Bridging the Gap

International support: Food science major Hannah Fenton (bottom left) carrying BRIDGE partner Kanokwan Duangkunarat, of Thailand; and Jenny Falt, from Sweden (bottom right), carrying her fellow landscape architecture student Sherry Yang.

International support: Food science major Hannah Fenton (bottom left) carrying BRIDGE partner Kanokwan Duangkunarat, of Thailand; and Jenny Falt, from Sweden (bottom right), carrying her fellow landscape architecture student Sherry Yang.

Food science major Hannah Fenton gratefully recalls the kindness shown to her during the three years she and her family spent in Thailand. “I know what it’s like to live in a foreign place and to feel lonely and in need of a friend,” she says.

That’s why Fenton joined BRIDGE—short for “Building Relationships in Diverse Global Environments”—a campus program that matches U.S.-born Badgers with students from around the world. “I wanted to give international students the love, support and guidance that I had when I was in Thailand,” says Fenton.

Last fall Fenton was paired with Bangkok native Kanokwan “Kim” Duangkunarat, who credits BRIDGE with helping her make the most of her five months in Madison. “Before I came here, I thought that the international students would be treated differently,” Duangkunarat says. “However, I was wrong.”

The feeling of “fitting in” she describes is at the heart of BRIDGE’s mission. Offered through International Student Services (ISS), BRIDGE seeks to ease the transition of foreign students to campus while giving U.S. students the opportunity to connect as cultural ambassadors. Each semester an interview process matches international and domestic students according to their interests and gathers these pairs into teams of 14 to 20 students.

To cultivate participants’ leadership and cross-cultural communication skills, each BRIDGE team is assigned to design and host a special event for the others. Past activities have included tours of research labs, visits to a traditional Wisconsin farm, a trip to a corn maze, and even a tailgate party at Miller Park.

After a focus group of CALS undergraduates revealed that many students appreciated the diverse origins of their peers in the classroom but were unsure how to connect socially, CALS administrators reached out to ISS to sponsor a college-specific BRIDGE team.

Now in its fourth semester, the CALS team has attracted students from all corners of the globe, including Germany, Brazil, Malaysia, Singapore and China. Participants have included majors in biochemistry, animal sciences, microbiology, and community and environmental sociology, though the program welcomes international students from non-CALS majors as well. Inspired by CALS’ success, two other colleges on campus are sponsoring college-specific teams this year.

“Now I have many good friends from different countries,” says Duangkunarat. “I have learned that UW–Madison is a really great place to study and live.”

Meanwhile, Fenton has enjoyed seeing her campus through the eyes of students for whom their time here is study abroad. “My favorite question to ask them is, ‘How do you like Madison?’” she says. “I enjoy showing them my favorite things and hearing about their new adventures as well.”

Making It Personal

It was one of the strangest homework assignments Erin Syverson had ever had. The senior genetics major was asked to open a small vial and start spitting.

“I would much rather have gotten my blood drawn, but it’s a simple, effective way to collect DNA at home without a medical professional,” notes Syverson, who submitted her saliva to 23andMe, a private company that analyzes a person’s DNA—all 23 pairs of chromosomes, hence the name—for $99.

Syverson underwent the analysis as part of Genetics 677, Genomic and Proteomic Analysis. While DNA testing is not required for the course, professor Ahna Skop encourages her students to undergo it. Students may use their own results as the basis of their individual semester-long class project, which requires doing in-depth research about a particular genetic disease or disorder and presenting findings in class and on a website the student creates.

“Because they have a vested interest in their project, they are emotionally engaged and seek out answers from me, their classmates and beyond the classroom—for example, from doctors and their families,” says Skop. “The payoff I see in my course is deeper, longer-lasting learning due to this emotional investment.”

Those benefits are being cited all around the nation as more and more college genetics courses encourage students to get tested. They were confirmed by a recent study in the journal PLOS One showing that 70 percent of students who underwent personal genome testing self-reported a better understanding of human genetics on the basis of having undergone testing. They also demonstrated an average 31 percent increase in pre- to post-course scores on knowledge questions, which was significantly higher than students who did not undergo testing.

