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First recipient of award supporting the advancement of women in plant science recently named

Published October 16, 2014
Robb Fraley, left, introduces Laura Chatham, center, as the first recipient of the Fraley Borlaug Scholars in Plant Science scholarship. Photo by Miranda McCarthy, College of ACES.

URBANA, Ill. – The first recipient of the Fraley-Borlaug Scholars in Plant Science scholarship, established to support women studying plant biology and biotechnology in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, was recently announced.

Laura Chatham, a first-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Crop Sciences, was introduced as the first Fraley-Borlaug scholar during ACES’ annual Salute to Ag Day on Sept. 6. The scholarship was established by Monsanto and U of I alumnus Robb Fraley, who serves as Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. Fraley, who was named one of three 2013 World Food Prize laureates, announced last year that he would use his share of the financial award, along with a match from Monsanto, to establish the endowment, initially totaling $250,000 for the College of ACES.

Fraley said establishing the endowment was not only a way for him to help with an under-representation of women in plant science and biotechnology, but a way to honor Norm Borlaug, recognized as the father of the Green Revolution and as having saved one billion lives as a result of improved wheat production. Borlaug created the World Food Prize in 1968 to honor those who make significant contributions to improving the world’s food supply.

“I knew Norm Borlaug very well during the last 20 years of his life. One of Norm’s passions was education, and he spent a lot of time training students,” Fraley said. “After I won the World Food Prize, I was looking for a way to recognize Norm. I have a personal passion for diversity and ensuring that there are more women in agricultural sciences. Establishing this award blended my experience and relationship with Norm and my own passion.

“As I look around the world, particularly in Africa, women play a real and important role in agriculture and the decision making. In North America, we are seeing a whole new renaissance of women in agriculture, I think particularly because of an interest in food security and food production,” he said.

Fraley added that particularly in the areas of plant breeding and agronomy, there is a need to have women who are trained in those sciences who can move into the workplace. “There is an opportunity for many more women to enter and provide leadership in a historically male-dominated industry. I hope this scholarship encourages more women to get degrees and move into that space,” he added.

Chatham’s research at U of I will be focused on replacing artificial dyes in food with natural colorants developed from corn. She will also work with Jack Juvik, a professor in crop sciences, researching cancer-preventative properties in brassica vegetables.

The newly named scholar said she sees the value in an award aimed at encouraging women to study in this field. “There is a disparity between the number of men and women in the STEM fields, and I’m not sure why the numbers still haven’t evened out,” she said. “Maybe this award will help in removing some of the obstacles for women getting into this field, and maybe it will inspire women to take this route when they might not have.

“It’s encouraging that such a successful company has realized this and is supporting women in an area that has long been male dominated,” she added.

Juvik said that currently about 38 percent of graduate students in crop sciences at U of I are women, a number that is up from 10 percent just 10 years ago, he added.

“The establishment of this scholarship sets a theme that is very important. By far the majority of students who graduate with specialties in plant breeding and genetics in our department, and others, are men. There is a real issue about women and their roles in agriculture in a number of countries. Much of the agriculture in developing countries is affiliated with women so it would be helpful to have women in positions of leadership that other women can look up to. These leaders could influence agricultural processes that would lead to improved sustainability in the food supply,” Juvik said.

He added that this endowment will provide opportunities for women to gain training and confidence to perform and provide leadership not only for their gender but for plant breeding and food sustainability for the future.

Chatham will be joining Fraley and others this week at the 2014 World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue Oct. 15 -17 in Des Moines, IA, where she will again be recognized as the recipient of the scholarship. This year’s dialogue will address the challenge of sustainably feeding nine billion people on our planet by the year 2050.

“There has never been a more exciting or more important time to be in agriculture with the challenge that the planet faces with the food supply,” Fraley said. “It’s going to take all the innovation and tools possible. It’s not only a noble mission but a great area from the point of view of a great career to participate in. The science is changing very dramatically, and all of the phenomenal advances in biology and information technology we’re seeing coming together on the farm leads to the recommendation that no matter what aspect of agricultural research or science you’re involved in, having a broad training background that encompasses both biology and information technology is key.”

A new recipient of the award will be chosen each year, and Juvik said he would like to see international students be considered for the fellowship as well.

Read more on the Fraley-Borlaug Scholarship and women in agriculture on a recent blog written by Fraley at

News Source:

Jack Juvik, 217-333-1966

Social trust eroded in Chinese product-tampering incident

Published October 14, 2014
rice bowl with chopsticks

URBANA, Ill. - For about a decade, Chinese consumers weren’t getting what they paid for when they purchased Wuchang, a special brand of gourmet rice that has a distinct scent. The quality was being diluted when less expensive rice was aromatized, packaged in the same way as the high-quality rice, and sold at the premium price. Researchers at the University of Illinois studied how the tampering scandal affected the public’s perception of risk and their subsequent behavior.

