exposed surface and had brought along a soil and bedrock coring tool, a device that looks like a cartoonishly oversized power drill, to get to the bottom of it.

His crew fitted the drill with its two-meter-long impact hammer bit. Graduate student Kelly Wilhelm pointed the drill at the ground and pulled the trigger.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Antarctica caught Bockheim by surprise. Bockheim, a CALS professor of soil science, has spent his career studying polar and alpine soils. From field sites north of the Arctic Circle to mountain passes in the Andes and the dry valleys of Antarctica, Bockheim has worked to classify and understand how soils are formed in the Earth’s coldest climates.

Bockheim first set foot on Antarctic soil in 1969 as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. Although his dissertation was on alpine soils in the Cascades, his advising professor had a project in Antarctica and invited him to come along.

“And that was it,” Bockheim recalls. “It just got in my blood.” Startled by the “peace, solitude and stark beauty,” he knew he would have to return.

Six years after that first trip, Bockheim got his chance. He had recently accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when a call came in asking if he’d like to join a glacial geologist from the University of Maine on a multiyear research project in Antarctica’s dry valleys. Bockheim’s reply was succinct: “Absolutely.”

Over the next 12 years, Bockheim returned to Antarctica each year for a two-month stint of digging out soil profiles, collecting samples and boring holes into the continent’s surface, especially in the largest ice-free region of Antarctica, the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

It was during this time that Antarctica presented Bockheim with its first riddle. The dry valleys are a “polar desert,” a system that rarely gets above freezing and, even when it does, contains precious little water.

As in other places with permafrost—soils that stay at or below freezing for two or more years at a time—soils there are primarily formed by cryoturbation. Also called “frost churning,” cryoturbation is a process by which what scant ice there is freezes and then thaws year after year, breaking up bedrock, working surface particles down into the ground and bringing buried particles up. Such mixing is never a quick process, but in the dry valleys of Antarctica it occurs at an especially glacial pace.

The resulting material didn’t exactly fit what Bockheim knew to be the generally accepted definition of soil. While the weathered substrate had been eroded and deposited in layers over millions of years, it often looked more like a combination of loose pea gravel and sand. What’s more, only lichen and mosses were found growing in it, not the “higher plants” usually considered a prerequisite for soil status.

But to Bockheim, that requirement was a relic of soil taxonomy’s tendency to classify soils based on what human uses they could sustain, like crop production or road building. In Antarctica, such endeavors were a moot point.

In a 1982 paper published in the journal Geoderma, Bockheim made his first mention of these polar soils in the scientific literature. The journal’s editor, anticipating pushback from other soil scientists, urged him to first define the word “soil” for his readers. Bockheim produced a definition similar to the existing one, with one small change— “higher plants” were nowhere to be found. It was the opening salvo in a scientific debate that would simmer for more than a decade.

By 1987, after 12 uninterrupted years of spending field seasons in Antarctica, Bockheim decided he needed a break. He was tired of leaving his wife and five young daughters back in Madison for two months at a time and wanted to stay closer to home. While the move shifted his focus to the forest soils of northern Wisconsin, Bockheim continued to publish papers on his research on Antarctic soils.

Then, in 1992, the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) took note of Bockheim’s argument that the existing classification system didn’t do polar soils justice. He was asked to lead a committee discussing the need for a new order of soil. The result, after a few years of lively debate, was the addition of Gelisols, or “permanently frozen soils,” to the USDA catalog of soil types.

“These soils were far away, poorly researched, and people thought they might be insignificant because we couldn’t grow anything on them,” says Bockheim’s colleague, CALS soil science professor Alfred Hartemink. “But with time came knowledge, and it was recognized that this is a large part of the world, and soils were being classified there incorrectly.”

The soil classification system had been set at 10 distinct orders of soil for so long, Hartemink says, that the change “was a bit like adding another month to the year. But Jim was able to build that body of knowledge, consolidate it and pull it off. That was an immense deal.”

It was an impressive first half of a career. In fact, it would be an impressive list of accomplishments for any scientist’s entire career.

But Bockheim isn’t just any scientist. He has spent 20 tours of scientific duty in Antarctica, 19 field seasons in the Arctic Circle and several in alpine ecosystems across the world’s mountain ranges. He recently returned from a two-month trip to South America, where he’d received a Fulbright grant to teach classes on Antarctic soils in Chile and a special invitation to teach a similar class in Brazil. During that visit he took a side trip to the Andes, where one of his graduate students deployed tiny temperature probes, called thermistors, into the frigid soils.

Even in more domestic climes—say, the stairwells of King Hall, home of the Department of Soil Science on the UW–Madison campus—Bockheim bounds down the stairs from his office to his lab. “Fit college students sometimes have a hard time keeping up with him in the field,” says Kelly Wilhelm, who has spent two field seasons with Bockheim in the Antarctic.

That energy carries over into the more cerebral part of his profession. Bockheim has authored 170 scientific articles, and his work is cited by other scientists at a rate almost unheard of in soil science circles.

“Jim wrote three books in two years,” notes Hartemink. “Who does that? Most scientists write one every five, maybe 10 years. I can’t think of anyone else who could do that.”

The books—Soil Geography of the U.S.A., Cryopedology and The Soils of Antarctica, the latter two coming from the publishing house Springer within the next year—promise to serve as definitive works in the field.

So it’s not just fit college students who can’t keep up. Bockheim is considered by many to be one of the top cryopedologists—scientists who study frozen soils—in the world.

Ironically, after all of his painstaking work describing how polar soils had come into their ancient, frozen state and, quite literally, putting them on the map, many of the Gelisols Bockheim had worked to have reclassified began changing—their defining characteristics melting away.

“We’re literally losing these soils,” says Hartemink. “There are soils disappearing just like there are species disappearing.”

The question now is: What happens when the world’s “permanently frozen” soils begin to thaw?

Bockheim first began asking that question nearly 20 years ago, when he again received an offer he couldn’t refuse. This time, however, it was an invitation to study the opposite pole.

In 1995, after several years focused on his growing family and the soils of Wisconsin, Bockheim returned to polar soils, assuming command of a project focused on permafrost 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, near Barrow, Alaska. Knowing where different soil types were located and how they’d gotten there, Bockheim knew, was the first step in trying to predict what they’d do as they warmed.

Understanding the fate of permafrost in a warmer world may be one of the most crucial pieces of the climate change puzzle. For millennia, the hard layer of frozen soil has contained vast amounts of carbon and methane, which contribute to greenhouse gas levels when they are released into the atmosphere. As Earth warms, so does this soil, pushing the permafrost line deeper and freeing up more and more soil to release carbon and methane via processes like erosion or microbial activity.