Syverson didn’t end up basing her research project on her own results, but she still found the testing worthwhile. “Through learning to interpret my own results and scrutinize them, I have learned a lot about not only the diseases they tested me for, but also how to think critically about genetic results,” she says. “I’ve also learned a lot about the state of the field and how to explain it to others, which will be very helpful for my future career as a genetic counselor.”

The course will be offered again next spring. Student presentations are posted at
http://gen677.weebly.com/projects.html.

Wisconsin’s “Brown Gold” Rush

Earth’s petroleum stores are dwindling, but a Wisconsin project aims to produce energy from a resource that’s in little danger of running low: cow manure, or “brown gold.”

The University of Wisconsin–Madison and several state companies, funded by a $7 million grant from the USDA Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI), have partnered to pilot the conversion of dairy farm manure into useful product streams—a project that is expected to have significant environmental and economic benefits.

The Accelerated Renewable Energy (ARE) project is in progress at the 5,000-cow Maple Leaf Dairy in Manitowoc County, where animal waste is separated into different streams, or fractions, of processed manure.

After small plant fibers in the manure are separated and anaerobically digested to biogas, liquids from the digestion process are used to fertilize crops, while solids can be converted into useful chemicals and bio-plastics. Larger plant fibers make great animal bedding and mulch, not to mention a starting material for ethanol fermentation.

Meanwhile, at the new Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW–Madison, project co-investigator Troy Runge, a CALS professor of biological systems engineering, is analyzing the ARE project’s separation techniques to improve their efficiency. “We are performing many of the same separations that occur on the farm, but in the controlled environment of
the lab to both measure and optimize the system,” says Runge.

Tom Cox, a project collaborator and a CALS professor of agricultural economics, sees great potential for the initiative. “This is a triple-win situation; we would like to make money by doing the right thing by the environment and society,” he says.

Aicardo Roa-Espinosa MS’85 PhD’89, president of partner SoilNet LLC and an adjunct faculty member in biological systems engineering, developed the manure separation technology behind the project. Roa-Espinosa and Runge will monitor the quality, quantity and composition of biogas produced and analyze processed manure streams to identify chemical constituents. Student researchers will conduct life cycle assessments to evaluate the project’s environmental impact.

The goal for the four-year grant, researchers say, is to improve these manure separation technologies until their sustainability benefits can be realized on a broader commercial scale.

Runge notes that the public-private, multidisciplinary project exemplifies what the university hopes to do with the Wisconsin Energy Institute. “It’s also an example of a project that’s important to Wisconsin,” he says.

Indeed, the project may help farmers manage manure with benefits for both the environment and human health. A 5,000-cow dairy farm like Maple Leaf produces approximately 25 tons of manure per day, which require millions of gallons of water to manage. Although some manure may be used as fertilizer, nutrient imbalances and runoff can create environmental problems. However, manure processed using SoilNet’s technology yields concentrated, homogenized fertilizer that can be applied with greater control over nutrient content.

In addition to its environmental benefits, the cellulosic—or non-food—plant biomass derived from dairy manure avoids the conflict of “food versus fuel.”

That’s a promising basis for exciting innovations at dairy farms. For ARE project leaders, farms are not only the heart of agriculture. They also have the potential to serve as foundations for cellulosic biorefineries that could prove key in supporting a local green economy and a sustainable energy system throughout the region.

Getting to the heart of a problem

When Marion Greaser set out to study titin, the largest natural protein known to man, his goal was to answer some basic questions about its role in the body. A major protein of skeletal muscle that’s also found in heart tissue, titin gives muscle its elasticity and is known for its massive size, which ranges from around 27,000 to 33,000 amino acid residues in length.

“Initially we were just going to look at whether titin was related to muscle growth in animals,” says Greaser, a CALS professor of animal sciences.

Working in rats, his team looked at changes in the size of the titin protein over the course of animal development—and immediately came across something strange. In most cases the titin protein shifted from a larger form to a smaller form during development due to natural changes in protein processing known as alternative splicing. But in some rats the titin didn’t change. It stayed big.

