In the Field: Alumni who are making a difference in Food Science

About In the Field

These alumni represent the depth and breadth
of alumni accomplishments. Selections are
made by Grow staff and are intended to reflect
a sample of alumni stories. It is not a ranking or
a comprehensive list. To read more about CALS
alumni, go to

Know a CALS grad whose work should be highlighted in Grow? E-mail us at:

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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.”

Why We’re Growing

The start of a new year prompts thoughts about the future. That’s certainly been true for me as I wrap up my first year as dean and, together with an array of stakeholders on campus and around the state, move through the forward-looking process of strategic planning for CALS.

Chief among our stakeholders are our students. And when it comes to thinking about how and why our college is growing, students are a revealing group to consider.

Their numbers confirm that in fact we are growing, and at an impressive pace. CALS has 3,059 undergraduate students enrolled this fall—up 7.3 percent from last year and 33 percent from 10 years ago.

What’s drawing students to CALS? Their areas of study are an indication. We’re seeing continuing growth in such majors as biology, biochemistry and genetics as well as microbiology, nutritional sciences, biological systems engineering and food science, which has doubled since 2008. Biology, with enrollments divided between CALS and Letters and Sciences, is now the biggest major at UW–Madison, and more than half of biology majors are enrolled in CALS.

Students want to make an impact on the grand challenges facing our world.

Deans at our peer colleges around the country report similar trends. What we’re seeing is that students, among their reasons for studying the agricultural and life sciences, want to make an impact on the grand challenges facing our world. And yes, they also are attracted to the good job prospects in many of our disciplines.

That’s certainly what I’m hearing in talks with students in various settings—at presentations and awards ceremonies and, most extensively, in the CALS First Year Seminar I had the pleasure of teaching last semester. The course, intended to give freshmen an overview of CALS, is designed around the grand challenges that concern them.

Many of our talks focused around the needs of a planet that soon will hold nine billion people. How do we provide enough food, water and energy in a sustainable manner? Our discussions concerned everything from the need to develop crops that make more efficient use of nutrients to tapping the potential of renewable energy to better understanding the impacts of changing climate conditions and what constitutes optimal nutrition.

We need to ensure that we equip students to meet these challenges. We’re not here only to teach them about the tools we have today. We need to educate them in a way that allows them to think across disciplines, to innovate, to come up with solutions possibly not yet imagined.

That’s a challenge for us now as we formulate our strategic plan. And in the best Wisconsin tradition I invite us all to look forward.

For information and to provide input on the CALS strategic plan, visit

Biofuel for Teens

As students in Craig Kohn’s class at Waterford Union High School can tell you, you don’t need a grant or Ph.D. to do scientific research. A question and some curiosity are all that’s needed—along with a sturdy pair of gloves.

Kohn BS’08, who earned degrees in biology and agricultural education at CALS, teaches a class called Biotechnology and Biofuels in which students hunt for bacteria that naturally secrete enzymes called cellulases. Cellulases are named for their ability to break down cellulose, the sugar polymer in plant cell walls that gives stems and leaves their structure.

“Cellulases are important for bioenergy because they are necessary to turn cellulose into a fermentable product that can be made into ethanol and other biofuels,” says Kohn.

To find those cellulase-producing bacteria, Kohn sends students out to collect samples from the compost heaps and animal pens behind their school in a quest known as “bioprospecting.”

Back in the classroom, students drop the samples into test tubes filled with media solution and a strip of filter paper. If cellulases are present, the cellulose-based paper will disintegrate as the enzymes do their work.

That process of discovery excites students. “You see this light in their eyes when they realize that they are participating in science directly, and that their work could lead to actual breakthroughs and results,” Kohn says.

Kohn developed the activity as a participant in “Research Experience for Teachers,” a program at the UW’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC). For his project he shadowed Cameron Currie, a CALS professor of bacteriology and a GLBRC researcher who uses genomic and ecological approaches to study biomass-degrading microbes.

“Teachers are not only learning about current science—they are embedded in the lab,” says John Greenler, GLBRC’s director of education and outreach. “When teachers have that primary experience, they are in a better position to engage their students because they ‘get it.’”

Connor Williams, a high school senior who helped develop the bioprospecting lab with Kohn through his participation in the National FFA Organization (formerly Future Farmers of America), says his favorite element is the hands-on, independent work.