In 2004, the New Zealand Antarctic program was starting a mapping project and wanted Bockheim’s expertise to help add Antarctic soils to their efforts.

Bockheim jumped at the chance to reconnect with the continent he’d first fallen for, but Antarctica surprised him again. The place he returned to looked nothing like the one he remembered.

Handheld GPS devices didn’t exist during Bockheim’s first foray into Antarctic fieldwork in the 1970s. Scientists instead relied on landmarks like mountain peaks, glaciers or snowbanks to lead them back to their annual field sites. Bockheim’s team relied on snowbanks that dotted the dry valley landscape, set down in distant, less arid eras. Using aerial photographs and topographic maps, the team could work out roughly where each site was located.

But 30 years after those pictures had guided him, they’d been rendered obsolete by more than updated technology. “I had taken a picture of snowbanks from the helicopter in 1975,” Bockheim recalls, “and it’s just by chance that, when I went back in 2004, I took a picture from the exact same spot in the air. But the snowbanks were gone.”

Of course Bockheim wasn’t caught completely off guard by these developments. Like any scientist studying the poles, he knew that temperatures over the last four decades had been rising. In fact, at Antarctica’s Palmer Station, the mean annual air temperature was up three and a half degrees Celsius. In winter, the mean temperature during that span had risen nearly 10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Even so, the magnitude of the observed changes was startling. “There was water everywhere,”

Bockheim remembers. “I’ve got a whole shelf of field books and I take notes on things like the weather and conditions. In December it would always still be extremely cold.”

During his first 12 years working in Antarctica, he says, “there was always a stream in one of the valleys and maybe some smaller lateral streams that would run in the warmest time of the year, from mid-December to mid-January. But when we went back in 2004, it was so warm that there was just water everywhere, even on the high mountain slopes. There were wet patches of snowmelt coming down the slopes.”

Where areas on the Antarctic Peninsula had once thawed for two months of the year, they were now above freezing for up to five months. That warmth and the water had rejuvenated processes like the pattern of ground freeze from cryoturbation, Bockheim recalls. There was highly developed soil becoming exposed.

The only thing that was as he had left it 17 years prior was Bockheim’s own energy and enthusiasm for Antarctic fieldwork.

Malcolm McLeod, now a soil scientist with the New Zealand–based institute Landcare Research, spent three field seasons on the project mapping Antarctic soils with Bockheim. Bockheim soon became McLeod’s doctoral advisor. “Because of his wealth of Antarctic experience, he was able to focus on the important bits of the soils puzzle that told a story,” McLeod recalls. “He worshiped data, and he had this line—‘Soils never lie.’”

During their project, that mantra led Bockheim to make what McLeod calls “big advances” in scientists’ understanding of how Antarctic soils form. Antarctic glaciers are “cold glaciers,” meaning they don’t melt. They advance when large chunks break off the leading edge, and they retreat by ablation, or evaporating straight from their frozen state into the cold, dry air. As a result, the Antarctic landscape has none of the usual telltale signs glaciers leave behind to provide a history of the region’s geology. Bockheim showed that soils could tell the story.

Bockheim’s wealth of experience also carried over into field camp. “His breakfast bacon and hash browns couldn’t be beat,” says McLeod. “I also remember his ‘hot towel’ dispensed airline-style each morning by dipping a paper towel into a billy of hot water.”

Nearing the two-decade mark of fieldwork in the Antarctic, Bockheim had become both an accomplished scientist and a veteran polar explorer. But after so many years in the polar desert, his mind began to wander to greener pastures.

“I’d done all my work in Antarctica in the dry valleys in the interior mountains, and I kept hearing that the peninsula was quite a different environment,” Bockheim says. “On the peninsula, it’s a whole different world. You have rain, whereas, historically, no one has ever experienced rain in the dry valleys. That rain causes accelerated soil formation and there are plants, a lot of lichens and mosses, but also there are two higher plants, one a grass and the other a member of the pink flower family.”

What would this greener landscape mean? Was Antarctic soil seeing an increase in the “active,” or unfrozen, layer of soil? Was the permafrost being pushed deeper below ground? Bockheim knew that the peninsula would be the best place to study how the warming he was witnessing was impacting Antarctica.

“So I wrote a proposal and decided to strike out on my own rather than being under someone else’s research priorities,” he says. That proposal led Bockheim to Cierva Point with a gigantic power drill in 2011. It was the reason Kelly Wilhelm was bent over the soil driving a two-meter-long bit into the ground. And it was the beginning of addressing yet another Antarctic riddle.

“We are trying to be one cog in looking at how climate change is affecting the Antarctic Peninsula,” says Wilhelm. “There are people looking at air temperature and changes in weather patterns. Other people are looking at how far south the vascular plants grow, or migration patterns of seals and penguins. But permafrost—on the peninsula, at least—has pretty much been one of the last things to be examined.”

When Bockheim headed to the Antarctic Peninsula, the only prior information his team had to go on was a soil survey conducted in the 1960s during April, the warmest month of Antarctica’s short summer. On that survey, researchers dug 40 centimeters into the soil, or less than half a meter, before hitting hard permafrost.

Bockheim’s team knew that the permafrost would now be deeper, as surface soils warmed with the surrounding air temperatures. They had prepared for the change by bringing drill bits that would bore into the soil more than four times deeper than the last known permafrost.

It wasn’t enough.

“Not one of our holes hit permafrost,” Wilhelm recalls. What’s more, the temperature at the bottom of every hole was well above freezing, suggesting that the permafrost was located several meters beyond the reach of their drill.

If soils never lie, what is the unexpectedly warm peninsula trying to say? “That is the grand unsolved question,” Bockheim says. “Based on the latitude, we expected the active layer to be thinner,” which would have meant a much shallower permafrost table. Bockheim says that the distribution of sea ice and westerly flows of air and sea- water may play a role, but—so far—they can’t explain it.

“It’s what we’re writing papers on right now,” says Wilhelm. “People don’t even know about this. It’s a pretty new thing.”

Whatever the answer, one fact is undeniable. The seasonal thaw, or “active” layer of polar soils, is increasing. That means that more and more soil near the Earth’s poles is being grown over with plants, worked over by microbes and eroded by wind and rains. In the Arctic, this activity will undoubtedly lead to the release of carbon and methane, making it a huge source of those greenhouse gases.

In the Antarctic, though, the picture is still fuzzy and may in fact produce an effect that is, well, the polar opposite. The plants beginning to carpet Antarctic soils could end up pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere instead of adding to the problem like the Arctic’s melting permafrost.