The team wondered if they’d mixed up the samples. “But we’d kept good track of things and, in fact, all of the weird samples were from the same litter of rats,” says Greaser. “Then the light bulb went off: There must be some genetic reason why these samples are different. These rats had a genetic mutation affecting the alternative splicing of the titin.”

But where was the mutation? They first checked the titin gene itself, but it was fine. With hard work, they were able to pinpoint the mutation to a little-studied gene called RBM20, which had been previously linked to dilated cardiomyopathy and sudden death in humans.

Dilated cardiomyopathy affects approximately one in 2,500 people. Sufferers have enlarged hearts, with thin walls, that don’t pump blood very well. People with the RBM20 mutation need heart transplants and, without them, tend to die quite early: between ages 25 and 30.

Scientists first linked RBM20 to hereditary dilated cardiomyopathy in 2009, but they hadn’t yet figured out how a faulty RBM20 gene worked—or didn’t work—to cause disease inside the body.

Greaser’s accidental discovery, as described in Nature Medicine, filled in the blank. In healthy individuals, the RBM20 protein is involved in the alternative splicing that helps trim titin down to its smaller, adult form. Without it, titin doesn’t get processed correctly, and the presence of extra-large titin in heart tissue leads to disease.

“Now doctors can analyze people showing symptoms of dilated cardiomyopathy, see if they’re carrying this mutation and factor this information into their treatments,” says Greaser. That treatment would probably start with careful monitoring to catch any further deterioration of the heart condition, Greaser notes.

Better Fishing and Hunting

When his grandfather would complain to him about the difficulty of fishing on choppy days out on Green Bay, biological systems engineering student Justin Vannieuwenhoven did more than listen. He came up with a solution.

His invention, a boat-mounted holder for fishing rods that self-adjusts to keep bait steady relative to the bottom of the water, won the top prize and $10,000 in this year’s Innovation Days competition, held by the College of Engineering for undergraduates to showcase their creative and marketable ideas.

And in a separate Innovation Days contest, another BSE student took the top prize of $2,500 for a device that improves safety for hunters. Luke Stedman teamed with mechanical engineering senior Steve Burbach to create TreeREX, a portable tree stand equipped with steel “jaws” that clamp around a tree trunk and use the hunter’s weight to secure the clamp. The heavier the hunter, the firmer the grip on the tree.

Both avid hunters, the students said they were interested in addressing safety because falls from tree stands are the leading cause of death during Wisconsin’s gun deer season. (Stedman once took a bruising 20-foot fall from a tree stand himself.)

As for fishing, Vannieuwenhoven says his device, which he calls the CFS Holder, works so well because keeping bait steady makes it look more natural to the fish. In addition—unlike other fishing rod holders on the market—its construction makes rods less likely to pull out when a fish bites, and allows fishers to quickly change bait after a catch. Also unlike other holders, the CFS Holder also can be used on ice or land.

Vannieuwenhoven tested his invention with several experienced anglers who reported higher success rates during rough weather. He has filed a provisional patent application for his design and is launching a business called 3 in 1 Holders. Meanwhile, he continues to gather feedback for further improvements.

At least one target market is already satisfied. “My grandpa has six to eight on his boat at all times,” Vannieuwenhoven says. “He’s in love with it.”

Not Quite Bucky

Badgers are notoriously difficult to study. Not only do they spend all day in underground dens, emerging only by night to hunt—they can’t even be tracked using radio collars. The devices slip right off of their heads, which taper from shoulder to nose. Badgers are so hard to work with, in fact, that researchers aren’t sure how many of them live in Wisconsin, even though the badger is our state animal.

“We don’t have a clue. We just don’t know much about badgers in Wisconsin,” says Jimmy Doyle, a forest and wildlife ecology graduate student who is studying the reclusive carnivores as part of a joint UW-Madison–Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) project called the Wisconsin Badger Study.

The project, which relies on surgically implanted radio transmitters to monitor the movements of badgers living in the southwestern part of the state, represents the first big effort in Wisconsin to better understand these animals. It will shed light on the landscapes where badgers prefer to live, where they prefer to hunt, how far they roam, whether their territories overlap and much more.

