Give: Hands-On Fieldwork

Before last summer, Vera Swanson’s only exposure to plant sciences had been through classes in introductory biology. That changed big-time when Swanson, a junior majoring in environmental sciences and Russian, signed on to intern at the CALS-based Arlington Agricultural Research Station as a crop scout.

Crop scouts are used in agricultural management to diagnose stress factors in a field—such elements as potentially negative soil and climate conditions, the presence of pests, and threatened crop performance—and determine which management practices are appropriate for the goals of a specific plot. As part of her training, Swanson spent copious hours learning to identify weeds by walking through the fields and the Weed Garden, which displays dozens of invasive plants accompanied by their names.

Swanson paired her internship, which was run through the Department of Agronomy, with an independent research project involving biofuel crops being tested at Arlington. For that work Swanson drew on her growing knowledge of weeds to test the effect of three biofuel crop systems—native prairie, switchgrass and continuous corn—on the soil’s weed seed bank, or the viable seeds present in the soil and its surface. The project involved working one-on-one with research scientists in Randy Jackson’s grassland ecology lab. Jackson is running the crop trials through his affiliation with the UW’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, housed in the Wisconsin Energy Institute.

The intense focus on plants got Swanson thinking a lot more about soil. “It is such a finite resource, yet so much of what we depend on comes from it—our food, clothing and the materials that we build with,” says Swanson.

It also got her more interested in food systems, to the point where she chose to make horticulture a disciplinary focus within her major and a possible new career direction. “I’d love to work for an organization where I would be able to complement my interests in agriculture, development and language within a global context,” she says.

Swanson’s path exemplifies the power of “beyond classroom” experiences to dramatically shape, and in many cases transform, a student’s education and career goals. These experiences—which include internships, research projects, study abroad, honors thesis stipends, field courses and more—are the hallmark of a CALS education.

“They’re a big part of what makes CALS CALS—and they offer our students a major advantage in both their personal and professional development,” says Sarah Pfatteicher, the college’s associate dean for academic affairs. “Our goal is to ensure that each student can participate in at least four of these important opportunities.”

To help support the CALS Student Experience Fund, visit: http://go.wisc.edu/student-experience

Five things everyone should know about . . . Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (aka “Drones”) in Agriculture

1 Agriculture is poised to become the biggest market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Up to 80 percent of the commercial market for UAVs will eventually be for agricultural uses, predicts the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Industry analysts expect more than 100,000 jobs to be created and nearly half a billion dollars in tax revenue to be generated collectively by 2025, much of it from agriculture.

2 UAVs have great potential use in monitoring crop health. During the growing season, producers spend time and resources scouting crops to identify issues that might impact growth or yield. Such monitoring is done mostly through manned planes, satellites—or, very often, a good old-fashioned walk through the field. But data collected through these methods can take a long time to process, making it hard for farmers to address problems in a timely, cost-effective manner. UAVs can allow producers to cover and analyze a greater area in more detail and in less time.

3 Ag UAVs can be loaded with game-changing technology. UAVs may be equipped with infrared cameras, vegetative indices sensors and other technology, collecting all manner of relevant data (presence of insects or disease, amount of water or dryness, location of livestock). Farmers also can use UAVs to tailor their use of such inputs as pesticides or fertilizer based on how much is needed at a specific point in a field, a process known as variable rate application. This practice can save the grower money while maintaining yield and also reducing the amount of potential runoff into nearby streams or lakes.

4 But simpler and less expensive models can be very helpful as well. Utilizing a UAV with a visible light camera (what we use for normal pictures and/or video) can give producers a bird’s- eye view of what is happening in their fields. Anomalies such as color variations in the crop canopy, winter kill areas and animal damage can be seen from the air. Once identified, these damaged areas can be verified on the ground more easily.