“In the Antarctic, with its increased land mass, increased plant cover and, presumably, increased photosynthesis, one could easily argue that it could become a sink for atmospheric carbon,” says Bockheim. And, in fact, that’s exactly what Bockheim thinks will occur—at least temporarily.

Beyond that, the man who wrote the book on Antarctic soils is content to wait and see. The soils don’t lie, but they may yet have one more surprise in store.

Connecting Our Ways of Knowing

In any other classroom, mention of planting “Three Sisters” might cause confusion. But in Becky Nutt’s science class at Oneida Nation High School, located on a tribal reservation in northern Wisconsin, most students know that the Three Sisters are corn, beans and squash, crops that in Native American tradition are planted together in a single mound.

Guided by Nutt, their questions focus on photosynthesis, the process by which plants like the Three Sisters convert sunlight into the energy they need to grow and produce oxygen. The lesson culminates with each student pretending to be an atom of a particular element in that process— oxygen, carbon or hydrogen—and “form bonds” by holding hands or throwing an arm around a classmate’s shoulders. It’s a fun lesson that resonates, judging by both the enthusiastic participation and the thoughtful entries each student writes afterward in a logbook.

The students know the lesson as part of a “pilot curriculum from UW–Madison,” as Nutt tells them—perhaps the easiest way to explain POSOH (poh-SOH), which is both the Menominee word for “hello” and an acronym for “Place-based Opportunities for Sustainable Outcomes and High Hopes.” The program is being developed in partner- ship with both Oneida and Menominee communities.

But what POSOH really represents is a new way of teaching science. Funded by a $4.7 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011, the program has the mission of helping prepare Native American students for bioenergy and sustainability-related studies and careers. POSOH aims to achieve that by offering science education that is both place-based and culturally relevant, attributes that have been shown to improve learning.

“We’re hoping to help make science relevant to young people,” says CALS biochemistry professor and POSOH project director Rick Amasino. “Bioenergy and sustainability offer an entrée into broader science education.”

For Native American students, sustainability is an obvious fit for science discussion, Amasino notes. The Native American concept of thinking in “seven generations”—how the natural resource management decisions we make today could affect people far into the future—has sustainability at its foundation, and most Native American traditions reflect that value. The Three Sisters, for example, offer a way to discuss not only photosynthesis but also indigenous contributions to our knowledge of agronomy, including how mixed crops support long-term soil health and animal habitat.

An innovative program like POSOH is needed because current teaching methods are not proving effective with Native American students. Native American students score lower in reading and math than their white counter- parts in elementary and high school, and only a low percentage have ACT scores that indicate college readiness, according to “The State of Education for Native Students,” a 2013 report by The Education Trust. Other studies show higher dropout rates and unemployment among Native Americans—and, specifically, that Native Americans are vastly underrepresented in STEM fields as students, teachers and professionals.

Verna Fowler, president of the College of Menominee Nation, sees POSOH as offering a crucial connection. Her tribal community college, along with CESA 8, the state public education authority that includes the Menominee Indian School District, has been a key partner in developing and piloting POSOH. Other leading partners include Michigan State University and, within UW–Madison, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

“POSOH takes you into science in the natural world and helps you relate your concepts and understanding so that you understand science is all around you,” says Fowler. “Sometimes that’s what we miss in our classrooms. A lot of students are afraid of science classes. They don’t realize what a scientific world they’re living in.”

In developing POSOH materials, Amasino serves as the go-to guy for verifying the science. “The main thing I do is work with everyone to keep the science accurate,” he says.

Curriculum development and other POSOH activities are led by CALS researcher and POSOH co-director Hedi Baxter Lauffer, who has a rich background in K–12 science education. In a previous project she worked with California state universities in developing a multiyear math and science education program with diverse ethnic communities in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Alongside her work with POSOH, Lauffer directs the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program, which operates worldwide.

From the start Lauffer saw POSOH as a trailblazing effort. “We wanted to create a model for how a culturally responsive science curriculum can emerge from the community it is serving,” she says. “There’s nothing else like it.”

Lauffer knew her group was on to something during early curriculum design sessions with local educators, Native American community elders and students, particularly when she participated in a talking circle with seventh- and eighth-graders from the Menominee Indian School District. The kids were asked a simple question: “How do you take care of the forest—and how does the forest take care of you?”

“They had all kinds of stories about the plants and animals that live there,” says Lauffer. “They were saying things like, ‘I take my nephew into the forest and teach him to pick up his trash. He needs to know that it’s a beautiful place to play.’ It was clear that their connection to nature was strong—and that’s an opportunity for making science learning relevant and valuable.”

Initial steps for curriculum development included building key institutional partnerships and forming teams for curriculum design that brought in a wide range of Native American voices. Team members include scientists, assessment professionals, and teachers of science, education and Native American culture, some of whom are field-testing the materials.

The group is creating curricula for grades seven through nine. Seventh grade is complete, comprised of a fat lesson book and accompanying DVD with graphics and other enrichment materials. The other grades will be completed by the end of 2015, the project’s final year.

Other POSOH activities include after-school science clubs facilitated by undergraduate interns who also serve as informal mentors. This work is conducted in partnership with the Sustainable Development Institute at the College of Menominee Nation under the direction of Kate Flick BS’06, who studied community and environmental sociology at CALS and now serves as POSOH’s education coordinator.

Thumbing through the seventh- grade lesson book, it is immediately clear that cultural relevance is placed front and center. A typical textbook might pay tribute to cultural relevance with sidebars while the main text carries on with “science as usual.” With POSOH materials, cultural relevance is embedded in the meat of the text.

The seventh-grade curriculum, for example, is called “Netaenawemakanak” —Menominee for “All My Relatives”— and its six units focus on various scientific aspects of the Menominee Forest, such as organisms, microhabitats and ecological interactions. Students learn how such terms as evidence, protocol and conceptual models are used in science and, as a final lesson, how to formulate their own stewardship action plan based on what they’ve learned.

And it’s not just what the students learn, but how they learn it. POSOH incorporates forms of teaching and learning that are rooted in Native American culture, such as:

• Storytelling—Scientific concepts are imparted through stories involving the everyday lives of young Native American protagonists as well as figures from Native American legends and folktales.

• Perspective-taking—Students are invited to look at ecosystems from the viewpoint of animals, plants and other natural resources.

• “Careful noticing”—Students use all their senses when getting to know an environment, paying close attention to what is and is not present. In an exercise in the forest, for example, students are asked not only what they see, smell and hear, but also, “How do the woods make you feel?”