But first, Doyle has to find and catch them.

Working with various DNR technicians, he has walked through scores of miles of grassland over the past two seasons looking for dens, setting traps and then coaxing badgers into travel crates. The effort yielded three badgers in 2011 and 12 in 2012.

“They tend to be pretty feisty,” says Doyle. “There’s lots of snarling and snapping.”

Once caught, the badgers are driven to Madison for a health exam and to have a small radio transmitter the size of an AA battery surgically implanted just below the skin at the scruff of their necks. It’s a quick procedure, and the badgers are returned to their dens within about four hours. The transmitters enable Doyle and his DNR collaborators to track the badgers’ movements at night from the comfort of an antenna-equipped truck—without ever needing to get near the animals again.

The project has a second purpose: to help inform DNR efforts led by DNR grassland community ecologist David Sample to protect grassland-nesting birds in the study area.

Wildlife ecology professor Tim Van Deelen, who is Doyle’s advisor, explains the connection. “Grassland birds have this problem in the Midwest where they have to pull off reproduction in a very predator-rich environment—just think of all the small rodents that would love to eat a little bird egg,” he says. “Badgers might actually be good for birds because they might suppress some of those predators—by eating them.”

The Inner Lives of Cows

What do biofuels look like on the Wisconsin landscape? Some might think of corn or switchgrass. But what about that herd of cows?

What you can’t see might fool you. Cows are walking natural biodigesters, says CALS bacteriology professor Garret Suen. Their rumens are filled with rich bacterial communities that break down the cellulose found in feed into nutrients usable by the animal.

“The cow is arguably one of the most efficient cellulose degraders around, and the main reason why is that we’ve domesticated them to be that way through selection,” Suen explains. “What I argue is that we didn’t just domesticate the cow, we domesticated their microbes.”

Efficiently breaking down cellulose into simpler usable materials—a key challenge in biofuel production—is a feat naturally performed primarily by microbes. “A cow couldn’t exist without its bacteria, because it has no way on its own to break down the plants that it eats,” he says.

Suen, a researcher with the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative, is exploring the workings of the ruminant system in the hope of harnessing its power for industrial applications. He’s focusing on three strains of bacteria in the rumen that use different strategies to degrade cellulose. Drawing upon his background in both computational biology and genomics, Suen is using next-generation sequencing to hone in on the individual genes, enzymes and other proteins used by each and how they work together.

“Understanding the different ways that nature has come up with to degrade recalcitrant plant material will be very useful,” he says.

To date, Suen’s research group has identified some sets of genes they believe are involved, including some interesting surprises that he isn’t quite ready to share. He recently received a five-year, $750,000 early career award from the U.S. Department of Energy to advance the project. Suen hopes the work could ultimately extend even beyond bioenergy.

“Understanding how the microbes are breaking down these plant biomasses doesn’t only impact biofuels. It also has implications for areas like improving digestibility of feed and nutrient yield for the cow—which could directly affect everything from milk production to feed costs to beef quality,” he says.

CALS for the Ages

Shouldn’t someone be writing this down?

That’s the goal of a new course imparting historic discoveries at CALS—and how those findings connect to research today.

The effort was born of a concern by some faculty elders that a great deal of CALS history was known only to people who were retiring.

“Younger faculty and staff, and especially our undergraduate and graduate students, knew next to nothing about genuinely important discoveries and contributions from CALS,” says biochemistry professor Dave Nelson, who is close to retirement himself. “We feared that this history might be lost completely as we left the scene.”

Emeritus animal sciences professor Robert Kauffman convened more than two dozen of his peers, including Nelson, from a broad range of disciplines to create a course in which they would teach CALS history—and at the same time build an archive of videos (all classes are taped), PowerPoints and other material to preserve it.

“Inter Ag 375—Groundbreaking Discoveries from CALS: Past and Present” debuted this spring as an offering not only for students but also for alumni, history buffs, and senior learning groups such as PLATO (all auditors welcome). The class is scheduled at a public- and parking-friendly 4:45 p.m.

