Ag Science for Kids

A PEER-REVIEWED SCIENCE BOOK might not sound like much fun—but perhaps you haven’t met Coolbean the Soybean, the hero of a new book for kids by CALS/UW-Extension agronomy professor Shawn Conley. It follows the adventures of a friendly, mohawked soybean named Coolbean as he learns about agriculture. Colorful, playful illustrations make the science come alive, and explanations are accurate but simple. To explain photosynthesis, for example—the process by which plants convert light into energy—Conley has two plants chatting about how good the sun feels and how it makes them strong. “The sun gives us our energy,” says Coolbean. “Without it we couldn’t make food ourselves.’”

There’s a serious intent behind the fun: to better educate children about agriculture and the science behind it as well as encourage interest in agriculture-related professions. Coolbean the Soybean was published by the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America, with support from the Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board. It is aimed at grades 3–5 and is being marketed to schools as well as to the general public. More information at http://go.wisc.edu/2cx0d7.

Creating a Healthier World

YOU CAN’T SPOT THEM RIGHT AWAY—they’re hidden in plain sight, often disguised as majors in the life sciences—but there are thousands of undergraduates on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus who, in terms of their future careers, consider themselves “pre-health.”

What are their reasons? For some students, the motivation is acutely personal. As a child, Kevin Cleary BS’13 (biology) felt an urgent need to help as he watched his father deal with recurrent brain tumors. “By age 11, I knew I had a future in health care,” says Cleary. Many others aren’t yet sure what role they will play, but they are eager for guidance on how to use their majors to address an array of global problems including hunger, disease, poverty and environmental degradation. Says senior biochemistry major Yuli Chen, “I want to make an impact on people, and I believe that every person has the right to be provided basic necessities such as clean water, education and food.”

For much of the past century, young people seeking to address health-related suffering may have felt relatively limited in their options. Most considered medical school (still the gold standard to many), nursing school or other familiar allied health occupations that are largely oriented toward addressing disease after it occurs.

In recent years, however, health experts worldwide have placed an increasing emphasis on the importance of prevention in achieving health for the largest possible number of people. This was illustrated at UW–Madison in 2005, when the University of Wisconsin Medical School changed its name to the School of Medicine and Public Health, offering the following reason: “Public health focuses on health promotion and disease prevention at the level of populations, while medicine focuses on individual care, with an emphasis on the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Ideally these approaches should be seamlessly integrated in practice, education and research.”

The founding in 2011 of the interdisciplinary Global Health Institute (GHI), a partnership of schools, colleges and other units across campus, broadened the university’s approach to health still further:

“We view the health of individuals and populations through a holistic context of healthy places upon which public health depends—from neighborhoods and national policies to the state of the global environment. This approach requires collaboration from across the entire campus to address health care, food security and sustainable agriculture, water and sanitation, environmental sustainability, and ‘one health’ perspectives that integrate the health of humans, animals and the environment.”

Demand by UW students for educational options built around this broad concept of health had been growing for some time. Before the creation of the GHI, an Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health was introduced to offer students an understanding of public health in a global context. The certificate explores global health issues and possible solutions—and shows students how their own majors and intended professions might make those solutions reality. Although administered from CALS and directed by CALS nutritional sciences professor Sherry Tanumihardjo, the certificate accepts students from across campus and highlights ways in which teachers, engineers, farmers, social workers, journalists, nutritionists, policy makers, and most other professions can play a role in global health. Funding is provided through the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, grants and private donations.

Earning the certificate requires completion of core courses focusing heavily on agriculture and nutrition, the importance of prevention and population-level approaches in public health, and the role of the environment in health. Students also complete relevant electives (examples: women’s health and human rights, environmental health, international development), and—most transformative for students—a field course, usually a one- to three-week trip either abroad or to a location in the United States where a particular global health issue is being addressed by one or more local partner organizations in ways specific to the place and the people who live there.

Field Notes: Central America

Jim Nienhuis, a CALS professor of horticulture, spends a lot of time conducting research in Central America, a place he has cared about deeply since serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s. He’s never stopped thinking about how to address the region’s most pressing problems. Among them: the striking number of single mothers among the rural poor.

“The men had used them and then left for the cities,” says Nienhuis. “They were cast off, but they are young, they are smart, they are willing to work, and they love and care for their children. They can’t abandon their young families and go to work in the city, but they can and usually do live with their parents, and together they survive.”