“These are age-old practices in indigenous pedagogy, but they aren’t widely seen as such. They’re so fundamental that I think they’re often overlooked,” says Linda Orie, an enrolled member of the Oneida tribe who taught middle-school science at the Menominee Tribal School. She now works on the POSOH curriculum team.

Orie considers POSOH a huge eye- opener for students. “It’s probably one of the first times they’ve seen anything in science class that has anything to do with Native Americans or Native American contributions to science and forestry,” she says. “Especially for a Menominee, that’s really important because most of them live on the reservation and a lot of their parents are employed through the lumber mill.”

“So they live and breathe the forest, but they don’t often get that instruction in the classroom,” Orie continues. “It was a huge gaping hole in the curriculum when I started teaching at the tribal school.”

By drawing upon indigenous ways of teaching and learning, POSOH helps bridge a gap between how students experience nature and how knowledge about it is imparted in the classroom. POSOH team member Robin Kimmerer, for example, says that as a professor of forest biology and as a Native American, she’s had to work hard to reconcile two distinct perspectives.

“In science we are asked to objectify the world, to view it in a strictly material, intellectual way,” says Kimmerer, who earned her doctorate in botany at UW–Madison and now teaches at the State University of New York. “In indigenous ways of knowing, we’re reminded that we can understand the world intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually—and that we can’t really claim to understand something unless we engage all four elements,” she says. POSOH team member Justin Gauthier, an enrolled Menominee who as a teenager attended a Native American boarding school, has come to think of science as another language for indigenous ways of knowing nature. In science, he says, “They’re using numbers, they’re using experimentation. It’s just different language.”

That recognition helped science feel more approachable to him.

“I used to perceive science as being outside of my experience. It was meant for scientists to do in a lab in a white coat. When I started thinking about how it tied into the ways that I was thinking, I felt that it had always been a part of my life and I had just never given it much credence,” he says.

Gauthier, a returning adult student, is earning his bachelor’s degree in English at UW–Madison and plans to teach in a tribal college after earn- ing an MFA in creative writing. He serves POSOH as a curriculum writer. Gauthier suggested naming the seventh- grade curriculum Netaenawemakanak (“All My Relatives”) because it is often uttered as a kind of one-word prayer when entering and leaving the sweat lodge. To him, among other things, the word expresses Native American regard for nature.

POSOH is not only helping fill a gap in science education. Project intern McKaylee Duquain, a junior majoring in forest science, notes that POSOH is filling a gap in cultural knowledge among young Native Americans as well. As an enrolled Menominee who attended tribal schools, Duquain confesses to not knowing what the Three Sisters were until late in high school—and she learned about it on her own.

“It wasn’t even offered when I was a student,” she says. “I’m not the most traditional person out there—I try to practice the traditional ways, but you can only do so much in this day and age. I feel like having that knowledge incorporated into your everyday learning life in school would definitely cement it in more.”

The program’s most enthusiastic ambassadors are the teach- ers and students who have been using it. So far the POSOH curriculum has been taught in 25 Wisconsin classrooms with the participation of some 135 students. Another 140 students have worked with POSOH materials in other settings, such as outreach programs conducted by undergraduate interns and the project’s high school club, called the Sustainability Leadership Cohort.

“I love that the POSOH curriculum brings science to a local level,” says Dan Albrent, a science teacher at De Pere’s Ashwaubenon High School, where he’s been piloting POSOH materials for the past two years. “Students a lot of times wonder why we are even learning all these complex things in science and just want a reason. POSOH does a nice job of bringing in real-life situations and issues that are literally close to home. And never in the curriculum are students sitting and listening to a lecture. They are actively talking and working with real data and real situations to solve problems.”

To him, POSOH represents the future of science education. “I truly believe this is how science should be taught,” Albrent says. “At the moment there is no better alternative for helping our kids realize the importance of learning science for our communities.”

Becky Nutt, of Oneida Nation High School, is just as convinced. She appreciates the program’s emphasis on reading and writing, which is not a given in science class—but important, she notes, in both communicating science and demonstrating understanding.

“Most important from my view is the integration of Native American culture into the materials,” says Nutt. “If, through these materials, we can foster better relationships between our Native students and their communities and other individuals and their communities, then we are on the right track.”

POSOH team member Linda Orie is taking a break from the classroom while earning her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at UW– Madison—but she plans to return
to teaching in tribal schools and sees POSOH as a life-changing tool to bring with her.

“My career goal is to transform Indian education because it is stuck in this terrible rut,” Orie says. “Working in the tribal school I saw a lot of opportunity for growth. It was heartbreaking to see so much potential and not have colleagues that saw the same. And not seeing as many Native American teachers as there could be or should be in the schools. The kids need the best curriculum and the best teachers, and they’re not getting that right now. I want to be part of the change.”

That Orie, as an Oneida, backs the program so strongly speaks to perhaps the program’s greatest indicator of success—the acceptance it has earned in Native communities.

“We’ve been presenting POSOH to different schools, to different areas, to our boards of education and so on, and they’re very enthused about it— extremely enthused, I must say,” says College of Menominee Nation president Verna Fowler.

That enthusiasm is no accident, but the result of the program being developed within and in partnership with Native communities. Patty Loew, who is a professor of life sciences communication at CALS and an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, just happened to be on hand during a POSOH presentation on the Menominee Reservation and was heartened by what she saw.

“I’ve been in a lot of situations where UW people try to engage with community members and it’s like pulling teeth for reasons that vary, but often come down to a basic mistrust of researchers,” Loew says. In those encounters, she says, “People are either being polite or they’ll have their arms folded and are just quietly listening or maybe hiding their resentment.”

“That was not the case on this day,” Loew says. “People were really engaged, they were discussing, they had ideas, it was emotional. It was clear to me that the community’s handprints were all over this project. They not only were hosting the research, they had shaped it, they were contributing to it, they were using the materials in their classrooms, they had a lot of pride in it. And I was really impressed.”

POSOH team member Justin Gauthier also knew about the mistrust firsthand—and saw it melt away.

“Historically in Indian Country there’s been this sort of stigma toward outside groups coming into the community, studying groups of people, taking data out of that community—and nary shall the two meet again,” Gauthier says. “But I really like and respect the way that the POSOH process is set up because, while the leadership team
is made up of people from within and without that community, the ideas—the voices at the table—are respected and integrated into the process. I feel like when we finish the project the curriculum and the relationships we’ve built are going to remain strong.”