The course is designed in a modular fashion, with a credit assigned to each component. Each week pairs a lecture on a historic CALS discovery with one on current research taught by younger faculty. Students going for three credits also participate in a hands-on workshop based on those presentations.

Fun is allowed—as anyone who cranked a Babcock milk fat tester with Dave Nelson or made kimchee with emeritus plant pathology professor Paul Williams (following a lecture on cabbage disease) can attest.

And yes, the kids are learning. “I’m really surprised at the amount of basic biology research that has come out of CALS,” says biology major Jacob Litman. “Discoveries such as the concept of micronutrients—vitamins, minerals—and the creation of an effective strain of Penicillium are not typically what you think of in a ‘College of Agriculture,’ and CALS was originally ‘just’ the College of Agriculture.”

The course will be offered again next spring. And since each year will present different areas of CALS discovery, the course may be taken three times for credit. Think you already know CALS history? Try our special Final Exam on page 39.

Mystery Solved

White-nose syndrome, a fast-spreading disease that over the past six years has been decimating bats in North America, is caused by the fungus Geomyces destructans, scientists at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison have proven. Their work provides the first direct evidence that G. destructans is responsible for the disease.

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, CALS and other institutions showed that all little brown bats exposed to G. destructans in their study developed white-nose syndrome while hibernating in captivity.

“Identifying G. destructans as causing the disease will help direct future research toward elucidating what makes the fungus pathogenic, what makes North American bats susceptible—and what environmental factors are important for disease progression and transmission to take place,” says Jeffrey Lorch, who was part of the research team as a forest and wildlife ecology graduate student in the UW–Madison Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center.

Bat populations in the eastern U.S. have been declining at an alarming rate since 2006, when white-nose syndrome first appeared in New York state—a development of particular concern to the U.S. agricultural industry, which saves billions of dollars in pest control costs each year courtesy of insect-eating bats. Bat declines in the Northeast already have exceeded 80 percent.

As Lorch points out, understanding what causes the disease is a crucial first step in controlling it.

Kids at Work

The slopes in the Yellowstone Wildlife Area are an impenetrable tangle of brambles, prickly ash, dogwood and honeysuckle. They need a thorough de-brushing. But the craggy hillsides are too steep to mow, and they’re a nasty place to wield a chainsaw.

But it’s terrific terrain for goats. That’s why a land management firm was hired last summer to bring 85 Boer goats to this 4,000-acre DNR-managed property in Lafayette County. The goal is to restore the woodlands to oak savanna. This open mix of trees, sedges, wildflowers and grass dominated southern Wisconsin until settlers began controlling the wildfires that kept savannas free of brush.

“Oak savannas are of prime interest to both state and federal wildlife managers. That includes endangered species that require savanna habitat—red-headed woodpecker, vesper sparrow, brown thrasher—as well as game birds such as turkey and grouse,” says CALS landscape architecture professor John Harrington. Harrington leads a team that is evaluating the goats’ impact with support from a state program funding grazing research.

Goats love to browse on woody plants. They are used widely out West to get rid of such noxious weeds as leafy spurge and to clear brush from fire-prone hillsides.

But the idea doesn’t sit well with some conservationists. Free-ranging livestock have done major damage to wild areas through overgrazing, spreading weed seed and causing soil compaction leading to erosion. Harrington hopes the project at Yellowstone, in which the goats are carefully managed by landscape restoration experts, will change some minds.

“Environmentalists have been really gun-shy—or goat-shy,” says Harrington. “This study aims to see if we can use goats as a management tool without the problems grazing has caused in the past.” Harrington hopes to conduct further research this summer.

Graduate students Julia Ela and Katie Baumann, who monitored the animals, report that so far the damage has been negligible. There’s no evidence of soil compaction—and if there’s any problem with plant damage, it’s that there hasn’t been enough of it.

“The goats defoliate the shrubs, and they break and bend a lot of branches, but they don’t necessarily kill them,” Ela says. “It’s clear that repeated grazing cycles will be necessary.”