Often, too, they have small parcels of land—and thus a means of support by intensively growing vegetables both to sell at local markets and to feed their families. Women’s agricultural cooperatives—groups that allow these farmers to share resources and experience, ranging from shared tools to increased bargaining power at the market—were formed to help them in those efforts.

The problem: quality seeds are often beyond their means. Multinational seed companies looking to make a profit prefer to sell to large-scale producers—and at up to 15 cents per seed, women hoping to grow crops for market simply cannot afford them. And inexpensive local seeds are highly susceptible to plant diseases that substantially decrease yields.

That’s where Nienhuis could help. With funding from USAID, three years ago he began a program called “Seeds of Hope” to teach women in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to raise their own seeds. As a plant breeder, Nienhuis helped develop open-pollinated varieties of disease-resistant tomatoes and peppers that women could save from their own crops and replant the following year.

The program is making a difference. “The women have really liked the new seed varieties for their rapid growth and high demand in the market,” says Doris Hernandez of CARE El Salvador, who works with the women. Each year Nienhuis conducts at least one training program in Central America that brings all the women together. And each year the program brings the women to the CALS campus. Workshops have covered everything from small business management and greenhouse production to business technology and seed storage.

Last summer, for example, they learned how to better save seeds with clay “drying beads” that are mixed with seeds to absorb moisture. In humid Central America, their use means much higher rates of unspoiled seed for the next planting season. Seeds of Hope supplied beads to each cooperative.

Having access to seeds and training has boosted the women’s confidence. Not only do they raise and sell vegetables, they have taken their businesses in new directions. Many of them, for example, now raise seedlings on an increasingly large scale to sell to other local farmers’ cooperatives.

“They continue to surprise me with their ingenuity,” says Nienhuis. With the new skills and international networks they have developed from Seeds of Hope, women’s cooperatives scattered across Central America are positioned for growing success.

Everyone around the table

MONICA WHITE arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2012 as a professor of environmental justice, with a joint appointment between CALS (community and environmental sociology) and the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Previously she was a professor of sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Her research engages communities of color and grassroots organizations that are involved in developing sustainable community food systems. She is working on her first book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. Other projects include a multiyear, multimillion-dollar USDA research grant to study food security in Michigan.

You’re a fairly recent arrival at CALS and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. What goals do you have for your work here?
I am really excited because it is a position that allows me to talk about how communities are responding to food insecurity, how communities are engaged in local food and urban agriculture, and I can bring that into the classroom. I also bring activists to Madison and take students to Detroit. Madison has been a very welcoming place to integrate all of those pieces of who I am as an academic, as an educator and as a researcher. So there’s a nice way that these pieces operate, and my departments are extremely excited about the work that we’re doing.

Do you have a specific project you’re focusing on?
One example is for the capstone course in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. I took students to Pleasant Ridge, Wisconsin, where students were able to look at a rural community that had a pre–Civil War black settlement. Students were involved in the archives and then we met with folks who live there. Unearthing the history of black farmers in the state of Wisconsin is something that I’m moving toward as we investigate the relationship between communities and agriculture and all the benefits that come from that.

Is urban agriculture something new?
I would argue not. I would say that as long as we’ve had people in cities we’ve had folks engaged in growing. My dad moved from Alabama to Detroit and he always had a garden. Often the assumption is that the northern migration meant folks were leaving behind their agricultural past. But they brought seeds with them and they brought the knowledge with them to the north— to cities like Gary, Detroit and Chicago.

And if you look back to 1894, Hazen Pingree, then mayor of Detroit, passed an urban gardening ordinance where he encouraged those who owned land to allow that land to be used by those who were unemployed. If we go back to the 1890s, we can’t argue that urban agriculture is new.

It’s just new in terms of its current incarnation. More people are looking at it as a strategy to respond to food insecurity, and knowledge and news about it are more widely available through the Internet and many other forms of media.

What’s encouraging about the movement is that people see themselves as agents intervening in the food system for their own and their community’s best interests. So, for example, I see that I have a corner store selling mostly cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets. And I see vacant land. And instead of saying, “Hey, give us a grocery store,” people are using the land to grow food in response to food insecurity. I think that part of it—the intentional political engagement in growing food as a way to respond to neglect on the market side—is probably a way people haven’t thought about urban agriculture before.