“And that could be the big takeaway for me from this project,” Gauthier says. “Communities have the right to be wary of people coming in and studying them. But when you have a project like this, where the end result is meant to be a gift for that community, then you really see the beauty of cultures blossom and open up.”

That could be the big takeaway for Amasino and Lauffer as well. They and their team conceived of POSOH as an experiment in developing culturally integrated science curricula in a way that could be applied in various settings around the country.

“Our overarching mission is to build a transformational model for place- based collaborations dedicated to preparing all learners, especially those who are underrepresented in science and science education,” says Lauffer. “These community-based processes are what the project will share more broadly as it draws to a close. We plan to pass on lessons from POSOH to many other communities who can then build on our work and continue improving science teaching and learning.”

To learn more about POSOH, visit http://posohproject.org/. You can also watch the following video: http://go.wisc.edu/posohvideo

Gardening for the People

THREE YEARS AGO I was at a complete loss when it came to the grounds surrounding my home. What was I going to do with a huge yard overrun with weeds and invasive species? There wasn’t a single flowerbed, but there were two large crabapples with spotty leaves and burned-looking bark. Our fence line was populated with a tight row of buckthorn and invasive honeysuckle, and there was garlic mustard everywhere.

I learned this sad fact from an arborist we had hired to trim broken branches from the silver maple on our property. Determined to forge ahead and make something of the yard, I had him take out the diseased trees and the large buckthorn and honeysuckle bushes. After he finished, nothing remained but a few very old and overgrown lilacs, two peony plants, and a few bushes around the perimeter
of our lawn.

I was determined to turn my yard into something beautiful, but it was clear I needed help. Trial and error did little but show me how much I had to learn. As I began to investigate ways to acquire gardening expertise, people would mention advice from “master gardeners,” a title that conjured images of retired ladies in wide-brimmed hats and gloves tending gardens with lots and lots of rose bushes. I also thought of master gardener training as a kind of finishing school for skilled gardeners rather than a program that welcomed beginners.

I was wrong on both counts, as I learned from Mike Maddox MS’00, a CALS horticulture alumnus who directs the statewide Master Gardener Volunteer Program—a service of UW-Extension—from an office in the Department of Horticulture in Moore Hall. Master gardeners are, in fact, Master Gardener Volunteers—or MGVs for short—with the emphasis on “volunteer,” Maddox notes.

It’s a role that has become more salient over the years. “The volunteer requirement became a way for MGVs to assist and offset the barrage of gardening questions coming to Extension offices,” Maddox says. “We emphasize the volunteer aspect of ‘Master Gardener’ to distinguish it from a commercial endorsement, to differentiate it from a garden club—and to de-emphasize the expectation of the need to be an ‘expert’ on all subjects.”

Of Cows and Climate

ON A SUBZERO FEBRUARY day, Mark Powell stops his vehicle on the road a few miles outside Prairie du Sac. He’s been explaining that cows actually enjoy the polar weather—and as if to prove it, a frisky group in the barnyard across the road turns toward us and rushes the fence.

As a USDA soil scientist and CALS professor of soil science, Powell is focused on the ground beneath their hooves. A few years ago he led a survey of manure handling on Wisconsin dairy farms. He and his colleagues knew how much cows left behind—about 17 gallons a day—but had only educated guesses about the ultimate environmental impact of barnyard design. In open yards like this, says Powell, they found that 40 to 60 percent of the manure ends up uncollected. “It just stays there,” he says. In the decade since his survey, the manure challenge has only grown, both in Wisconsin and nationwide. Water quality has been the major concern, but air quality and climate change are gaining.

A few minutes later we turn into the 2,006-acre U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center farm, and the talking points all turn to plumbing. There’s an experimental field fitted to track how well nutrients from manure bond to the soil. Parallel to one barn are nine small yards with different surfaces, each monitored to measure gasses emitted and what washes out with the rainwater.

The manure pit is frozen over, but circumnavigating the complex—shared by CALS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—we arrive at the southern terminus of the barns. Uncharacteristic ventilation ducts adorn the walls and roofline. Inside are four unique stalls that can contain up to four cows each. The manure trough is lined with trays so that each cow’s waste can be set aside for further experiments. When the cows return from the milking parlor, airtight curtains will drop, isolating each chamber.

The Mysteries of RNA

For people who know about RNA mostly from its place in the central dogma of biology—DNA➙RNA➙Protein—this story may hold a number of surprises.

That handy equation, taught in Biology 101 courses around the globe, sums up the flow of genetic information in living organisms: how our DNA gets copied into RNA, which then gets converted into proteins, the building blocks of our cells, our bodies.
Originally, the RNA referred to in this equation—messenger RNA, or mRNA, the type that codes for proteins—was the only kind known to science. However, over the years, it has become clear that there are many, many other kinds.

“The world of RNA has proven to be a big and fascinating place,” says Marv Wickens, a CALS professor of biochemistry and leading pioneer in RNA research. “I’ve come to think of it as a Fellini movie, full of strange and unexpected characters.”

These Felliniesque characters are all the non-coding RNAs that exist in nature—the kinds that don’t code for proteins. They go by names like small interfering RNA, piwi-interacting RNA, microRNA, long non-coding RNA, small nuclear RNA—the list goes on and on. Together they far outnumber messenger RNAs in the cell; while only 3 percent of the human genome gets made into proteins (via messenger RNA), a full 80 percent gets copied into RNA.

What are all of these other RNAs doing? Lots of important and surprising things, scientists are discovering.

Over the past few decades, RNA, a close chemical cousin of DNA, has proven itself to be a much more versatile molecule than originally thought—far more than just a passive messenger.

The first big surprise came in the 1980s when it was shown that RNA can have catalytic activity, meaning that it can perform chemical reactions inside the cell. Originally assumed to be inert, like DNA, scientists found RNA molecules that could edit their own sequence—expunging a segment of their own genetic code.

Later, RNAs were discovered at the heart of important cellular machines, or enzymes, performing critical catalytic reactions, including those at the heart of the cell’s information transfer system. Previously only proteins were thought capable of such enzymatic feats.

12 in 125

1. The Genomics Revolution

When CALS geneticist Fred Blattner sequenced the genome of a harmless strain of E. coli back in the mid-1990s, it was a big deal. The bacterium was among the earliest organisms to be sequenced, and the effort, which landed a high-profile article in Science in 1997, took years to complete and involved the participation of more than 269 people.

How times have changed.

“Now you can just send something like that to a sequencing center and one person can do the work overnight,” says genetics professor Audrey Gasch, who joined UW–Madison in 2003 as part of a strategic hiring initiative to bolster research in genomics, the field of science that looks at the full set of DNA within organisms.
Over the years, UW researchers have also helped sequence the genomes of potatoes, corn (maize), multiple strains of mice, the leaf-cutter ant, the plant pathogen that caused the Irish Potato Famine and 99 strains of cold virus, among others.

