Upping Our Global Game

SUNDARAM GUNASEKARAN, a professor of biological systems engineering, was recently selected to serve as faculty director of CALS International Programs.

Gunasekaran—or Guna, as he is widely known—has made his mark as a food engineer. His research focuses on the rheology of food, especially cheese. More recently, he has focused on applying nanotechnology and other methodologies as tools for pathogen detection and processing validation in foods.

But it’s his life experiences, along with his research prowess, that distinguish him as ideal for his new position. Guna’s international experience is geographically diverse. He received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, India, his master’s degree in food process engineering from the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, Thailand, and his Ph.D. in agricultural and biological engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s been a visiting professor in South Korea, a Fulbright Fellow in Denmark, a USAID Farmer-to-Farmer consultant in Bangladesh and a mentor for a Syrian scientist under the Scholar Rescue Fund.

“I have also traveled widely and enjoy working with individuals and groups from different walks of life and interests,” he says.

As leader of CALS International Programs, Guna will identify and pursue international activities consistent with the college’s strategic goals. He will lead efforts to identify new resources for international activities and oversee the distribution of seed funding for new projects.

Why are international programs so important for CALS? 

The world has become very interdependent, and so have the problems we face. Many of today’s scientific challenges and practical problems can be solved not through isolated islands of intellectual pursuits, but rather by seeking out and incorporating ideas and approaches from different disciplines and across state and national boundaries.

Indeed, the scope of research and outreach performed by CALS faculty and staff extends far beyond the boundaries of the state and the nation. In a recent survey we found that more than 200 people in CALS have been working in about 80 countries around the world in various projects at one time or another. We are very engaged internationally.

International Programs can help elevate our international engagement from an “individual project” level to a more cohesive programmatic effort focusing on key areas of expertise in the college and implement a strategic framework for sustaining this activity in the long term.

What is your vision for CALS International Programs? 

My vision is for CALS to become one of the leaders among the nation’s land-grant colleges in international engagement, and for it to effect positive change in global agricultural, natural resource, energy, environmental and life science enterprises through research, education and outreach. We are a world-class institution, and CALS is among the very best land-grant colleges in the nation. Thus it is very appropriate that we envision an international program of similar stature.

How do we currently compare to other institutions? 

Other institutions have much larger international program activities. That’s something we want to see happen at UW– Madison.

Most major international collaborations deal with USDA and USAID projects. The United States government has resources to help developing nations solve their problems in securing a food supply, growing more food and developing infrastructure for storage, handling and distribution of food.

For example, the U.S. government has a large grant program called Feed the Future. We are one of the largest agricultural research schools that is not involved with that type of program. We are a player, but we are not considered to be a leader. That’s what I would like to help change.

How else is this work funded? 

In addition to funding from international agencies, there are local governments and private entities like the Gates Foundation. We also have support from alumni donors and alumni groups.

How has international research been changing over time? 

The United States is still a major intellectual and knowledge base—but now, as other countries and regions in the world are also growing their expertise, we can join hands and solve problems together rather than just being the problem solvers ourselves.

What are the hurdles to developing international research? 

Building relationships takes time. Normally if somebody is familiar with your institution or you as a person, that is the first point of contact. And then we get to know their strengths and needs, and then figure out how we can plug in our strengths and capacities. This kind of “feeling-out” process takes time.

We have to take time to travel and meet people and learn about their region and identify the problems they face there, and then identify researchers in Madison who have the capacity and the intellectual base to help solve some of those problems.

Does this process take resources away from our research endeavor here? 

On the contrary, it actually helps add to our research capacity and resources. Sometimes we develop a solution and international program activities provide additional resources to put that research output into action where it is needed. It takes some effort and capacity from our researchers to be able to focus their attention on international problems, but I don’t think it takes substantial resources away from what we are doing here.

How does international research enterprise affect students? 

We, as an institution, are responsible for developing future generations of citizens, and a student who is knowledgeable and well-versed in global issues and is sympathetic to different languages and cultures is a student who is able to solve the problems of the future. In that respect we believe that international engagement for students is critical for them to become future leaders and citizens of the world.

You held a number of listening sessions with faculty and staff from across the college to hear about their international work and their needs. What did you learn? 

The general consensus is: 1) they value international engagement; 2) they’re very active in it already; and 3) they’d like international programs to support their cause so they can do it more and better.

For example, they’d like us to help with their administrative needs so that they can focus on the technical and scientific aspects. Our office can help with budgetary issues, signing MOUs, and dealing with interinstitutional or intergovernmental issues. They also want to be more actively involved in large projects. So we are in the process of identifying opportunities where we can have multiinstitutional, multiinvestigator-based projects. It is something that individual investigators are not able to do, but that CALS International Programs can facilitate.

Beyond funding, are there other ways for alumni to assist in this effort? 

Certainly our alumni can be the spokespeople, our ambassadors. Especially our alumni who are internationally inclined, who have gone on a study abroad, or people from different countries who studied here and went back home—or even if they stayed here but still have strong connections back home. They identify with UW–Madison, and this is the institution they think of first when they think of collaborating, and so we become the first point of contact for them.