Stopping Multiple Sclerosis

A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) is a hard lot. Patients typically get the diagnosis around age 30 after experiencing a series of neurological problems such as blurry vision, a wobbly gait or a numb foot.

From there, this neurodegenerative disease follows an unforgiving course. People with severe cases are typically bed-bound by age 60. Current medications don’t do much to slow the disease, which afflicts around 400,000 people nationwide, with 200 new cases diagnosed each week.

Now a team of CALS biochemists has discovered a promising vitamin D–based treatment that can halt—and even reverse—the course of the disease in a mouse model of MS. The treatment involves giving mice exhibiting MS symptoms a single dose of calcitriol, the active hormone form of vitamin D, followed by ongoing vitamin D supplements in their diet.

“All of the animals just got better and better, and the longer we watched them, the more neurological function they regained,” says CALS biochemistry professor Colleen Hayes, who led the study and published her team’s findings in the Journal of Neuroimmunology.

While scientists don’t fully understand what triggers MS, some studies have linked low levels of vitamin D with a higher risk of developing the disease. Hayes has been studying this “vitamin D hypothesis” for the past 25 years. She and her researchers have revealed some of the molecular mechanisms involved in vitamin D’s protective actions, and also explained how vitamin D interactions with estrogen may influence MS disease risk and progression in women.

In the current study, funded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Hayes’ team compared various vitamin D–based treatments to standard MS drugs. In each case, vitamin D–based treatments won out. Mice that received them showed fewer physical symptoms and cellular signs of disease.

Hayes’ team compared the effectiveness of a single dose of calcitriol to that of a comparable dose of a glucocorticoid, a treatment now in use. Calcitriol came out ahead, inducing a nine-day remission in 92 percent of mice on average, versus a six-day remission in 58 percent for mice that received glucocorticoid.

“So, at least in the animal model, calcitriol is more effective than what’s being used in the clinic right now,” says Hayes.

But calcitriol can carry some strong side effects—it’s a “biological sledgehammer” that can raise blood calcium levels in people, Hayes says. After experimenting with various doses, her team arrived at a regimen of a single dose of calcitriol followed by ongoing vitamin D supplements in the diet. This one-two punch “was a runaway success,” she says. “One hundred percent of mice responded.”

While she is excited about the prospect of her research helping MS patients someday, Hayes is quick to point out that it’s based on a mouse model. The next step is human clinical trials. A multicenter clinical study is currently being designed. If trials are successful, people experiencing those first warning signs—the wobbly gait, the numb foot—could receive the new treatment and stop the disease in its tracks.

“It’s my hope that one day doctors will be able to say, ‘We’re going to give you an oral calcitriol dose and ramp up the vitamin D in your diet, and then we’re going to follow you closely over the next few months. You’re just going to have this one neurological episode and that will be the end of it,’” says Hayes. “That’s my dream.”

Give: Never Too Early to Start Giving

You can’t be too young or too busy to make a difference as a CALS graduate. Sara Schoenborn BS’10 (dairy science/life sciences communication) is proof of that.

Last year Schoenborn, 27, stepped into a new job as executive director of the Wisconsin FFA Foundation, where her duties include spearheading ambitious fundraising efforts. She’s also served on committees for Cows on the Concourse and Dane County Farm Technology Days.

Yet she still finds time for CALS. Schoenborn is vice president of the board of directors with the Wisconsin Agricultural and Life Sciences Alumni Association (WALSAA), a nonprofit membership organization offering a range of activities for CALS alumni and scholarships and awards for current students and faculty.

And she helped charter a Sigma Alpha Alumni Chapter at UW–Madison, with the goal of helping current members of the sorority for ag professionals through networking, scholarships and loans.

What motivates her, as an alumna, to give so much of her time and energy?

“CALS did more than simply provide me with an excellent education,” she says. “It gave me the chance to meet some of my best friends through student orgs, prepared me for both internships and my postcollegiate career by connecting me to influential members of the industry, and taught me the importance of being involved and continuing to grow as a person and member of the community.”

Schoenborn wants to make sure students continue to have the same opportunities.