5 Wisconsin UAV interest is high. Most grower and commodity group presentations I have given with UW–Extension in the past year have been about UAVs and their uses. From the perspective of crop management and spatial variation management, our ability to collect data has been somewhat limited to the beginning of the growing season (spring soil sampling, for example) and the end of the growing season (yield monitoring). Any further data collection would require walking the field or extra passes over the field with equipment. UAVs have the potential to allow us to collect data about the health of the crop over the entire growing season.

Brian Luck is a CALS assistant professor of Biological Systems Engineering and a Machinery Systems/Precision Agriculture educator with UW–Extension. His UAV research focuses on applied uses of current UAV technology for production agriculture.

Second Life for Phosphorus

Phosphorus, a nutrient required for growing crops, finds its way from farm fields to our food and eventually to our wastewater treatment plants. At the plants, the nutrient causes major problems, building up in pipes or going on to pollute surface waters.

Brushite bounty: Phil Barak displays brushite produced during trials at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. Each jar contains brushite harvested from 30 gallons of anaerobic digest. Photo courtesy of Phil Barak

Brushite bounty: Phil Barak displays brushite produced during trials at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. Each jar contains brushite harvested from 30 gallons of anaerobic digest.
Photo by Rick Wayne

But soil science professor Phil Barak has an idea about how to retrieve the nutrient from wastewater in a valuable form—and it started from a basic lab experiment. “I was doing some work on crystallizing phosphorus, just out of pure academic interest,” explains Barak. “That led me to crystallize a mineral called struvite. Then I realized it was forming in wastewater treatment plants as a nuisance.”

If he could form crystals in the lab, he reasoned, why couldn’t it be done in the wastewater treatment plants in a controlled way? It could. And, even better, if he collected the phosphorus early on in the treatment process in the form of a mineral called brushite, he could harvest even more of it.

Beyond removing phosphorus from wastewater, brushite can serve as a nutrient source for growers. While Barak will do further testing to prove its utility, brushite is a phosphate mineral that’s actually been found in agricultural fields for years.

“When conventional phosphorus fertilizers are added to soil, brushite forms. I maintain that we’ve been fertilizing with brushite for decades, but nobody’s been paying attention to it,” says Barak.

Being able to remove phosphorus from wastewater and supply it back to growers is a win-win situation, Barak notes. “We’re collecting phosphorus where it’s localized, at really high concentrations, which is the most economical place to collect it,” says Barak. “This works out in just about every dimension you can consider, from the treatment plants to the cost of recycling phosphorus as opposed to mining it new.”

Graduate students in Barak’s lab suggested that he commercialize the technology and start a company. After the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) passed on the patent, Barak and his students sought help from the UW Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic. They received two federal Small Business Innovative Research grants, and, with some additional funds from the state, including the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, their efforts have turned into a spinoff company: Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling, LLC (NRU).

The company’s next step was a big one. This summer, a phosphorus recovery pilot plant is being implemented in a wastewater treatment plant in Illinois. The pilot project will test the research ideas on a larger scale.

Additionally, the NRU team will participate in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s granting system to determine if a pilot project would be a good fit in Milwaukee. They hope to start collecting and analyzing data from Illinois by September, using that pilot system to lay the groundwork for others in Milwaukee and beyond.

Terry Lensmire

(Earned his first Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certificate in 1997)

Terry Lensmire is a third-generation cheesemaker whose passion for the craft was instilled at an early age. He started making cheese as a child and continued throughout high school. In 1974 he earned his cheesemaker license and in 1982 became a licensed cheese grader. His knowledge and experience have expanded in a career that has included work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Land O’Lakes—and, currently, serving as product development manager at Agropur, a dairy cooperative based in Canada. Lensmire has been active in his craft outside the plant as well, serving as a cheese judge at the Wisconsin State Fair, at the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association U.S. and World Cheese Contest, and at the World Dairy Expo Championship Dairy Product Contest. Lensmire was in the first wave of Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, receiving his certification in 1997 (the program started in 1994)—and he’s been a presenter at the Cheese Grading Short Course since it started at around the same time. He has since been certified in cheddar, Monterey Jack, mozzarella and provolone.