And when we go to another country, we look for someone who has been here, and they become our first point of contact—a resource center, so to speak, to help us navigate the local bureaucracy or culture. They become very valuable partners in this process. We have a number of examples of alumni we work with in engaging with different countries.

Strengthening Our Global Engagement

Dean Kate VanderBosch

Dean Kate VanderBosch

“The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” That belief has broadened since the inception of the Wisconsin Idea early last century. The boundaries of the university are now the boundaries of the world—and no college embodies this more than CALS.

CALS faculty members conduct research in some 80 countries around the globe. Their work includes everything from increasing vitamin A content in local produce and breeding hardy crop varieties for challenging climates to economic development and opening new markets for Wisconsin products. Their activities have resulted in a multitude of discoveries that benefit CALS, Wisconsin and communities around the world.

But could we be doing even better? That question was considered when we embarked on our CALS strategic planning effort, and it was answered with a resounding “Yes!” What followed was a thoughtful, committee-led process that included a wide range of voices from within and outside of the college. In a final report the committee stated that “renewed investment in international activities will produce excellence in CALS scholarship and teaching, advance the college’s strategic planning goals, have a significant impact on our stakeholders and generate a substantial return on investment.”

In order to achieve optimal results from that investment, they deemed that a faculty-led International Programs unit is needed—something CALS has not had for about a half-dozen years. Faculty leadership is essential, the committee said, to “reach the threshold level of coordination and expertise required to win large international research and training grants such as those recently awarded to our peer institutions.”

Enter Sundaram Gunasekaran (photo left), a professor of biological systems engineering who has been selected to serve as faculty director of CALS International Programs. Gunasekaran—or “Guna,” as he is widely known—is brimming with ideas and enthusiasm about his new role. This past spring he held a number of “listening and learning” sessions welcoming all CALS faculty, staff and partners to discuss their international work and how a robust reenvisioning of CALS International Programs could help them better pursue it.

“My vision for CALS International Programs is for it to become among the leaders in the nation’s land-grant colleges for international engagement—and for it to effect positive change in global agricultural and life sciences enterprises through research, education and outreach,” Gunasekaran says. “CALS is among the very best land-grant colleges in the nation. Thus it is very appropriate that we envision an international program of a similar stature.”

We’ll be hearing more about CALS’ “new and improved” International Programs in the coming months, including here in Grow magazine. In the meantime, on behalf of the CALS community on campus and around the world, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Guna in his exciting new role.

To Eat It—Or Not

Food engineer Sundaram Gunasekaran, a professor of biological systems engineering, works with gold. But you won’t find the shiny yellow stuff in his lab; instead, the vials on his bench are mostly purple and red. Gunasekaran works with tiny pieces of gold—nanoparticles—that come in almost every color except gold. And those colors can tell a story.

Gunasekaran’s research focuses on food safety concerns, such as whether a food product was transported and stored properly or whether it has become contaminated. But how can a producer or consumer easily know a product’s history and whether it is
safe to eat? That’s where gold nanoparticles come in handy.

“The color of gold nanoparticles will change depending on the size and shape of the particle,” explains Gunasekaran. “At different temperatures, depending on how long you let the particles grow, they acquire different sizes and shapes. And that changes their colors.”

Gunasekaran’s lab is using those color changes for a difficult task—tracking the time and temperature history of a food product as it is packaged, transported and stored. Up to now similar sensors have given consumers some of this information, but they can miss such critical events as, for example, a short temperature spike that could be enough to kick-start the growth of a dangerous microorganism.

The sensors that Gunasekaran and his team are developing provide a more complete and accurate story. The new sensor can differentiate between food stored at high temperatures first and low temperatures second versus a product stored first at low temperatures and then at high temperatures. And that’s thanks to the properties of the gold nano-particles. The color of the first sample would be different than that of the second because of how and when the particles changed size and shape.

“We’re able to do this because the nanoparticle synthesis is affected by how the particles grow initially versus later,” explains Gunasekaran. “We call this the thermal history indicator, or THI.”

These gold nanoparticle sensors are being patented through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), and students in Gunasekaran’s lab won a UW–Madison Discovery to Product award. The student team also won a People’s Choice
award in the 2014 Agricultural Innovation Prize competition.

They are now working to further develop and optimize the system. Since different food products travel through different channels, some sensors will be best used to track long-distance travel over the course of a month, while others will track history for only a matter of hours. Some sensors will work best in frozen storage and others will be optimized for various room temperatures.

The goal of optimization is a simple-to-use biosensor customized for any given food product. Gunasekaran envisions the sensors—now being developed as self-adhesive dots or stickers—being used anywhere along the food production channel. Producers, packagers, transporters and even consumers could easily use the biosensors to understand the thermal history of their product, saving time and money and avoiding recalls and health issues.

“There are a number of ways to use this technology, and making a food product’s history easy to see is the key,” says Gunasekaran. “Food is being wasted because people are throwing it out according to an expiration date, or people are getting sick because they eat food that’s gone bad. Those things can be avoided by having a better product safety indicator.”