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Catch up with … Kifle Gebremedhin

As a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Cornell University for more than three decades, Kifle Gebremedhin MS’75 PhD’78 is in a prime position to offer young people advice about the field. His contributions have been wide-ranging, particularly in the areas of animal thermal stress physiology and design of post-frame buildings. Two of his findings have become the basis for national standards set by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

But Gebremedhin is in a good position to offer life lessons as well. He recently visited the CALS campus to give two technical presentations—and one, for BSE students, that served to inspire. His talk, titled “Be the Best You Can Be,” emphasized hard work, persistence and flexibility—values that have served him well through many challenges.

Gebremedhin grew up on a family farm in Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa. Although he was gifted academically, his parents could only afford to send him to a vocational high school rather than a university prep school because it offered room and board. That put him on track for a diploma program rather than a more prestigious degree program in college, which he attended in Ethiopia. An uncle who had earlier settled in Wisconsin helped him relocate and eventually attend the University of Wisconsin–Platteville, where he earned a B.S. in civil engineering. For graduate study at UW-Madison, however, he was able to get financial support only if he switched to agricultural engineering—a field for which he developed a great passion.

What made you fall in love with biological systems engineering?
It was through my research. I was working with animals in the Biotron [a controlled environment facility for biological research]. I raised three calves from their first week to eight weeks of age inside a chamber I’d built, measuring how much heat they produced. It was from that relationship that I came to love biological systems—the interface between the biological object and the engineering becomes very interesting. I’m still working on thermal stress physiology of animals.

You have some pretty funny stories about your first day in Wisconsin.
I came here in January. I had no idea about snow. The only thing I knew was hail. When I was leaving the plane, the flight attendant said, “You can’t go out like that. It’s cold outside. Why don’t you take a blanket and throw it around you?” I said, “Don’t worry.” When I got out, it was so cold, I went back to get the blanket. The flight attendant said, “I told you so.”

How does it feel to be back here?
So many firsts happened to me in Wisconsin. My first experience with snow, I got married here, my first child was born here, I got my first degree at UW–Platteville, my master’s and Ph.D. at UW–Madison, and I started my academic career here. So this is my second home. I have a fond relationship with Wisconsin.

Your talk for students emphasizes global challenges (adequate food, water and energy supplies, clean air, soil health, etc.). Why?
I want them to think globally—and to think about how biological systems engineers can help meet those challenges, from the smallest to the largest ecological systems.