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.

Courtney Glettner MS’13

Courtney Glettner

Courtney Glettner

As an administrative analyst, Courtney Glettner supports the management of natural resources for the East Bay Regional Park District in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her duties include managing databases of wildlife and vegetation records, collecting survey data on endangered species, conducting data analysis and administering environmental permits, working with biologists, ecologists and members of the public along the way. Her degree in agroecology allows her to thrive in an interdisciplinary line of work, she says, “in which complex issues involving humans and the environment do not always have one clear solution.”

Anders Gurda MS’14

Anders Gurda

Anders Gurda

Anders Gurda is an associate researcher in organic and sustainable cropping systems in the CALS Department of Plant Pathology, working in the laboratory of CALS/ UW–Extension professor Erin Silva. He has spent the last two years managing the lab’s field operations and recently started OGRAIN, an initiative focusing on growing, processing and marketing organic grains. Through his work, he helps ensure that knowledge gained at the university is accessible to farmers throughout the state. “The agroecology program gave me the knowledge base, the community and network, and the platform to do work that I’m grateful to do,” says Gurda. In addition to his work with the university, Gurda manages Turned Earth Media, where he produces videos and other audiovisual material focusing on sustainable agriculture.

Noelle Harden MS’11

Noelle Harden

Noelle Harden

Noelle Harden is a health and nutrition educator with the University of Minnesota Extension, where she describes her work as taking place “at the intersection of access to healthy food, local food development and social justice.” Harden works with farmers, nonprofits, government agencies, food networks and other entities around the state to improve access to local food through education, networking and advocacy. Those activities include supporting the development of food hubs, implementation of the Minnesota Food Charter, and other food system initiatives. “The agroecology program transformed how I think about agriculture and food systems, opening my eyes for the potential changes that can be brought about when diverse groups of citizens come together for creative problem solving at the community level,” says Harden.

Antibiotics Off the Beaten Path

As more antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” emerge, it’s clear that we desperately need new antimicrobial drugs. Yet, over the past couple of decades, antibiotic discovery has largely been stagnant.

“The reality is there’s almost no new antibiotics that are developed. And that’s because pharmaceutical companies have decreased their investment—in part because of the rediscovery issue,” explains bacteriology professor Cameron Currie.

The “rediscovery issue” refers to the fact that soil has historically been the prime source of new antibiotics—but it seems to be tapped out. When scientists screen soil microbes for new antibiotics, they keep finding the same compounds over and over again.

Currie is part of a team that is looking elsewhere.

Currie and his colleagues have been focusing their efforts on microbes that are associated with insects, plants and marine life from all around the United States, funded by a $16 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that was awarded in 2014.

“One of the major hurdles is finding new compounds, and that’s where we’re really excelling,” says Currie, a co-principal investigator on the grant. His partner is David Andes in the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

At the front end, the work involves some good old-fashioned bioprospecting. Currie’s group, which is in charge of the terrestrial sphere, has gathered more than 2,000 flies, aphids, caterpillars, bees, ants and other insects, as well as mushrooms and plants, from locales near and far, including Alaska, Hawaii and Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake.

Back at the lab, things get high-tech pretty quickly. Microbes are isolated from the samples and tested for antimicrobial activity. Promising strains undergo genetic sequencing that allows Currie’s group to determine how likely they are to produce novel antibiotic compounds. From there, other scientists involved in the grant go on to test the most promising compounds in a mouse model of infection. This approach has already yielded some exciting drug candidates.

“We have 9,000 strains to screen, and we have already found some new compounds that are effective at combating infections in mice and have low toxicity,” says Currie.

With so many samples to process, Currie’s group adopted bar code technology to help them keep track. They have a bar code reader—like you’d find in a grocery store— connected to a lab computer that they use to scan petri dishes, look up samples and add new data. For each microbial strain they’ve isolated, the database has photos of the “host” insect or plant, GPS coordinates for the collection site, assay results, genetic sequence and much more.

At this point, Currie feels confident that the project will pay off, and he’s eager to see one of the group’s compounds go into human clinical trials.

“If you find one new antibiotic that gets used in treatment, it’s a major success. You’re saving people’s lives,” Currie says.

Mali: Helping women farm

Women in many industrialized countries are all too familiar with the “second shift”—the domestic duties they still perform disproportionately (compared with their husbands) once their formal workday is over.

That phenomenon is also key to understanding women’s work productivity in a developing country like Mali, according to studies led by Jeremy Foltz, a CALS professor of agricultural and applied economics.

More than farm technologies, family structures determine agricultural productivity for Malian women, Foltz found. Understanding both household priorities and labor allocation for Malian women outside of farming was key to Foltz’s research on generating improvements in agricultural productivity.