“When I ask current students what they hope to acquire from alumni, they almost always say ‘networking,’” she says. “Staying connected to CALS students can be as simple as attending events such as WALSAA Football Fire-Up, offering to give a presentation to a class or even inviting a student org to tour your business.”

Even as a young alumna, Schoenborn contributes regularly to the CALS annual fund.

“It’s often difficult for a new grad to justify a contribution, particularly when repaying student loans—but even small gifts make a difference,” she says. “And it’s important to remember that there are additional ways to give back—through time, energy and support.”

Goodbye, Bug Guy

FOR 35 YEARS PHIL PELLITTERI BS’75 MS’77, an entomologist with CALS and UW-Extension, has provided patient counsel to a bug-plagued populace on everything from bedbugs to lice and bird mites to fleas.

Now 62 and set to retire in March, Pellitteri has this sage bit of advice gleaned from a long and accomplished career as an insect diagnostician: The bugs are going to win.

“The insects are in control and we’re not,” says Pellitteri. “They’ve been here since before the dinosaurs. They’ll be here after we go.”

Indeed, the task faced by the affable Pellitteri each day for all these years takes on Sisyphean qualities when the challenge he has faced is fully understood.

This is what Pellitteri is up against: According to the Entomological Society of America, there are nearly 10 quintillion insects in the world. That’s a 10 followed by 18 zeros. Experts say more than one million different species of insects have been identified. And it is estimated that as many as 30 million insect species in the world have yet to be discovered and named.

No less an expert than Edward O. Wilson, the world’s foremost source on ants and curator of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, points out that the world’s other creatures exist in paltry numbers compared to insects. Of the 42,580 vertebrate species that have been scientifically described, Wilson says, 6,300 are reptiles, 9,040 are birds, and 4,000 are mammals. Of the million different species of insects that have been described, 290,000 alone are beetles, Wilson marvels in his book In Search of Nature.

“If humans were not so impressed by size alone,” Wilson writes, “they would consider an ant more wonderful than a rhinoceros.”

Count Pellitteri among those who would side with the ant—that is, when he is not conspiring with a caller on how to get rid of a nest of the pesky insects.

Since May 1978, Pellitteri has built a statewide reputation as the go-to expert on everything insect. In the summer months he fields an average of more than 30 calls a day that run the gamut from somebody being bitten by a mysterious insect to someone accidentally swallowing one.

Pellitteri’s fiefdom is a suite of bug-filled (most of them mounted) rooms in the CALS Department of Entomology on the first floor of Russell Labs. He has worked for years with one foot in academia and the other, through his work with UW-Extension, in the world of gardens, termite-infested homes and insect-riddled farm fields. In the entomology department he is a faculty associate, and he has played an important role over the years as a teacher and an adviser to generations of students. Department chair David Hogg calls Pellitteri “the face of the department.”

But it is Pellitteri’s self-made role with UW-Extension that has allowed him to bring his and the department’s expertise to bear on the challenges of keeping the insect horde at bay. Technically he is called a diagnostician. To the gardeners of the state, he is more fondly known as the “bug guy.”

Whatever he is called, he is beloved by those who run panicked from their gardens to the telephone or computer with news of the latest insect disaster. Lisa Johnson BS’88 MS’99, a Dane County UW-Extension horticulture educator, works with Pellitteri on the Master Gardener program and knows how much people have grown to rely on him. He is, she says, the embodiment of both Extension’s outreach mission and the Wisconsin Idea.

Looking for “Hotspots”

In their quest to make cellulosic biofuel a viable energy option, many researchers are looking to marginal lands—those unsuitable for growing food—as potential real estate for bioenergy crops.

But what do farmers think of that? Brad Barham, a CALS/UW-Extension professor of agricultural and applied economics and a researcher with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), took the logical next step and asked them.

Fewer than 30 percent were willing to grow nonedible cellulosic biofuel feedstocks—such as perennial grasses and short-rotation trees—on their marginal lands for a range of prices, Barham and his team found after analyzing responses from 300 farmers in southwestern Wisconsin.

“Previous work in the area of marginal lands for bioenergy has been based primarily on the landscape’s suitability, without much research on its economic viability,” says Barham, who sent out the survey in 2011. “What’s in play is how much farmers are willing to change their land-use behavior.”

