Web-based science news has placed a higher burden on scientists to more effectively share their discoveries with the public— a challenge that CALS life sciences communicators are ready to help them meet.
Microbes inhabit our bodies by the trillions, yet how they benefit us mostly remains a mystery. As scientists work with animals to illuminate that complex dynamic, they are excited about the potential microbes may hold for human health.
The pie’s ever-growing popularity has made mozzarella the big cheese in Wisconsin. CALS researchers are helping state cheesemakers feed and grow that demand by developing new varieties for specialized and international markets.
CALS has long been renowned for extensive international engagement. A new program enriches global opportunities for undergrads by making international perspectives, skills and applications part and parcel of the science curriculum.
CALS students and faculty are in the forefront of efforts to develop plant varieties for a burgeoning market
Bees, so crucial to our food supply, are dying off at alarming rates. CALS researchers are taking a close look at everything from the microbes in their hives to the landscapes they live in to identify in what conditions bees thrive.
Not long ago, one of the most biologically and culturally diverse regions on earth—Yunnan Province on China’s southwestern border, with its great river gorges, sweeping grasslands and majestic Himalayan mountains—was virtually inaccessible to outsiders.
Golden snub-nosed monkeys, black-necked cranes, snow leopards, Tibetan bears and an astounding number of other animals and plants thrive in its temperate forests and alpine meadows. And five million people from 26 of China’s 55 ethnic minorities live in the province’s remote high-altitude forests and valleys.
This biologically sensitive region has for the past half-dozen years been a field site for collaboration between the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, a partnership that focuses on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.
The idea arose from conversations between visiting scientist Ji Weizhi, former director of the Kunming Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Yunnan, and Kenneth Shapiro, an emeritus professor of agricultural and applied economics who was then associate dean of international agricultural programs at CALS.
“Ji was impressed by the interdisciplinary approaches that some of the UW departments were using to address complex problems like biodiversity conservation,” says Shapiro. “Ji could see that the traditional narrow ‘stovepipe’ or isolated discipline approach to biodiversity research cannot bridge the gaps in understanding diverse problems in biodiversity conservation. He understood that scientists needed a broader understanding of the relationships between the biology, livelihoods, economics and politics of Yunnan to protect its biodiversity and promote sustainable development.”
Yunnan’s name roughly translates to “south of the colorful clouds”—and indeed, the province’s beauty is self-evident. Less obvious, perhaps, is its environmental importance. The region provides critical ecological services across much of Asia. To take water alone as an example, nearly half of China’s population, along with millions of other southeast Asians, depend on the fresh water passing through the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, which lie within the drainage basins of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers. If the natural forests in this region were destroyed, vast areas and populations downstream would suffer from severe floods and huge reductions of water supplies and quality.
After centuries of semi-isolation, Yunnan—the northwestern part of the province in particular—has been discovered by China’s new middle class of tourists, most of them Han Chinese, who make up more than 92 percent of China’s population. Where only hikers, horses and mules trod before, roads are being built by local and provincial governments to carry millions of tourists. Old-growth forests are being logged to accommodate them. Yunnan’s ethnic communities are having to transform centuries-old land use traditions. And the government is pressing Yunnan for economic development. Ji was aware that transforming Yunnan could have devastating effects on its biodiversity, on China’s fresh water supplies and on the livelihoods of ethnic minorities.
What Yunnan’s scientists needed was a model of an interdisciplinary approach to sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. Collaboration with UW, it was hoped, would mark a pioneering step toward developing that model.
Shapiro and other UW scientists, led by the late Josh Posner (see sidebar on page 27), found a home and funding for their part of the partnership under the auspices of IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship), a highly competitive National Science Foundation program that supports scientists and engineers pursuing graduate degrees in fields that cross disciplines and are deemed to have broad societal impact. The UW proposal drew on the strong support of the staff of CALS international programs, and the research also benefited from significant supplementary funding from the Graduate School, the chancellor’s office and the CAS.
Nineteen UW doctoral students, called “trainees,” were selected from disciplines ranging from political science and economics to conservation biology and anthropology, and included five CALS trainees from agronomy, forest and wildlife ecology, and community and environmental sociology. All participants were expected to learn Mandarin Chinese and, beyond their own disciplines, become literate in other fields relevant to conservation and sustainable development. While in Madison, trainees also attended weekly seminars on Northwest Yunnan’s history, politics, culture, society and ecology.