Uganda: The Benefits of Biogas

Generating enthusiasm for a new kind of technology is key to its long-term success. Rebecca Larson, a CALS professor of biological systems engineering, has already accomplished that goal in Uganda, where students at an elementary school in Lweeza excitedly yell “Biogas! Biogas!” after learning about anaerobic digester systems.

Larson, a UW–Extension biowaste specialist and an expert in agricultural manure management, designs, installs and upgrades small-scale anaerobic digester (AD) systems in developing countries. Her projects are funded by the Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW–Madison and several other sources. Community education and outreach at schools and other installation sites are an important part of these efforts.

Children get excited by the “magic” in her work, she says. “It’s converting something with such a negative connotation as manure into something positive,” Larson notes. In an AD system, this magic is performed by bacteria that break down manure and other organic waste in the absence of oxygen.

The resulting biogas, a form of energy composed of methane and carbon dioxide, can be used directly for cooking, lighting, or heating a building, or it can fuel an engine generator to produce electricity.

Larson’s collaborators in Uganda include Sarah Stefanos and Aleia McCord, graduate students at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies who joined forces with fellow students at Makarere University in Kampala to start a company called Waste 2 Energy Ltd.
Along with another company, Green Heat Uganda, which has built a total of 42 digesters, Waste 2 Energy has helped install four AD systems since 2011.

“Most of these digesters are locally built underground dome systems at schools and orphanages,” Larson explains. Lweeza’s elementary school is a perfect example.

The AD systems use food waste, human waste from pit latrines and everything in between. The biogas generated by the digester is run through a pipeline to a kitchen stove where the children’s meals are prepared. Compared to traditional charcoal cooking, the AD systems greatly reduce the school’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Larson and her team are now focusing on enhancing the efficiency and environmental benefits of these systems. Their goals are to improve the digester’s management of human waste, reduce its water needs, increase the amount of energy it produces and generate cheap fertilizer to boost food crop yields.

“Our overall goal is to create a closed-loop and low-cost sustainability package that addresses multiple local user needs,” Larson says.

The beauty of the project is that all these needs can be met by simply adding two new components to the existing systems: heating elements and a solid-liquid separator.

To help visualize the impact of the fertilizer, Larson set up demonstration plots that compare crop yields with and without it. Down the road, a generator could be added to the system to provide electricity in a country where only 9 percent of the population currently has access.

As a next step, Larson hopes to replicate the project’s success in Bolivia. She is finalizing local design plans with Horacio Aguirre-Villegas, her postdoctoral fellow in biological systems engineering, and their collaborators at the Universidad Amazonica de Pando in Cobija.

Bruce Workman

(Earned his first Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certificate in 1999)

As a five-time graduate of the program, Bruce Workman holds the most Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certifications of anyone in the state. Workman is certified in a total of 11 cheeses: butterkase, baby Swiss, specialty Swiss, Emmentaler, raclette, Gruyere, Havarti, Gouda, brick, Muenster and cheddar. Workman began working in the industry before and after school at the age of 16, and at 18 he became a Wisconsin licensed cheesemaker. By 1999, when he received his first Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certification, Workman had been working in a plant that produced mostly European cheeses. It was this experience that shaped his desire to pursue certification in European cheeses. At Edelweiss Creamery, located in Monticello, Wisconsin, Workman and his staff of 11 produce 23 cheeses, including many in which he is certified. Workman founded Edelweiss Creamery in the same location that has been home to cheesemaking since 1936. After 43 years of making cheese, Workman says he would like to slow down on his responsibilities in the production room and focus on training the next generation at Edelweiss.

Class Act: Keven Stonewall

Some researchers first find success late in their careers. And then there’s Keven Stonewall.