Barham’s results are a testament to the complex reality of implementing commercial cellulosic biofuel systems. Despite the minority of positive responses, researchers found that there were some clusters—or “hotspots”—of farmers who showed favorable attitudes toward use of marginal land for bioenergy.

These hotspots could be a window of opportunity for bioenergy researchers since they indicate areas where feedstocks could be grown more continuously.

“People envision bioenergy crops being blanketed across the landscape,” says Barham, “but if it’s five percent of the crops being harvested from this farm here, and 10 percent from that farm there, it’s going to be too costly to collect and aggregate the biomass relative to the value of the energy you get from it.

“If we want concentrated bioenergy production, that means looking for hotspots where people have favorable attitudes toward crops that can improve the environmental effects associated with energy decisions,” Barham notes.

CALS agronomy professor Randy Jackson is also interested in the idea of bioenergy hotspots. Jackson, who co-leads the GLBRC’s area of research focusing on sustainability, says that just because lands are too wet, too rocky or too eroded to farm traditionally doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.

“The first thing we can say about marginal lands is that ‘marginal’ is a relative term,” says Jackson. Such lands have a social as well as a biophysical definition. “This land is where the owners like to hunt, for example.”

The goal of GLBRC researchers like Barham and Jackson is to integrate the environmental impacts of different cropping systems with economic forces and social drivers.

The environmental benefits of cellulosic biofuel feedstocks such as perennial grasses are significant. In addition to providing a versatile starting material for ethanol and other advanced biofuels, grasses do not compete with food crops and require little or no fertilizer or pesticides. Unlike annual crops like corn, which must be replanted each year, perennials can remain in the soil for more than a decade, conferring important ecosystem services like erosion protection and wildlife habitat.

The ecosystem services, bioenergy potential and social values that influence how we utilize and define marginal land make it difficult to predict the outcomes of planting one type of crop versus another. To tackle that problem, Jackson is working with other UW–Madison experts who are developing computer-based simulation tools in projects funded by the GLBRC and a Sun Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Jackson hopes that these modeling tools will help researchers pinpoint where farmer willingness hotspots overlap with regions that could benefit disproportionately from the ecosystem services that perennial bioenergy feedstocks have to offer.

“These models will include data layers for geography, crop yield, land use, carbon sequestration and farmer willingness to participate,” says Jackson. “There could be as many as 40 data layers feeding into these models so that you can see what would happen to each variable if, say, you were to plant the entire landscape with switchgrass.”

It’s Your Party

This year marks CALS’ 125th anniversary, a milestone known as a “quasquicentennial.” One hundred and twenty-five is a proud age to reach. And we invite you, as alumni, to come celebrate.

Most of our events this year will have a “quasqui” flavor as we offer tributes to historic moments, glimpses of our exciting future, and a special commemorative ice cream developed at Babcock Hall. Of particular interest to alumni this spring are Science Expeditions (April 4–6), where families can enjoy hands-on learning with CALS researchers; the CALS Undergraduate Research Symposium (April 22) showcasing work by our budding scientists; and on April 24, a dedication ceremony for the new Hector F. DeLuca Biochemical Sciences Complex.

Within CALS, our departments of soil sciences and horticulture are celebrating their own 125ths with festivities on May 23 and June 19, respectively.

We invite you, as alumni, to come celebrate.

And not to be missed: a 125th celebration barn dance on June 28 at the family farm of Susan Crane, chair of the CALS Board of Visitors. All proceeds from the event, including a silent auction, will go to enhancing the student experience and growing the CALS Annual Fund, which allocates support to students and programs that need it most. You can learn more about this and other festivities at the website cals.wisc.edu/125th.

We see this year as an opportunity not only to toast our many achievements but also to help our alumni and friends more actively engage with CALS. As part of our strategic planning process we have formed an alumni engagement working group headed by assistant dean Heidi Zoerb.

Simply put, the goal of this group, which includes alumni, board members, faculty and staff, is to learn more about our graduates. What elements of your CALS connection do you find the most exciting and fulfilling? Many of you are involved with the Wisconsin Agricultural and Life Sciences Alumni Association (WALSAA), a hardworking volunteer group that supports the college through a number of important and very popular activities. But we believe that, across our campus, we could and should be doing more to strengthen your CALS connection, especially since our graduating classes keep getting bigger. What can we do to help keep you close, to make you feel like part of the CALS family? Many of you participated in a survey the group recently sent out asking for your suggestions.We still very much welcome your comments at alumni@cals.wisc.edu.