Beyond sequencing itself, CALS researchers are using genomic information to:

• study molecular evolution,

• better understand virulence genes in pathogens,

• find genes involved in human health and disease,

• develop an optical map of the bovine genome,

• locate genes associated with infertility in dairy cows, and much more.

Gasch, in one bioenergy-related project, compares the genomes of traditional laboratory yeasts to those of their wild relatives in order to pinpoint the genes that make the wild strains more stress tolerant.

“Down the line, this information will help us make customized yeast strains that are optimized to produce different types of biofuels,” she says.

2. Bigger, Better Dairy

The last 25 years of dairy research, education and outreach at CALS have driven progress and productivity gains in the Wisconsin dairy business. Since 1989, average milk production per cow per year has climbed 57 percent, from 14,000 pounds to nearly 22,000 pounds per cow today. The state’s dairy farmers reversed a 16-year decline in milk production in 2005. In the last nine years they have boosted annual output by 25 percent, producing a record 27.7 billion pounds in 2013.

These gains, the result of a combination of advancements in cow genetics, reproductive management, nutrition and facilities; adoption of professional management techniques; and a well-educated, receptive group of dairy producers, have revitalized dairying in the Dairy State.

CALS scientists developed mechanisms to mine the bovine genome and then put the results in the hands of dairy producers. Researchers refined and produced the tools needed to take advantage of genetic knowledge with novel methods for breeding and selecting cattle. Dairy nutritionists at UW–Madison probed feedstuffs and the rumen to create total mixed rations that enable cows to produce to their full genetic potential.

Biological systems engineers, veterinarians and dairy scientists collaborated to develop new bedding and stall types to keep cows comfortable and productive. A complementary mix of educational resources—statewide UW–Extension programs, CALS Farm and Industry Short Courses, and campus teaching facilities and faculty—helped dairy farmers learn and adapt the new technologies to their needs. That extensive research and outreach network gives dairy producers access to the latest and most sophisticated management practices—a partnership that promises to keep Wisconsin dairy strong.

3. Coping with the Climate

CALS scientists had our changing climate on their radar screens 25 years ago, but it wasn’t on their research agendas. Today the issue influences work being done in every corner of the college. CALS scientists are studying climate impacts at the ends of the earth, in the Lake Mendota basin and everywhere in between. They’re looking at the big picture (using satellites) and small (using genomic sequencing). They’re looking under tree bark and inside the guts of dairy cows, and they’re looking at impacts on the human animal—on farmers’ management practices, for example, and the migration patterns of residents of low-lying coastal areas.

To name some examples: soil scientist Jim Bockheim is looking at whether warming will turn permafrost in Antarctica from a carbon sink to a carbon source, while wildlife ecologist Christine Ribic investigates what melting sea ice means for Adelie penguins. Forest ecologist Phil Townsend and entomologist Ken Raffa are studying the climate-fueled spread of tree-killing bark beetles into new habitats in the Rocky Mountains, while entomologist Rick Lindroth studies how rising levels of carbon dioxide affect forest tree susceptibility to a variety of insects. Soil scientist Matt Ruark leads a multistate project to help dairy farmers reduce their carbon footprint and adapt to weather extremes.

And Chris Kucharik, a climate scientist on the agronomy faculty, helps lead a campus-wide effort to model the impact of climate change on water quality, water quantity and crop yields right where he lives—in the Yahara River watershed—over the next 60 years. Kucharik also serves as co-chair of the agricultural working group with the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), a partnership between UW–Madison, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and an array of other public and private institutions.

These are but a few highlights. It is safe to say that researchers in every CALS department are working in some way on mitigating or adapting to the impacts of our changing climate.

Creating a Healthier World

YOU CAN’T SPOT THEM RIGHT AWAY—they’re hidden in plain sight, often disguised as majors in the life sciences—but there are thousands of undergraduates on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus who, in terms of their future careers, consider themselves “pre-health.”

What are their reasons? For some students, the motivation is acutely personal. As a child, Kevin Cleary BS’13 (biology) felt an urgent need to help as he watched his father deal with recurrent brain tumors. “By age 11, I knew I had a future in health care,” says Cleary. Many others aren’t yet sure what role they will play, but they are eager for guidance on how to use their majors to address an array of global problems including hunger, disease, poverty and environmental degradation. Says senior biochemistry major Yuli Chen, “I want to make an impact on people, and I believe that every person has the right to be provided basic necessities such as clean water, education and food.”

For much of the past century, young people seeking to address health-related suffering may have felt relatively limited in their options. Most considered medical school (still the gold standard to many), nursing school or other familiar allied health occupations that are largely oriented toward addressing disease after it occurs.

In recent years, however, health experts worldwide have placed an increasing emphasis on the importance of prevention in achieving health for the largest possible number of people. This was illustrated at UW–Madison in 2005, when the University of Wisconsin Medical School changed its name to the School of Medicine and Public Health, offering the following reason: “Public health focuses on health promotion and disease prevention at the level of populations, while medicine focuses on individual care, with an emphasis on the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Ideally these approaches should be seamlessly integrated in practice, education and research.”

The founding in 2011 of the interdisciplinary Global Health Institute (GHI), a partnership of schools, colleges and other units across campus, broadened the university’s approach to health still further:

“We view the health of individuals and populations through a holistic context of healthy places upon which public health depends—from neighborhoods and national policies to the state of the global environment. This approach requires collaboration from across the entire campus to address health care, food security and sustainable agriculture, water and sanitation, environmental sustainability, and ‘one health’ perspectives that integrate the health of humans, animals and the environment.”

Demand by UW students for educational options built around this broad concept of health had been growing for some time. Before the creation of the GHI, an Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health was introduced to offer students an understanding of public health in a global context. The certificate explores global health issues and possible solutions—and shows students how their own majors and intended professions might make those solutions reality. Although administered from CALS and directed by CALS nutritional sciences professor Sherry Tanumihardjo, the certificate accepts students from across campus and highlights ways in which teachers, engineers, farmers, social workers, journalists, nutritionists, policy makers, and most other professions can play a role in global health. Funding is provided through the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, grants and private donations.

Earning the certificate requires completion of core courses focusing heavily on agriculture and nutrition, the importance of prevention and population-level approaches in public health, and the role of the environment in health. Students also complete relevant electives (examples: women’s health and human rights, environmental health, international development), and—most transformative for students—a field course, usually a one- to three-week trip either abroad or to a location in the United States where a particular global health issue is being addressed by one or more local partner organizations in ways specific to the place and the people who live there.