Foltz received a seed grant from the Global Health Institute at UW–Madison to explore gender, agricultural productivity and sustainability in Mali. One of Foltz’s graduate students, Julie Collins, focused her research in Mali on issues that cause women’s fields to have lower yields than those farmed by men.

Foltz’s and Collins’ research offers a new perspective on women as farmers in Africa. Women’s duties at home and with their children are their first priorities, the researchers found, leaving women with less time for farming.

“These findings have huge implications for how one thinks about women in agriculture in Africa,”says Foltz. “Most of the current thinking is that women are inherently less productive, so we need to get them better technology to help them be better farmers. Our data suggest a different story.”

Women can produce as much as men, Foltz says—and those who do either don’t have many children, or they can call upon more labor in the home.

Time-saving features and solutions, including childcare, could make a big difference, giving women more time to farm. So would basic utilities and appliances. “Certainly things that reduce the amount of time women need to spend on household chores— like running water and gas stoves—would have a positive effect on production,” Foltz says.

Creating any new agricultural technologies designed specifically to help women in Mali must acknowledge labor demands in their homes. “Technologies that solve productivity issues for Malian women are not exclusively agricultural,” says Foltz.

Time-saving solutions in the field could also increase Malian women’s crop yields, Foltz says.

“Women I have talked to in Mali are very excited about the possible use of herbicides because weeding labor is the hardest thing to come by in the production system,” says Foltz. “If you can spend money to get rid of your weeds rather than labor time that you don’t have because you are taking care of your kids, you’re ultimately going to save time and improve your productivity.”

Growing Veggies with City Kids

Natalie Hogan, a sophomore majoring in dietetics and Spanish, hopes to practice nutrition education in schools, teaching kids about healthy foods. This past summer she honed her skills by gardening and cooking with school-age children in the Young Scientists Club, a program run by the Milwaukee-based Urban Ecology Center. Most of the kids were of Latino and African American backgrounds, and many live in neighborhoods where fresh produce is hard to come by.

In addition to preparing dishes like whole wheat pizza with fresh veggies—a big hit, Hogan says—kids took part in lessons about nutrition, sustainability and climate change, including such concepts as sustainable agriculture and carbon footprints from farm to table.

Hogan and her project partner, sophomore Katherine Piel, developed their curriculum through a Wisconsin Open Education Community Fellowship, an award totaling up to $6,000 offered by the Division of Continuing Studies and the Morgridge Center for Public Service.

Hogan learned as much from the children as they learned from her. The kids at the Urban Ecology Center’s Menomonee Valley branch were excited about gardening— planting, watering, harvesting and even weeding—while kids at Washington Park loved to cook. Hogan and Piel tailored lessons to suit those preferences, recognizing that enthusiasm is a key ingredient in learning.

The experience led Hogan to broaden her career goals. She still wants to teach children, but she’d like to include families and the larger community. “The parents are the ones buying the groceries and cooking the meals,” says Hogan. “In order to make a difference, I must work to make an impact on parents, educators, policy makers—on all those who play a role in the health of our planet and people.”

And she relished the small victories, like getting 8-year-old Victorio to eat a radish. Initially he made a “yuck” face, but out in the garden, after being the first to spot the red tops, he took charge of harvesting, washing, cutting and adding them to a salad.

“When it came time to eat them, he described them as ‘crunchy and spicy, but still pretty good!’” says Hogan. “That was a positive experience because we could see his change in attitude. And he wasn’t the only one!”

Katelin Holm Anderson MS’09

Katelin Holm Anderson

Katelin Holm Anderson

Katelin Anderson serves as the water quality specialist and information and education coordinator for Polk County’s Land and Water Resources Department. Much of her job involves applying for and administering grants to manage Polk County’s many bodies of water. She works with individual lake groups to study and manage their lakes and coordinates a countywide aquatic invasive species program. Anderson also gives presentations and training sessions to school groups as well as lake and river organizations. “My favorite part of my job is spending time studying Polk County’s beautiful lakes and rivers and working with all the fantastic volunteers who dedicate time to manage our county’s water bodies,” she says. “I also enjoy the opportunity to partner with organizations—such as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Polk County Association of Lakes and Rivers, the St. Croix River Association and the National Park Service—to expand programming.”

Andrew Barrett MS’08

Andrew Barrett

Andrew Barrett

As program director with the nonprofit Edible Schoolyard NYC, Andrew Barrett works to implement cooking and gardening programs in New York City elementary and middle schools. He also supervises FoodCorps New York—a food-oriented version of AmeriCorps—identifying and supporting local partners to bring FoodCorps service members into city schools and communities. “The agroecology program helped me better understand and appreciate the many contexts and challenges of our food system, providing a perspective that continues to shape my life and work,” says Barrett, who holds master’s degrees in both agroecology and horticulture from CALS.