Our 125th anniversary is your celebration. And we want to ensure that your celebration of CALS continues when the year is over. With your engagement, we can keep our college strong. I am certain that when we read about our latest, greatest achievements in the year 2039—our sesquicentennial!—they will be every bit as impressive as those we look back on today.

Coming and Going

You can tell a lot about what a community has to offer by the types of people who are moving in and the types who choose to leave.

Whether an area attracts or loses residents of a certain age group, race or gender says something about the opportunities and amenities you’ll find there, points out Katherine Curtis, a CALS/UW-Extension professor of community and environmental sociology.

Curtis, a researcher at the CALS-based Applied Population Laboratory (APL), is part of a multistate team that has developed new estimates of net migration—the difference between residents moving in and out—for every U.S. county from 2000 to 2010. The estimates are broken down by age, sex and race. Combined with similar estimates from previous decades, the new numbers offer a chance to make decade-by-decade comparisons of migration by age group from 1950 to present.

Those 60 years’ worth of estimates are available online at www.netmigration.wisc.edu, where users can graph, map and compare migration trends for counties across the nation. The site was created by APL web developer Jim Beaudoin.

“Examining net migration trends helps tell stories of regional and community character and social change,” says APL director Dan Veroff.

For example, Kenosha County’s migration signature shows the shift from manufacturing (an influx of people in their 20s) to rust belt decline (a net loss in the same age group) to suburban (a big gain of people in their 30s) as the area went through auto manufacturing’s boom and bust, then became home to people commuting to Chicago-area jobs.

At the opposite end of the state, net migration in Burnett and Vilas counties is sharply negative for people in their 20s—an exodus typical in remote rural areas—and highest for those in their 60s, as retirees settle to enjoy the lakes and forests. As a result, these counties have some of the state’s fastest-aging populations.

“When we see how these things line up over time we can get a glimpse of the future as well,” Veroff says. “This is useful for people who need to plan for providing services. It can show if a certain population is going to be stable, or decline or increase. School districts, for example, can use it to project enrollment trends.”

While net migration data has been available in the past, it used to require the skills and tools of a demographer to tease it out of large and complicated datasets. The new website eliminates that barrier, Veroff notes.

“One of our goals is to democratize data,” he says. “This effort fits squarely in that realm—making useful data available and easy to use for people in many different positions.”

Communicating Science in the Digital Age

Two months after retiring from the Madison-based Wisconsin State Journal, where for 34 years he’d reported primarily on science and the environment, Ron Seely splays his hand on the table and points to a small knot of flesh on his palm.

It’s from how he cradled his iPhone, his physician told him, especially when Seely was constantly tweeting live from such events as legislative hearings on mining in Wisconsin.

“It was exhausting,” says Seely, who like many journalists balanced the new duties of tweeting and other social media tasks with researching and writing his stories, all while meeting daily deadlines. “It’s a vicious cycle: You create the expectation that people will have news instantly.”

Seely began his career in daily journalism with hot type and ended it with hot tweets. And his career—which includes serving as a teacher of life sciences communication at CALS—reflects the seismic changes that have jolted science journalism.

Take it from anyone who has ever struggled through freshman biology or o-chem: science news was hard enough to understand before the collapse of traditional media. Then Twitter and other social media exploded, blogs proliferated, reader comment sections swelled—and the science got even more complex.

It’s no longer just the newspaper plopping on your doorstep—the science journalism of years past, when discoveries were presented in one-way fashion by writers with science expertise and passively consumed by a trusting public. Science reporting was hit hard by the economic collapse of traditional media, with many science reporters laid off or not replaced upon retirement (example: the New York Times closed its environment desk early this year). As science journalism migrated online, web technology blurred the lines between professionally trained journalists, bloggers and other commentators, the public and, most notably, the scientists themselves, who face new and evolving challenges in understanding science communication.

Today, coverage is tweeted, re-tweeted, “liked” on Facebook, interpreted and reinterpreted by any willing participant—and is the target of instant and often rude, politically tinged reader commentary. With one in seven people actively using Facebook and Twitter users posting 340 million tweets daily, understanding the interaction between science news and readers is crucial.