Now a rising junior majoring in biology, Stonewall made news with research he did while still in high school. A headline in the New York Daily News declared, “Meet the Chicago Teen Who May Cure Colon Cancer.”

Stonewall’s research, which he conducted as an intern at Rush University while he was a senior at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, revealed that an experimental colon cancer vaccine effective in younger mice did not work in older mice. Stonewall won numerous awards for his work and was selected as a finalist for the Intel International Science and Engineer Fair in 2013.

Stonewall, the child of two public school teachers, had always loved science, but while in high school, a close friend’s painful experience losing an uncle to colon cancer made Stonewall determined to fight the disease. “It motivated me to say, ‘Enough is enough, I want to step up and do something about it,’” he says.

More recently Stonewall’s interest has moved toward curing cancer in children. He spent his sophomore year as a student researcher in the lab of Christian Capitini, a pediatric oncologist with the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. There he worked with mice to study the use of natural killer cells to treat neuroblastoma, a cancer frequently seen in children.

“He has a very advanced understanding of immunology and the immune system,” Capitini says of Stonewall. “He understood the concepts of the project from the beginning, so he could get his hands dirty a lot faster than the typical student.”

And this summer he’s interning with AbbVie, a research-based biopharmaceutical company, at its North Chicago headquarters.

Stonewall is in cancer research for the long haul, and he wants to pursue it as a physician. “My goal is to go to medical school, and I am thinking of going into pediatric oncology afterward,” he says.

Catch Up With … Luxme Hariharan BS’04 Biology

As a pediatric ophthalmologist, clinical researcher and child advocate, Luxme Hariharan has set herself a challenging goal: To prevent childhood blindness globally and help those with imperiled vision to see better. Born in Hyderabad, India, Hariharan graduated with bachelor’s degrees in biology from CALS and in Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies from the College of Letters and Science. She went on to earn an M.D. at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins.

While still in medical school she helped establish an eye-care program in Mysore, India, with the organization Combat Blindness International. It was there that she recognized the global impact she could have as an ophthalmologist. “I will never forget witnessing the wonder of a man who received free cataract surgery and exclaimed, ‘Now I can finally see what my granddaughter looks like!’” she says.

Hariharan also has worked on blindness prevention programs in Argentina, El Salvador and Niger and has collaborated on vision-saving initiatives in Armenia and the Philippines.

A recipient of a “Forward under 40” award from the Wisconsin Alumni Association, Hariharan is currently the Pediatric Cornea, Cataract and Glaucoma Fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.

• What led to your interest in pediatric ophthalmology?

I truly love the opportunity to help change the trajectory of a child’s life by helping to maximize
their vision. I remember one child in particular who was held back a grade because teachers thought he was not interested in school. It turned out that he just could not see well. Once he got the correct glasses prescription he was the most lively and participatory child in the class, and his grades drastically improved. I saw the direct impact vision can have on a child’s overall growth and development. I was also excited to learn the intricate surgeries involved to treat pediatric ophthalmic conditions in combination with clinical care.

• What aspects of your work do you find the most challenging?

When we are not able to offer a permanent treatment or cure for certain disorders, and despite our best efforts, a child may eventually go blind. This is very challenging to witness in a young child. According to the World Health Organization, every five seconds a child somewhere in the world goes blind. Over a third of these children never graduate from high school, and half will grow up to become part of the permanently unemployed. The burden that childhood blindness places on society extends far beyond vision impairment alone and has significant social and economic impacts on families, communities and countries worldwide.

• What can we do to help address this problem, beyond making sure every child has regular vision screening?

It’s important for everyone to have an idea of the types of avoidable and treatable causes of childhood blindness. Eighty percent of childhood blindness is preventable. A child’s visual system fully develops by the time he or she is 9 or 10 years old, and up until that time it is possible to improve vision via treatments such as glasses, patching and possible surgery to maximize visual potential. After age 10, however, whatever visual acuity a child has is not likely to change. Therefore, early detection of ophthalmic conditions in children is vital in preventing them from developing further visual impairment and blindness.