“I learned that answers to biofuel challenges literally can be found right in our backyards,” Williams says. “You just need to know where to look.”

Whey to Go!

Wondering what’s fueling the success of UW athletes? Look no further than Red Whey, a recovery drink composed of tart red cherry juice and whey protein. The beverage was developed as a collaboration between the UW–Madison Athletic Department, CALS’ Center for Dairy Research and industry partners including Country Ovens-Cherry De-Lite. You can buy the drink at Metcalfe’s in Madison’s Hilldale Mall or order it from Country Ovens at (920) 856-6767, It will soon be more widely available, producers say.

A Fresh Approach to Fighting Hunger

Wisconsin has hundreds of diversified, fresh market vegetable operations, but there’s one on the outskirts of Franklin that’s in a class by itself.

Most of the state’s market farms are small. They grow produce on a few rural acres, rely heavily on family labor and sell at farmers markets or roadside stands. But “the Farm,” as it’s simply called, is different. It’s big—it grows 26 kinds of fruits and vegetables on about 150 acres—and anything but pastoral, being located on the grounds of the Milwaukee County House of Corrections. Hundreds of people, mostly volunteers, work the fields. And everything they harvest is given away.

The Farm is operated by the nonprofit Hunger Task Force (HTF) as a way to supply fresh produce to more than 80 food pantries and meal programs in the Milwaukee area. HTF leases the former prison farm from the county for a token fee, and with help from hundreds of community volunteers and several dozen workers employed through its job training program, provides hunger relief sites with 350,000 pounds of everything from apples to zucchini.

That’s impressive, especially considering that HTF embarked on the project some eight years ago with little expertise in horticulture. Farm manager Rich Richardson’s background is in information technology.

That’s where CALS comes in. For the past few years, CALS and UW-Extension specialists in horticulture, soils, agronomy, entomology, plant pathology and other disciplines have been
providing hands-on, in-the-field advice on topics ranging from soil fertility and weed control to irrigation and orchard management. And CALS dairy science grad Jay Janowski BS ’07 is Richardson’s second in command.

The UW experts have been happy to help—the project not only serves a worthy cause, it also offers a unique set of challenges.

“This is very ambitious. It’s not a market garden, it’s a very large, diversified vegetable farm,” says CALS horticulture professor Jed Colquhoun. “It’s a tremendous task when you consider the number of crops and that most of them have to be hand-harvested.”

“They’re doing a great job,” agrees CALS soil scientist Matt Ruark. “Last year they were having issues with nutrient deficiency. We reviewed their fertilizer program and helped them make adjustments. Everything looked good this year. Now we’re working with them on trying some other management practices, such as cover cropping, to improve fertility.”

HTF executive director Sherrie Tussler says her organization is grateful for the help. “CALS has helped us overcome many of the challenges we’ve faced as new farmers,” she says. “The expertise CALS provided helped us grow 350,000 pounds of fresh Wisconsin produce this past season. Hungry people in Milwaukee were fed—and for this we are thankful to our friends at CALS.”

To learn more about the Farm’s impact on families in need, visit

Class Act: Hardwood and Soft Skills

When CALS sophomore Logan Wells tells you he spends his spare time sawing logs, he doesn’t mean he’s catching up on sleep. He’s actually out in the woods, running logs through his portable sawmill, making lumber for clients—and making money to help cover his college expenses.

Wells’s Smock Valley Timber is more than a business—it’s part of his education. He started it as a hands-on project for the National FFA Organization, the youth program focused on agricultural and natural resource careers, while he was still in high school. Wells enjoyed working the wood and growing the business so much that he opted to enroll in CALS as a forest and wildlife ecology major with an eye toward a career in forestry or forest products.

While practicing and studying forestry keeps Wells busy, the program that sent him into the woods in the first place keeps him even busier. Logan is a state vice president in the Wisconsin FFA Association, representing 24 FFA chapters in Dane, Rock and Green counties.

Much of that work involves going out to middle and high schools, where he encourages FFA members to get active in the program and talks with them about the importance of “soft” skills—a positive attitude, good work habits, teamwork and other traits that can put them on the path to success.