While some trainees received help getting their initial permits and contacts in Yunnan, it was up to each of them to work through such daily obstacles as getting around, finding translators for the many dialects and gaining the trust of locals.
Most trainees had done some kind of international work before joining IGERT. For example, Jodi Brandt in forest and wildlife ecology had worked in Guatemala with the Peace Corps, and community and environmental sociologist John Zinda had lived and taught in China.
A program with deep roots at CALS helps school districts around Wisconsin serve fruits, vegetables and other goods from local farmers—and introduces children to the joys and benefits of healthy eating.
Geiss Meat Service in Merrill, Wisconsin, has been butchering livestock for farmers in Lincoln County and surrounding areas since 1956, cutting about 6,000 pounds of beef a day—that’s an average of eight to 10 beef cattle—into fresh steaks, chops, loins and roasts. But when third-generation owner Andrew Geiss took over the company in 2005, he was ready to try something new.
“I wanted to figure out a way to build up a retail business by expanding our sausage line,” he says. “I thought there was more money to be made by diversifying our products.” He added a smokehouse and started taking basic meat science classes at CALS—and soon discovered a satisfaction in crafting his own specialty meats that meat cutting alone couldn’t provide.
“There’s a lot of pride and art that goes into it. For instance, getting that perfectly round shape and uniformity in color when making a ham,” says Geiss. “You can’t imagine how much one thing in the smokehouse—for example, the humidity levels—changes everything, and how much work is involved.”
But the business side wasn’t going as well as he had hoped. “Honestly, I was at a point where we needed to make some serious changes with the consistency of our products in order to please customers and expand sales,” he says.
He found exactly the help he needed in 2010, when he was accepted into the inaugural class of the Master Meat Crafter training program at CALS. He and his classmates—16 men and one woman from small meat operations all around the state—traveled to Madison regularly over the course of two years for rigorous, hands-on instruction in meat science and processing, covering such areas as fresh meats, fermented and cured meats, cooked and emulsified sausage and meat microbiology and food safety.
That training earned Geiss the right to use the formal designation of Master Meat Crafter. But even more than the title, the program gave him the skills he needed to improve the quality, yields and markup on his products. “Now we’re doing a ton of different kinds of sausages, and everything is turning out just perfectly,” he reports. “And I don’t have to second-guess anything. I know that everything is exactly the way that I want it to be, and it turns out the same every time.”
The industry already has taken note of his improvements. Last summer Geiss Meat Service entered products for the first time in the American Cured Meat Championships and won awards in four categories, including first place in cooked ring bologna.
But even seasoned meat crafters see the value of the master course. The debut class included Louis E. Muench, a third-generation sausage maker who was inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame in 2009. Since 1970, Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland has been crafting ham, bacon, bologna, breakfast links, salami, summer sausage and dozens of other products—and winning more than 300 state, national and international awards for their quality. Its creative staff also designs an extraordinary assortment of bratwurst, including applewurst, bacon cheeseburger, blueberry, pumpkin pie and wild rice and mushroom.
Why would someone with that level of expertise be interested in going back to school? “There’s so much technology that changes every day,” Muench says. As examples he cites new antimicrobials developed to combat foodborne pathogens and new government food safety, labeling and operations-related regulations, including changes that will for the first time allow Wisconsin’s state-inspected small processors to sell across state borders. “For our business to succeed in the long run, we need to keep current on everything and try to pass on as much knowledge as we can to keep the quality and the food safety up,” says Muench.
Within a year of completing the program, Muench had encouraged his son Louis and his brother William to sign up with the next group of students.
That’s the kind of success that the Master Meat Crafter program’s key partners—CALS, UW-Extension, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP)—envisioned when they determined that state-of-the-art training was needed to take the state’s specialty meat production to an even higher level.
Program director Jeff Sindelar, a CALS professor of animal sciences and UW-Extension meat specialist, designed it to be like an academic postgraduate program that would benefit even the most skilled and experienced artisans. In both structure and intent, the new program mirrors the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program run by the Center for Dairy Research at CALS, which was a key player in turning Wisconsin’s specialty cheese business into a globally acclaimed leader that today accounts for more than 20 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production, up from a mere 4 percent in the 1990s.
The Master Meat Crafter program’s success will be measured over the long haul, says Sindelar: “It’s which of these plants will grow, add on, which plants are going to pass along the business, whether to family members or to other people who can continue the name. It’s really about longevity and viability of the industry.
For Wisconsin farmers dealing with wild swings in weather, adaptation is the key.