To learn more or to donate to childhood blindness prevention programs, Hariharan welcomes your questions at lhariharan@chla.usc.edu.

For the Love of Plants

Irwin Goldman PhD’91, professor and chair of the Department of Horticulture, is an eminent researcher in vegetable breeding and genetics, with a particular interest in carrot, onion and table beet. His lab has bred numerous cultivars that have been used to make commercial hybrids grown by farmers all around the world. He and his laboratory currently hold more than 75 active germplasm licenses, some of which are handled through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

But in spite of Goldman’s prowess in both research and administration—he has served CALS as an associate dean and a vice dean, and as interim dean some five years ago—teaching remains one of his greatest passions. “Our most important job in serving the public is to make sure our students can obtain what they came to the university to get: a top-notch education,” says Goldman. “I see this as one of the primary reasons for being placed here by the people of Wisconsin.” He brings that devotion to the many kinds of students he teaches: from the graduate students under his research wing and the horticulture majors he advises to undergraduates and other learners who may not be science majors at all.

And students clearly benefit from his dedication. Claudia Roen BS’15, until recently a student assistant in the CALS communication office, was a senior biology major last fall when she took Goldman’s class, “Plants and Human Wellbeing.” She found it so enlightening that she was moved to conduct the following interview to learn more about both a fascinating subject—and what excites Goldman about teaching it.

What inspired you to teach Plants and Human Wellbeing?

I have been desperate to teach this class for probably 10 years, and I love this material, but it hadn’t previously fit into any of the courses I was teaching. I remember very clearly one January day over winter break sitting at my
dining room table reading about the spice trade—and thinking, if I don’t just say I’m going to do this and put
this class together, it won’t happen.

At that moment I began to write a syllabus and presented it to the department with the hope of teaching it the following fall. That was a few Januarys ago.

What do you hope students will take away from this course?

The whole point is connecting to plants and plant-derived materials and asking, where does this come from? How does it serve us? It’s a way of thinking about the world. If you approach the world that way, it’s part of being an educated person.

For example, one topic covered in the course is aspirin. There are natural compounds in plants that serendipitously have these health-improving effects on humans. What did we do with that information? There’s an industry created around it, and what does that look like? We can apply these questions to a number of plants used in pharmaceuticals.

Or in another lecture we discussed the tale of Johnny Appleseed and the history of the apple in America. Afterward we sampled more than a dozen apple varieties. Partly it’s a gimmick, but for people who have only ever eaten a Red Delicious, it may be surprising to try something very different.

When I was 18 or 19 I lacked exposure to a lot of things. One of my professors brought in mate. In Argentina it’s like drinking coffee, but to me at the time, it was so exotic. I feel that if I can supplement the lessons with things to eat, things to try and taste, I can provide some exposure to the diversity of what’s out there.

Have you found that there is one topic in particular that seems to excite or engage the students?

The treatment of human beings in the production of food that we consider to be delicacies is probably the most important to them, and it’s the single most recurring topic that students write about in their reflection papers. And that’s a good sign—the fact that they have begun to think critically about food production in ways that may change their behavior or make them think differently about the world.

A good example is the lecture on chocolate, which I think for many students is the first time they had heard about chocolate production and the negative working conditions, essentially slavery, associated with it. It is remarkable to listen to a worker from the cacao plantations who toils all day to produce chocolate for the Western world but who has never tasted chocolate. We discussed chocolate cultivation and its importance in our society, sampled several varieties of chocolate, and watched a video that featured cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast—which produces more cocoa than any country in the world—tasting chocolate for the first time after a lifetime of harvesting the crop.

Has teaching the class provided any surprising or unexpected lessons?