His own high school FFA project helps them understand where a good idea and a good attitude can take them. His timber enterprise paid off in more than money. It earned a top prize in a national FFA competition, which in turn earned him a spot on an agricultural exchange trip to Costa Rica featuring visits to banana, coffee and cacao plantations, whitewater rafting and trips through the rainforest on zip lines and suspension bridges—all very exciting stuff for students to hear about.

“I get to tell them my story and inspire them to do something like that for themselves,” Wells says.

Five things everyone should know about . . . Spotted Wing Drosophila

1.  There are 113 species of fruit flies. Why worry about this one? While most other fruit flies attack only overripe or damaged fruit, the female spotted wing drosophila can cut a slit and lay eggs in healthy fruit. Typically this insect will strike just as the fruit begins to color. It prefers such soft-skinned fruits as raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and blackberries.

2.  What’s been the regional damage so far? This native of eastern Asia, which began proliferating on the West Coast about four years ago, was first spotted in Michigan in 2010, where it has caused problems in cherries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. Untreated fruit will begin decay within three to four days of egg laying and have numbers of small white larvae (maggots) inside when harvested.

3.  What have we experienced in Wisconsin? Drosophila suzukii was first reported in adult fruit fly traps in Wisconsin in 2010, but no damage was seen until last August, with major crop losses in fall raspberries, blackberries and late strawberries in at least 15 counties. Cranberries, thankfully, have been spared so far, possibly due to the thickness of that fruit’s skin.

4.  What are the challenges of controlling this pest? The insect must be killed before eggs are laid in the fruit; eggs and larvae inside the fruit cannot be controlled by sprays. There are treatments that can be used to control this insect in organic production, but multiple sprays and thorough coverage are needed. We do not know if this insect is capable of surviving our winters or can be brought in on southerly winds or infested produce from out of state.

5.  What actions are we taking during the coming growing season? The use of vinegar-based adult fruit fly traps will help growers determine when the spotted wing drosophila first appear in their fields. Treatments must be started on sensitive crops when the first flies are captured.

Phillip Pellitteri is a distinguished faculty associate in the CALS Department of Entomology and a UW-Extension specialist. He runs the Insect Diagnostic Lab, which was established to identify insects and insect-damaged plant material from around the state and recommend controls to both county UW-Extension offices and commercial concerns. He also teaches in the Master Gardener program.

Sloths Thrive at Chocolate Source

Like many and much more nimble Neotropical fauna, sloths are running out of room to maneuver.

As forests in South America and Central America are cleared for agriculture and other human uses, populations of these arboreal leaf eaters, which depend on large trees for both food and refuge, can become isolated and at risk. But one type of sustainable agriculture, shade-grown cacao plantations, could become critical refuges and bridges between intact forests for the iconic animals.

In Costa Rica, CALS forestry and wildlife ecology professors Jonathan Pauli and Zach Peery are using a complex of intact tropical forest, pasture, and banana and pineapple plantations—all connected by a large, shade-grown cacao farm—as a field laboratory to explore the ecology of two species of sloths in a rapidly changing environment.

“We know a lot about sloth physiology,” says Pauli. “But when it comes to sloth ecology and behavior, we know almost nothing. It’s a giant black box.”

But some of that mystery is being peeled away as studies of both the brown-throated three-toed sloth and Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth, two common species, are yielding new insights into their mating habits and how the animals navigate the landscape.

The fact that sloths require forested habitat and are sedentary makes them vulnerable to deforestation, says Peery. “Once a tract of tropical forest has been cleared, sloths have relatively little capacity to seek out new habitats.”

But the shade-grown cacao plantation, with its tall trees and network of cables for moving the pods that ultimately become chocolate, seems to be a de facto refuge and transit hub.

“Because of the diverse overstory of native trees, the cacao farm appears to provide excellent habitat for both species of sloths,” explains Peery. “We want to compare sloth populations in cacao to populations in intact tropical forests to see if cacao provides habitat that is of as high a quality as their natural forests.”

Fleshing out those ecological parameters, however, requires a better basic understanding of sloth behavior, knowledge the CALS researchers are now beginning to accumulate.