LAST FALL I spent an afternoon near Baraboo sitting in a tree stand across from a woman with a rifle. Perched in another crook was our hunting mentor, Karl Malcolm MS’08 PHD’11, then a CALS doctoral student in forest and wildlife ecology. Malcolm was the organizer of that weekend’s Learn to Hunt program, which was the reason I ignored my fear of heights and climbed 15 feet in the air. The woman with the rifle was Kristen Cyffka, a UW–Madison grad student in statistics with an interest in sustainable food. That day would be our chance to shoot a deer—if we saw one. The temperature was unseasonably hot, the deer scarce.
As the sun began to set, the air cooled and the golden light dimmed over the thickets and fields. In the silence, the occasional rustle took on thrilling clarity. This, whispered Malcolm, is the magic hour.
But Cyffka had woken up before 3 a.m. for an earlier hunt, and as the woods grew tranquil, the breeze gentle, I saw her head begin to droop. The rifle remained propped on the armrest of her tree stand. My first instinct was to nudge her with my foot, but then I decided to rouse her in the least startling way I could and instead whispered her name in a soothing murmur. I was learning that you rethink a lot of things when you’re out in the woods in the presence of a loaded gun.
Karl Malcolm has been an avid hunter and angler since his teens, and when he enrolled in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, he assumed he’d be among fellow hunters.
“I thought I’d meet lots of people with the same feeling I had,” says Malcolm, who is now based in New Mexico as a Presidential Management Fellow with the USDA Forest Service. But when he started talking about his love of hunting and fishing, the other students thought hunting was “barbaric and disrespectful to animals, and that it was all about bloodlust,” he says. “It didn’t at all jibe with my personal experience.” As he began to evaluate and articulate his hunting experiences for others, Malcolm found the initial seed for his interest in teaching others to hunt.
Wisconsin’s Learn to Hunt (LTH) programs have been around since 1997, inspired by the Wisconsin Student Hunter Program, which CALS forest and wildlife ecology professors Don Rusch and Scott Craven had launched in 1993 to ensure that the department’s students gained hands-on experience in hunting and understood its history and role in conservation. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) adapted that into LTH programs designed to recruit new hunters, initially focusing on turkey and pheasant before expanding into deer. The LTH program introduces novices to hunting in a controlled manner by pairing them with mentors on a one-to-one basis. After at least four hours of classroom and field instruction in topics like gun safety, ethical shooting and finding and setting up a hunting site, participants and mentors go out into the fields to experience the hunt firsthand.
Most organizers charge nothing for the course. Mentors must have at least five years’ experience hunting the chosen animal; they also may apply to serve as organizers of an LTH program. Learners must be at least 10 years old and never have received a hunting license for the species being hunted. On paper, Malcolm has organized his programs as an individual, but in practice help comes not only from the DNR but also from the CALS Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, thanks to such hunting mentors as professors Mike Samuel and Tim Van Deelen and engaged students and alumni like Steve Grodsky MS’10, Dan Storm PhD’11 and Mike Watt BS’07 MS’12.
“Other folks who are interested in putting together similar programs should know they can do it and the DNR will be there to back them up,” explains Malcolm.
Now prospective hunters have additional and quite significant support thanks to the Hunters Network of Wisconsin, a joint project between CALS, the DNR and UW–Extension that is dedicated to recruiting more hunters. The effort began with a survey of hunting and conservation organizations conducted by CALS/UW Extension life sciences communication professor Bret Shaw and research associate Beth Ryan, funded with a DNR grant. The survey, which would then inform strategic outreach to mentors and interested non-hunters, identified resources the organizations already used or would like to use more, from assistance in finding interested participants to funds to sponsor LTH events and volunteer education and training.
But perhaps even more significant was the survey’s focus on hunters’ motivations for taking part in the sport. The top reasons people named for hunting were spending time outdoors, being close to nature, using and sharing skills and knowledge, and camaraderie with friends and family. The Hunters Network hopes to use this insight to make mentoring new hunters more appealing.
There’s a compelling reason for all of this outreach. Hunting is an important part of Wisconsin’s history and culture. It also has a $1.4 billion impact on the state’s economy and supports some 26,000 jobs, according to the DNR.