Goodbye, Bug Guy

FOR 35 YEARS PHIL PELLITTERI BS’75 MS’77, an entomologist with CALS and UW-Extension, has provided patient counsel to a bug-plagued populace on everything from bedbugs to lice and bird mites to fleas.

Now 62 and set to retire in March, Pellitteri has this sage bit of advice gleaned from a long and accomplished career as an insect diagnostician: The bugs are going to win.

“The insects are in control and we’re not,” says Pellitteri. “They’ve been here since before the dinosaurs. They’ll be here after we go.”

Indeed, the task faced by the affable Pellitteri each day for all these years takes on Sisyphean qualities when the challenge he has faced is fully understood.

This is what Pellitteri is up against: According to the Entomological Society of America, there are nearly 10 quintillion insects in the world. That’s a 10 followed by 18 zeros. Experts say more than one million different species of insects have been identified. And it is estimated that as many as 30 million insect species in the world have yet to be discovered and named.

No less an expert than Edward O. Wilson, the world’s foremost source on ants and curator of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, points out that the world’s other creatures exist in paltry numbers compared to insects. Of the 42,580 vertebrate species that have been scientifically described, Wilson says, 6,300 are reptiles, 9,040 are birds, and 4,000 are mammals. Of the million different species of insects that have been described, 290,000 alone are beetles, Wilson marvels in his book In Search of Nature.

“If humans were not so impressed by size alone,” Wilson writes, “they would consider an ant more wonderful than a rhinoceros.”

Count Pellitteri among those who would side with the ant—that is, when he is not conspiring with a caller on how to get rid of a nest of the pesky insects.

Since May 1978, Pellitteri has built a statewide reputation as the go-to expert on everything insect. In the summer months he fields an average of more than 30 calls a day that run the gamut from somebody being bitten by a mysterious insect to someone accidentally swallowing one.

Pellitteri’s fiefdom is a suite of bug-filled (most of them mounted) rooms in the CALS Department of Entomology on the first floor of Russell Labs. He has worked for years with one foot in academia and the other, through his work with UW-Extension, in the world of gardens, termite-infested homes and insect-riddled farm fields. In the entomology department he is a faculty associate, and he has played an important role over the years as a teacher and an adviser to generations of students. Department chair David Hogg calls Pellitteri “the face of the department.”

But it is Pellitteri’s self-made role with UW-Extension that has allowed him to bring his and the department’s expertise to bear on the challenges of keeping the insect horde at bay. Technically he is called a diagnostician. To the gardeners of the state, he is more fondly known as the “bug guy.”

Whatever he is called, he is beloved by those who run panicked from their gardens to the telephone or computer with news of the latest insect disaster. Lisa Johnson BS’88 MS’99, a Dane County UW-Extension horticulture educator, works with Pellitteri on the Master Gardener program and knows how much people have grown to rely on him. He is, she says, the embodiment of both Extension’s outreach mission and the Wisconsin Idea.

Communicating Science in the Digital Age

Two months after retiring from the Madison-based Wisconsin State Journal, where for 34 years he’d reported primarily on science and the environment, Ron Seely splays his hand on the table and points to a small knot of flesh on his palm.

It’s from how he cradled his iPhone, his physician told him, especially when Seely was constantly tweeting live from such events as legislative hearings on mining in Wisconsin.

“It was exhausting,” says Seely, who like many journalists balanced the new duties of tweeting and other social media tasks with researching and writing his stories, all while meeting daily deadlines. “It’s a vicious cycle: You create the expectation that people will have news instantly.”

Seely began his career in daily journalism with hot type and ended it with hot tweets. And his career—which includes serving as a teacher of life sciences communication at CALS—reflects the seismic changes that have jolted science journalism.

Take it from anyone who has ever struggled through freshman biology or o-chem: science news was hard enough to understand before the collapse of traditional media. Then Twitter and other social media exploded, blogs proliferated, reader comment sections swelled—and the science got even more complex.

It’s no longer just the newspaper plopping on your doorstep—the science journalism of years past, when discoveries were presented in one-way fashion by writers with science expertise and passively consumed by a trusting public. Science reporting was hit hard by the economic collapse of traditional media, with many science reporters laid off or not replaced upon retirement (example: the New York Times closed its environment desk early this year). As science journalism migrated online, web technology blurred the lines between professionally trained journalists, bloggers and other commentators, the public and, most notably, the scientists themselves, who face new and evolving challenges in understanding science communication.

Today, coverage is tweeted, re-tweeted, “liked” on Facebook, interpreted and reinterpreted by any willing participant—and is the target of instant and often rude, politically tinged reader commentary. With one in seven people actively using Facebook and Twitter users posting 340 million tweets daily, understanding the interaction between science news and readers is crucial.

In short, science communication is being reborn while the media reinvents itself online. That collision raises concern about how society views the science that can solve energy problems, mediate climate change, improve health and feed a hungry planet.

Stem cells, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology, bioenergy and other complex advancements have all poured down on an American public ill prepared to understand even basic science. The National Science Board, for instance, in 2010 reported that only 73 percent of U.S. adults were able to answer correctly that the earth revolves around the sun; only 52 percent could say how long that takes. And a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that only 47 percent of respondents knew that electrons were smaller than atoms.

That lack of knowledge, combined with built-in attitudes about science among much of the public—often rooted in religious or political beliefs—makes groundbreaking discoveries difficult to grasp or embrace.

“We’re no longer just using microscopes. We’re using scanning, tunneling nanoscopes that go into 1,000 times more detail,” notes Dietram Scheufele, a CALS professor of life sciences communication. “The science is more complex, and just as complex is the question of what we want to do with that science.”

Small wonder that when the public turns to the media, it is often flummoxed, whipsawed by Internet trolls’ nasty comments and unsure what to think of the science’s legal, social and

We used to believe that if we only explained to people what the science is about, they would understand and support it.

ethical implications. In the process, is innovation handcuffed by public opinion at just the moment when society needs it most?

Against that backdrop, Scheufele and his colleague Dominique Brossard are in the vanguard of researchers who are trying to understand the emerging media landscape and its volatile dynamics.

Microbes & Human Health

Jim Steele used to be one of the skeptics. He’d be at a conference, listening to early research on the health benefits of probiotics. Steele scoffed at the small experiments. “We would literally try not to laugh in the audience, but we’d laugh pretty hard when we went out that night,” he admits.