For example, in a study recently published in Animal Behavior, Pauli and Peery described the mating system of Hoffmann’s two-toed sloths and showed that, unlike many other animals, the females tend to disperse from their home range and that the breeding territories of males can slightly overlap, with males tolerating competitors on the fringes but excluding them, sometimes violently, from the core. And Hoffmann’s two-toed sloths of both sexes seem to have multiple partners as well. “They’re more promiscuous than previously thought,” says Pauli. “We see a much more flexible system of multiple matings.”

That’s not so for the three-toed sloth. In another study, published in PLoS ONE in December, they found that three-toed sloths are strongly polygynous—males exclude other male competitors and mate with many females.

In addition to contributing to basic sloth knowledge, these findings should help wildlife and land managers in the Neotropics make sound decisions to better balance development and conservation.

“Understanding how shade-grown agriculture can benefit sensitive tropical animals such as sloths is highly relevant, considering the ongoing and rapid loss of biodiversity in the Neotropics,” notes Pauli. “What kinds of ecological services can these already altered landscapes provide? Can we mitigate future biodiversity loss with a greater emphasis on shade-grown agricultural systems than crops grown in monocultures? That’s the future we’re facing.”

Because of their sedentary nature and dependence on forest, sloths can be viewed as an “umbrella species,” says Peery. “Protecting sloths could indirectly protect many other animal species in tropical forests that are harder to measure and study.”

Living Science: Hidden and Growing

KATHERINE CURTIS AND LEANN TIGGES are professors of community and environmental sociology at CALS.

Curtis studies “spatial inequality,” the unequal amounts of resources, services or qualities in various locations, along with such related elements as population loss, socioeconomic disadvantage and environmental sensitivity. Her research forms the core of a UW-Extension program that provides educators with information for local programming to reduce poverty and meet the needs of economically vulnerable residents.

Tigges teaches courses on labor markets and place-based poverty. Her research examines the livelihood strategies of rural Wisconsin families, the changing employment practices of Wisconsin manufacturers and the ethanol industry as a source of employment in Wisconsin.

Q:  What does poverty in rural Wisconsin look like?

Katherine Curtis: One thing that makes rural poverty particularly interesting is that it’s actually hard to see. Often, when considering urban poverty, neighborhoods with boarded windows, litter and graffiti, or other symbols of disorganization and economic hardship come to mind. Poverty in urban places tends to be clustered and visible. In contrast, rural poverty is “hidden” in the sense that impoverished people and households are not spatially clustered. The rural poor live near the financially secure or, in especially sparsely settled communities, they tend to be isolated from other people. The rural poor are often out of view.

Q:  How serious is the problem of rural poverty in Wisconsin? Has it increased in recent years?

Curtis: For the state as a whole, poverty grew from 8.7 percent in 2000 to 13.2 percent for the period covering 2006 to 2010, marking a nearly 52 percent increase in poverty. At the same time, poverty increased in rural counties in Wisconsin. In 2000, the average poverty rate for rural counties was 9.6 percent. For the 2006–2010 period, poverty had grown to 12.6 percent. Poverty increased similarly in the state’s urban counties (7.2 percent in 2000 and 10.1 percent in 2006–2010). However, the level of poverty was consistently lower among urban counties compared to rural counties.

Q:  Can you please define rural poverty for us?

Leann Tigges: The poverty level in the United States is around $11,000 a year for a single person. You add about $4,000 per person to that to determine the level for different-size families. So for a family of three: about $19,000. If you make more than that, you’re not considered “poor” and if you make less than that, you are. That’s true whether you’re in a high cost of living area or a low cost of living area.

Many people think that people in rural areas actually need much less than urban people in terms of income, but a lot of things besides housing take more of a rural family’s budget. Transportation costs can be higher, utility costs can be higher. So lots of things that rural families need are more expensive. If you just adjusted poverty for cost of living, which would mainly be housing, you wouldn’t capture that rural–urban difference.

Q:  Tell us a little bit about what contributes to rural poverty.

Curtis: One of the biggest issues in rural communities is economic development. Some of the main drivers in Wisconsin are actually underemployment and unemployment. When we look at the distribution of poverty across the state and different counties, we notice that it tends to be clustered in the northern part of the state, where there is less economic development. Specifically, we think about forest-related industry as well as the agricultural industry or extractive industries in general. When we have a community that might be solely dependent on a particular type of industry, if anything happens to that industry, whether it’s due to local reasons or, more likely, national or even global industrial reasons, then that community is susceptible to contractions.