In short, science communication is being reborn while the media reinvents itself online. That collision raises concern about how society views the science that can solve energy problems, mediate climate change, improve health and feed a hungry planet.

Stem cells, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology, bioenergy and other complex advancements have all poured down on an American public ill prepared to understand even basic science. The National Science Board, for instance, in 2010 reported that only 73 percent of U.S. adults were able to answer correctly that the earth revolves around the sun; only 52 percent could say how long that takes. And a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that only 47 percent of respondents knew that electrons were smaller than atoms.

That lack of knowledge, combined with built-in attitudes about science among much of the public—often rooted in religious or political beliefs—makes groundbreaking discoveries difficult to grasp or embrace.

“We’re no longer just using microscopes. We’re using scanning, tunneling nanoscopes that go into 1,000 times more detail,” notes Dietram Scheufele, a CALS professor of life sciences communication. “The science is more complex, and just as complex is the question of what we want to do with that science.”

Small wonder that when the public turns to the media, it is often flummoxed, whipsawed by Internet trolls’ nasty comments and unsure what to think of the science’s legal, social and

We used to believe that if we only explained to people what the science is about, they would understand and support it.

ethical implications. In the process, is innovation handcuffed by public opinion at just the moment when society needs it most?

Against that backdrop, Scheufele and his colleague Dominique Brossard are in the vanguard of researchers who are trying to understand the emerging media landscape and its volatile dynamics.

Microbes & Human Health

Jim Steele used to be one of the skeptics. He’d be at a conference, listening to early research on the health benefits of probiotics. Steele scoffed at the small experiments. “We would literally try not to laugh in the audience, but we’d laugh pretty hard when we went out that night,” he admits.

But slowly the punch lines gave way to revelation. Steele, a professor in CALS’ Department of Food Science, conducts research on lactic acid bacteria, with a focus on Lactobacillus species. They’re important for human gut health, critical for the production of cheese and yogurts, and are the most common probiotic genus. He knew how incredibly useful they were, but still watched with a humbling disbelief as the data on the health potential of these microbes kept getting broader, deeper and more intriguing.

Our microbiota—what we call the totality of our bacterial companions—is ridiculously complex. Each human harbors a wildly diverse ecosystem of bacteria, both in the gut and elsewhere on the body. They have us completely outnumbered: where the typical body may contain a trillion human cells, your microbial complement is 10 trillion. They have 100 times more genes than you, a catalog of life potential called the microbiome. (The terms “microbiome” and “microbiota” are often used interchangeably in the popular press.)

While our initial, germaphobic impulse may be to freak out, most of these bacterial companions are friendly, even essential. On the most basic level they aid digestion. But they also train our immune system, regulate metabolism, and manufacture vital substances such as neurotransmitters. All of these things happen primarily in the gut. “In many ways the gut microbiota functions like an organ,” says Steele. “It’s extraordinarily important for human health,” with as much as 30 percent of the small molecules in the blood being of microbial origin.

Early research has suggested possible microbiota links to protecting against gastric cancers, asthma, numerous GI disorders, autoimmune disease, metabolic syndrome, depression and anxiety. And the pace of discovery seems to be accelerating; these headlines broke in just a few months last spring:
• Mouse studies suggested that the microbe Akkersmania muciniphila may be a critical factor in obesity;
• Kwashiorkor, a form of severe malnutrition that causes distended bellies in children, was linked to a stagnant microbiota;
• Risk of developing Type 2 diabetes was linked to an altered gut microbiota.

The catch: For all the alluring promise of microbes for human health—and it’s now clear they’re critically important—we have almost no idea how this complex system works.

The human gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a classic black box containing hundreds or thousands of species of bacteria (how many depends on how you define a species). There are viruses, fungi and protozoans. Add to that each person’s distinct DNA and their unique geographic, dietary and medical history—each of which can have short- and long-term effects on microbiota. This on-board ecosystem is as unique as your DNA.

Beyond these singularities, the action is microscopic and often molecular, and even depends on location in the GI tract. Most microbiota studies are done with fecal material. “Is that very informative of what’s going on in the ileum?” asks Steele, referring to the final section of the small intestine, which is thought to be the primary site where immunomodulation occurs. “From an ecosystem perspective, fecal material is many miles away from the ileum. Is it really reflective of the ileum community?”