Yet Wisconsin has experienced an ongoing decline in hunting in recent years. A study from February 2011 by the DNR and the UW-based Applied Population Laboratory found that the number of gun deer hunting licenses sold to the state’s residents dropped 6.5 percent, from 644,991 in 2000 to 602,791 in 2010. The report predicts that by 2030, the number of male gun deer hunters (who make up the bulk of hunters, though the number of female hunters is expected to rise) could drop to 400,000.
TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND YEARS ago, our Paleolithic ancestors got plenty of sun. Scantily draped in animal hides, they spent their days roaming outdoors, hunting and gathering food. With so much sun exposure, they made a lot of vitamin D, the “sun vitamin,” through their skin—around 10,000 units per day, biologists estimate.
Today, with lifestyles that keep us indoors and in vehicles, we don’t get out in the sun nearly as much. And when we do, we often slather ourselves in sunscreen to avoid skin cancer—a protective measure that unfortunately also blocks production of vitamin D. Although we get vitamin D from our food, primarily through fatty fish and fortified milk, yogurt and cereal, there’s been growing concern over the past decade that we aren’t getting enough, and that we may be missing out on a number of the vitamin’s health benefits that we’re just starting to understand.
And if newspaper headlines are to be believed, we could be missing quite a lot. Week after week, articles are published touting vitamin D’s protective role in a wide range of diseases and ailments—cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancers of the colon, breast and prostate, cold and flu, asthma, autism, depression, osteoporosis, arthritis, neurodegenerative disease, multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes—and even longevity. But don’t count on all of these studies panning out, warns CALS biochemist Hector DeLuca. DeLuca should know—he’s a globally recognized authority on vitamin D whose six decades of research laid the groundwork for much of what we know and are discovering about it today.
“I’m really worried about how much attention vitamin D has received lately because we did this with vitamin E many years ago—where vitamin E was going to cure all kinds of things and of course it didn’t—and it’s completely off the radar screen now,” DeLuca says. “I don’t want that to happen to vitamin D because there are many places where it’s really effective.”
So what are vitamin D’s health benefits, and what do we need to do to maximize them? Both are huge questions in the scientific and medical fields. At this point, only one thing is certain: vitamin D is essential for strong bones. Beyond that, the jury is out because we don’t have the large, randomized human clinical trials required to make those calls—yet.
Nevertheless, there have been a significant number of promising in vitro and animal studies over the years, enough to convince many vitamin D researchers to increase their own doses. And when the U.S. Institute of Medicine in 2010 raised the Recommended Dietary Allowance for vitamin D from 400 to 600 units per day for adults—taking into consideration only the vitamin’s impact on bone health—it didn’t sit well with many members of the vitamin D research community who think the recommended intake should be considerably higher.
“Many people thought that was absolutely absurd—that people should actually be taking anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 units a day,” says Wes Pike, another CALS vitamin D researcher who is internationally respected for his work. “But the committee didn’t take any risks. They discounted all the other things that people believe higher amounts of vitamin D could be beneficial for—muscle function, a healthy immune system, combating cancer and so much more. And some of those things are real, it’s just that there’s no strong clinical evidence for them yet.”
Fortunately, there soon will be a lot more solid evidence about vitamin D’s health impacts—on heart disease, stroke, cancer and more—thanks to a large clinical trial that’s gearing up at the Institute of Medicine’s request. As scientists, doctors and the public wait for answers, CALS researchers are working in parallel, leading an equally important effort to shine a light on vitamin D’s mode of action inside the body and to explore and understand new vitamin D-based treatments for disease—as they have for almost a century.
The story of vitamin D is largely a CALS story. It was identified by biochemist Elmer McCollum, who discovered vitamins A and B as a young faculty member at CALS before joining Johns Hopkins University, where in 1921 he found a substance that cured the bone-softening disease rickets—and named it vitamin D, as it was then the fourth vitamin known to science. In 1923 CALS biochemist Harry Steenbock figured out how to biofortify food with vitamin D by exposing it to ultraviolet light, a discovery that led to the almost complete eradication of rickets by the mid-1940s.
As his last graduate student, Steenbock in 1951 brought on Hector DeLuca, a promising young chemist from the University of Colorado. At Steenbock’s request, DeLuca stayed on to run his lab. “Steenbock was nearing retirement and wasn’t physically well, so he asked if I would stay after my Ph.D. and direct the research in his lab,” says DeLuca. The offer turned into a faculty position in 1959.
“At the time there was a lot we didn’t know about vitamin D and how it makes better bones,” says DeLuca. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we try to figure out how it works, and maybe we’ll learn how certain diseases take place?’ That was my motivation.”