Single female-headed households are another factor commonly associated with poverty, and we also see it in Wisconsin. Recent census data show that the proportion of single-father households also is increasing, and at a faster rate than single-mother households. Household structure is a factor in poverty because it identifies the number of potential earners. When you have one adult earner, by simple math, you can understand that that household is going to be making less than a dual-earner household.

Meats Made in Wisconsin

Geiss Meat Service in Merrill, Wisconsin, has been butchering livestock for farmers in Lincoln County and surrounding areas since 1956, cutting about 6,000 pounds of beef a day—that’s an average of eight to 10 beef cattle—into fresh steaks, chops, loins and roasts. But when third-generation owner Andrew Geiss took over the company in 2005, he was ready to try something new.

“I wanted to figure out a way to build up a retail business by expanding our sausage line,” he says. “I thought there was more money to be made by diversifying our products.” He added a smokehouse and started taking basic meat science classes at CALS—and soon discovered a satisfaction in crafting his own specialty meats that meat cutting alone couldn’t provide.

“There’s a lot of pride and art that goes into it. For instance, getting that perfectly round shape and uniformity in color when making a ham,” says Geiss. “You can’t imagine how much one thing in the smokehouse—for example, the humidity levels—changes everything, and how much work is involved.”

But the business side wasn’t going as well as he had hoped. “Honestly, I was at a point where we needed to make some serious changes with the consistency of our products in order to please customers and expand sales,” he says.

He found exactly the help he needed in 2010, when he was accepted into the inaugural class of the Master Meat Crafter training program at CALS. He and his classmates—16 men and one woman from small meat operations all around the state—traveled to Madison regularly over the course of two years for rigorous, hands-on instruction in meat science and processing, covering such areas as fresh meats, fermented and cured meats, cooked and emulsified sausage and meat microbiology and food safety.

That training earned Geiss the right to use the formal designation of Master Meat Crafter. But even more than the title, the program gave him the skills he needed to improve the quality, yields and markup on his products. “Now we’re doing a ton of different kinds of sausages, and everything is turning out just perfectly,” he reports. “And I don’t have to second-guess anything. I know that everything is exactly the way that I want it to be, and it turns out the same every time.”

The industry already has taken note of his improvements. Last summer Geiss Meat Service entered products for the first time in the American Cured Meat Championships and won awards in four categories, including first place in cooked ring bologna.

But even seasoned meat crafters see the value of the master course. The debut class included Louis E. Muench, a third-generation sausage maker who was inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame in 2009. Since 1970, Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland has been crafting ham, bacon, bologna, breakfast links, salami, summer sausage and dozens of other products—and winning more than 300 state, national and international awards for their quality. Its creative staff also designs an extraordinary assortment of bratwurst, including applewurst, bacon cheeseburger, blueberry, pumpkin pie and wild rice and mushroom.

Why would someone with that level of expertise be interested in going back to school? “There’s so much technology that changes every day,” Muench says. As examples he cites new antimicrobials developed to combat foodborne pathogens and new government food safety, labeling and operations-related regulations, including changes that will for the first time allow Wisconsin’s state-inspected small processors to sell across state borders. “For our business to succeed in the long run, we need to keep current on everything and try to pass on as much knowledge as we can to keep the quality and the food safety up,” says Muench.

Within a year of completing the program, Muench had encouraged his son Louis and his brother William to sign up with the next group of students.

That’s the kind of success that the Master Meat Crafter program’s key partners—CALS, UW-Extension, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP)—envisioned when they determined that state-of-the-art training was needed to take the state’s specialty meat production to an even higher level.

Program director Jeff Sindelar, a CALS professor of animal sciences and UW-Extension meat specialist, designed it to be like an academic postgraduate program that would benefit even the most skilled and experienced artisans. In both structure and intent, the new program mirrors the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program run by the Center for Dairy Research at CALS, which was a key player in turning Wisconsin’s specialty cheese business into a globally acclaimed leader that today accounts for more than 20 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production, up from a mere 4 percent in the 1990s.

The Master Meat Crafter program’s success will be measured over the long haul, says Sindelar: “It’s which of these plants will grow, add on, which plants are going to pass along the business, whether to family members or to other people who can continue the name. It’s really about longevity and viability of the industry.