But slowly the punch lines gave way to revelation. Steele, a professor in CALS’ Department of Food Science, conducts research on lactic acid bacteria, with a focus on Lactobacillus species. They’re important for human gut health, critical for the production of cheese and yogurts, and are the most common probiotic genus. He knew how incredibly useful they were, but still watched with a humbling disbelief as the data on the health potential of these microbes kept getting broader, deeper and more intriguing.

Our microbiota—what we call the totality of our bacterial companions—is ridiculously complex. Each human harbors a wildly diverse ecosystem of bacteria, both in the gut and elsewhere on the body. They have us completely outnumbered: where the typical body may contain a trillion human cells, your microbial complement is 10 trillion. They have 100 times more genes than you, a catalog of life potential called the microbiome. (The terms “microbiome” and “microbiota” are often used interchangeably in the popular press.)

While our initial, germaphobic impulse may be to freak out, most of these bacterial companions are friendly, even essential. On the most basic level they aid digestion. But they also train our immune system, regulate metabolism, and manufacture vital substances such as neurotransmitters. All of these things happen primarily in the gut. “In many ways the gut microbiota functions like an organ,” says Steele. “It’s extraordinarily important for human health,” with as much as 30 percent of the small molecules in the blood being of microbial origin.

Early research has suggested possible microbiota links to protecting against gastric cancers, asthma, numerous GI disorders, autoimmune disease, metabolic syndrome, depression and anxiety. And the pace of discovery seems to be accelerating; these headlines broke in just a few months last spring:
• Mouse studies suggested that the microbe Akkersmania muciniphila may be a critical factor in obesity;
• Kwashiorkor, a form of severe malnutrition that causes distended bellies in children, was linked to a stagnant microbiota;
• Risk of developing Type 2 diabetes was linked to an altered gut microbiota.

The catch: For all the alluring promise of microbes for human health—and it’s now clear they’re critically important—we have almost no idea how this complex system works.

The human gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a classic black box containing hundreds or thousands of species of bacteria (how many depends on how you define a species). There are viruses, fungi and protozoans. Add to that each person’s distinct DNA and their unique geographic, dietary and medical history—each of which can have short- and long-term effects on microbiota. This on-board ecosystem is as unique as your DNA.

Beyond these singularities, the action is microscopic and often molecular, and even depends on location in the GI tract. Most microbiota studies are done with fecal material. “Is that very informative of what’s going on in the ileum?” asks Steele, referring to the final section of the small intestine, which is thought to be the primary site where immunomodulation occurs. “From an ecosystem perspective, fecal material is many miles away from the ileum. Is it really reflective of the ileum community?”

The Power of Pizza

The busloads of schoolkids who visit Jauquet Dairy each year have lots to talk about when they get home—from the really cute newborn calves to the really big cows and the really cool machines that milk them.

Dave Jauquet gets a kick out of all that, but he wants them to remember something else as well: The link between his farm and what they eat. And he has a good way of getting that across.

“I tell them that the milk from these cows ends up on pizza. I like to tell them that because they can connect it all the way from standing here, seeing a lot of cows eating food, to something they actually have for supper,” Jauquet says. “Because pretty much every kid eats pizza.”

And so do their parents, friends and neighbors. In the myriad menu items that make up American cuisine, pizza is as close as you get to a universal food. Ninety-seven percent of U.S. consumers had some at least once last year, and 41 percent of us eat it once a week.

That matters in a very big way to people like Jauquet and his partners—his wife Stacy and brother Jeff. Virtually every pound of milk produced on their Kewaunee County farm is made into six-pound loaves of mozzarella and sleek “salamis” of provolone. Like the people who buy that cheese—mostly independent Italian eateries—the Jauquets, their dozen employees and 600-plus Holsteins are in the pizza business.

That’s the case for somewhere around a quarter of Wisconsin’s 1.25 million dairy cows—the working girls in an industry that generates 150,000 jobs, half of the state’s farm revenue and $26.5 billion in economic activity. At least 85 percent of the state’s milk goes into cheese, a third of which is mozzarella, the vast majority of which ends up on pizza.

“As pizza goes, so goes the dairy industry,” says John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

Forty years ago, cheddar was the state’s big cheese. Mozzarella was a specialty cheese, made by firms that specialized in Italian varieties sold primarily to Italian American customers. Since 1970, Wisconsin’s mozzarella production has increased tenfold—it surpassed cheddar in 2000. So has U.S. per capita consumption. “That’s all pizza,” Umhoefer says.

In a nation with 70,000 pizzerias and pizzas sold in every bowling alley and convenience store, it’s hard to imagine a time when pizza wasn’t part of the broad cultural landscape. But it wasn’t until after World War II that pizza went mainstream. Cultural historians attribute the shift to American G.I.s who acquired a taste for it while serving in Italy. It also meshed with trends of the time: Informal dining, ethnic foods, eating by the TV, and lots of cars to facilitate takeout, delivery and road food.

If you want to get a feel for how pizza transformed Wisconsin’s cheese business, a good person to talk to is Roger Krohn, master cheesemaker at the Agropur facility in Luxemburg. Krohn is in charge of turning milk from Jauquet Dairy and 150 other area farms into pizza cheese. His family began making cheese at this site in 1892, and when they sold the business 108 years later, Roger Krohn stayed on to oversee cheese production. It was in his DNA. He grew up next door to the cheese plant and began making cheese there at age 14.

For the first 68 years, like most Wisconsin cheese firms, the Krohns made cheddar. In 1960, that changed. “I think my dad was looking to branch out into something a little less competitive—a new niche market,” Krohn says. “An Italian gentleman encouraged him to get into mozzarella, because he foresaw the pizza industry really taking off.”

It was a leap of faith—“Pizza was not a real big deal in 1960, at least not in the Midwest,” Krohn says—but a smart one. The mozzarella making began modestly—two guys kneading and stretching the curd by hand—but never stopped expanding. By next year, when a major expansion is done, the plant will be using 2.4 million pounds of milk from 28,000 cows to produce about a quarter of a million pounds of pizza cheese—every day.

As pizza picked up, more Wisconsin cheddar plants followed suit, says Dean Sommer of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR), a CALS-based dairy foods research and education program.

“They read the tea leaves,” says Sommer, who in 1986 took a job at Alto Dairy (now Saputo foods) in Waupun—then the nation’s largest cheese plant—to help the firm expand into mozzarella. “Consumption of pizza was on a double-digit increase every year, and the margins of making mozzarella were higher than for cheddar cheese. They could see that with the growth of pizza and the growth of mozzarella, and the profitability, this was a better place to be.”