Regarding students, probably the most surprising thing for me is the tenderness—and I have to use that word—that people feel for plant materials. When you get them alone or uninhibited, it brings them to tears. At the end of the semester students are asked to present to the class something they’ve made from plant materials. Students have presented food, musical instruments, body lotions and more. They are deeply connected to certain things, and that comes across when they’re talking about something that is important to them, some dish that their mother makes. There’s something there that is very profound.

What kinds of students take the course?

I’ve had students from a wide range of backgrounds. People from Letters and Science, people from all over campus and beyond. I’ve had a handful of returning adult students, and I also had some senior auditors who were taking it because they thought it was an interesting subject that they could sit in on. It was a much wider array of students than I would typically have in a normal horticulture class.

People connect to this subject in different ways. Some people are interested in aromatherapy, or they’re interested in gardens—it’s a catch-all for all things that connect to plant materials.

How do you see this course as a reflection of the goals and the values of CALS?

A big part of our college’s mission has always been to make science and scientific knowledge accessible to a broad audience, and this course certainly accomplishes that. No prerequisites are required; it’s open to anyone who wants to explore the topic. Obviously a deeper understanding of how food is made and where it comes from is an integral part of CALS. CALS contains the whole spectrum, from the soil that we grow things in all the way to policy and legislation around food and everything in between—the genetics and the biochemistry involved in breeding and growing. I love that about CALS.

And the connection between plants and human wellbeing is a recurring theme across that spectrum.

What we study and teach in CALS often connects to outcomes that impact humans, and one of the most fundamental impacts we should consider is their wellbeing. In fact, I find that it may often guide some of our most important projects.

What are your hopes for the course, and where do you see it headed?

Up to now the course has been listed as a 375, meaning it’s an experimental course. When I presented the idea to the Department of Horticulture, I pledged to teach it for two years as an experimental course and if it worked out, I’d ask to make it a permanent number. Now I’m pleased to say that this course has been given the permanent number Horticulture 350, and it will be taught every fall semester.

Ultimately, I would like to make it available online or through some other medium—as a MOOC, perhaps—because I do think students and a wide range of other learners could get something out of this even if they weren’t in the room. I want to make it available to as many people as possible.

Pam Hodgson

(Earned her Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certificate in 2013)

At the Sartori cheese company, based in Plymouth, Wisconsin, Pam Hodgson is responsible for developing new cheeses to meet desirable specifications, researching cheesemaking methods, and evaluating and addressing issues of quality. After graduating from CALS with a degree in dairy science, Hodgson began her career as a dairy nutritionist for a large cooperative. After starting a family, Hodgson wanted a job that required less travel, which led her to the science and art of cheesemaking. Her passion is deeply rooted in her family’s connection to the craft, she says. Her grandfather, a CALS Dairy School graduate, was an award-winning cheesemaker—and now her daughter is pursuing a career in cheesemaking as well. “Our cheesemaking genes must be pretty strong,” says Hodgson, who has Master Cheesemaker certifications in fontina and open hard cheeses.

Tom Jenny

(Earned his first Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certificate in 1997)

Like many cheesemakers of his father’s generation, Tom Jenny and his family grew up just upstairs from their cheese factory in rural Wisconsin. However, it wasn’t until Jenny returned home from the U.S. Navy in 1973 that he decided to pursue a career in the trade. At the time his father and uncle owned Platteville Dairy and were able to offer Jenny the opportunity to develop his craft. After 26 years there, Jenny went on to manage the Carr Valley Wisconsin Pride plant under Sid Cook. Jenny’s day-to-day responsibilities include production, packaging and shipping the plant’s products. Jenny has Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certifications in Swiss, fontina and Gouda—obvious choices for Jenny, who had been producing these cheeses for more than a decade. Jenny is enrolled in the program again with the goal of obtaining two more certifications. In addition to his role as manager at Carr Valley, Jenny is training several cheesemakers—and he looks forward to seeing how their careers develop.