But just getting rid of the foliage opens up new management options, including reintroducing fire. “By opening up the cover, if we can get more grassy savanna plants growing back in, we can start applying both fire and grazing and achieve greater biodiversity,” Harrington says.

Getting goats to eat more has a benefit beyond brush clearance. The firms that provide the goats supplement their management fees by selling mature animals for slaughter, taking advantage of a Midwest market for goat meat that has been rising along with the presence of ethnic groups that prefer it. The plumper the animals are when they come out of the woods, the more they’ll fetch at market—and the more affordable this management practice can be.

Class Act: Thinking big

For Ron Crandall, the study of genetics is personal. He wants to learn more about what causes cancer, a disease that has plagued many members of his family.

“In high school I started looking for treatments and to help get them into clinical trials,” says Crandall. “And from there I started to take some genetics classes and found I really liked it.”

Crandall is committed to that investigation for the long haul and wants to earn a dual MD/PhD degree in medical genetics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “I hope it will prepare me to go out into the community and make a difference, not just in treating people who have cancer but other genetics-related diseases,” says Crandall, whose academic honors include a WALSAA Outstanding Sophomore Award and the Wallace Award for Genetics.

Crandall’s desire to serve takes him out of the lab and into the worlds of communication and campus leadership. In elementary school he began teaching himself computer programming and web design, drawn mostly by the challenge, he says, of finding easy-to-understand ways to convey complex information. He now heads his own web development and design business, SSII Designs, and also works as the website administrator for the Department of Genetics.

When he’s not studying or working, Crandall engages in student activities. He is a CALS Ambassador, charged with offering prospective students a peer’s view of CALS. He’s also president of the CALS student council and last semester was elected to the student services finance committee of the Associated Students of Madison (UW–Madison student government). There he plans to focus on a “metacouncil” initiative to create a much-needed representative body for all the student councils on campus, he says. Another project: to create a software enhancement to make DARS, the Degree Audit Reporting System students use to track requirements, easier to understand and implement.

One can’t accuse Crandall of not thinking big. The mystery is how he finds time for it. “A lot of sleepless nights,” he laughs. “I have this interesting schedule of doing 20-hour days. I’ll stay up until 4 a.m. or so, get a few hours’ sleep and then continue. And then on weekends I have huge naps.”

Class Act: Learn by Doing

Michael Crossley BS’11 remembers the experience that sealed the deal for his career choice. A local organic farmer’s spinach crops were under attack from a centipede that feeds on plant roots. Crossley—although “only” a sophomore—was tapped to help via an independent research project under the mentorship of CALS entomology professor Eileen Cullen.

“I spent a semester visiting the farm’s hoop houses and doing lab experiments,” says Crossley. “I came up with a simple and novel approach—heating the infested beds with solar radiation. The essentially zero-cost strategy was implemented with great success and, two years later, the farmer told me there’s still no infestation.”

For that work Crossley just won a national prize from the Entomological Society of America—but it wasn’t his only big score. Another research project he helped with resulted in an article for Soil Biology and Biochemistry. Crossley’s co-authors: CALS entomology professor Richard Lindroth and researcher Tim Meehan.

In addition to those projects, Crossley as a freshman began working as a student hourly in Lindroth’s lab. There he not only completed “countless chemical assays” but also participated in lab meetings, attended seminars and learned a lot about the realities of a science career, he notes.

Indeed, Crossley serves as a case study in the benefits of hands-on science. And he’s not alone. Half of CALS graduating seniors report having worked on a research project with a faculty member outside of a course requirement—a rate higher than at any other college at UW–Madison.

Crossley recommends the experience. In addition to helping him identify his desired career, applying science to the real world helped motivate him in his academic work.

“Because of my early experiences in research, I’ve known from the beginning the value of fundamental courses like chemistry, biology and statistics, and have excelled where I otherwise may have floundered aimlessly,” says Crossley.

This semester Crossley starts work on a master’s degree in entomology under professor David Hogg, where he’ll focus on genetically modified soybean resistance to soybean aphid.