Because public anxiety over the fake rice issue was more pronounced in urban districts, the researchers interviewed the residents of the city of Xi’an, ultimately analyzing the survey responses of 225 people.

“Over half of those we interviewed were aware of the product tampering, but only very vaguely,” said U of I agricultural communications professor Lulu Rodriguez. “They rely much more on interpersonal communication with friends and family members for information.”

The study also showed that although people didn’t understand the details or potential health risks that the tainted rice may cause, the public’s perception of risk remained high.

“In this case, their trust of social institutions, such as the government, food safety regulators, and the mass media was eroded,” Rodriguez said. “This incident came in the wake of other food safety scandals in China. In the interviews, we heard people say, ‘we are left to fend for ourselves.’ They had to make do with informal information channels because the government cannot be trusted. In the meantime, the government placed the blame on local agencies.”

Rodriguez explained that rice retailers knew the product tampering was taking place. “Production was not jiving with what was being sold,” she said. About 800,000 tons of Wuchang rice were produced but up to 10 million tons were on the market. Adding a pound of fragrance to ten tons of rice allowed the lower-quality rice to pass as the more expensive Wuchang brand. When the Chinese Central TV finally broke the story, it immediately assured the public that the government will swiftly deal with the culprits, but that wasn’t good enough to calm the public’s anxiety.

“Fortunately, there wasn’t any real health risk, but that didn’t stop residents from thinking about health-related concerns,” Rodriguez said. “It is food, after all, and the public didn’t know exactly what was being added to the rice. This goes to show that a strong public perception of risk, even if it is incorrect or has no factual basis, still means food safety regulators have a hefty communication problem.”

Although their knowledge level about the risk was low, the uncertainty of the situation and belief that they were subjected to an involuntary risk was high enough that people’s behavior shifted to not buying the rice.

“More openness is needed, especially in times of ambiguity,” Rodriguez said. “This incident reminded me of the way the SARS epidemic was handled in the Chinese mainland, in which the government delayed notifying the World Health Organization of the outbreak for three months. Keeping quiet about topics that may be perceived as posing undue risks just makes people more nervous.”

Rodriguez said that the problem was compounded because no one took ownership of the scandal. “The government seemed to think all it had to do was assure the public it’s doing its best. But exactly what it was doing was never made clear. The lack of information created high anxiety, particularly in urban districts where rice outlets are concentrated,” she said. “We also noted that although people were aware of the incident, they were very reluctant to speak out about it, fearing possible repercussions.”

As an agricultural communications educator, Rodriguez views this incident as a teachable moment.

“There is a window of opportunity for us,” she said. “There are students from China who come to the University of Illinois for undergraduate and graduate studies. Our task is to train a cadre of communicators with the technical ability and the communication savvy to report on incidents like this. Trust is very difficult to build but very easy to destroy. There are, however, mechanisms that can help re-establish trust.”

 “Social trust and risk knowledge, perception and behaviours resulting from a rice tampering scandal” was published in an issue of International Journal of Food Safety, Nutrition and Public Health and written by Lulu Rodriguez, Jing Li, and Sela Sar.

How many acres of corn are needed in 2015?

Published October 13, 2014

URBANA, Ill. – One of the functions of crop markets is to direct planting decisions of U.S. producers. That process begins with fall seeded crops, primarily winter wheat, and continues through the following spring. According to a University of Illinois agricultural economist, the market’s assessment of the amount of acreage needed of various crops in any production cycle is complicated and continually changes.

“Providing direction for planted acreage requires anticipating the level of old-crop inventories available for the upcoming marketing year, the magnitude of consumption during the upcoming marketing year, the likely average yield, and the desired level of year-ending stocks,” said Darrel Good. “For corn, these factors all currently suggest that fewer acres of corn will likely be needed in the U.S. in 2015.”

In the October 10 World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report, the USDA projected that stocks of old-crop corn at the start of the 2015-16 marketing year will be at a 10-year high of 2.081 billion bushels even with record large consumption of 13.655 billion bushels. 

“Based on the pattern of USDA yield forecasts in previous years when the U.S. average yield was well above trend value, as is the case this year, many expect that the final yield estimate this year will exceed the October forecast of 174.2 bushels,” Good said. “If the final 2014 production estimate is larger than the current forecast and consumption is near the current forecast, year-ending stocks may be near 2.2 billion bushels. The large 2014 crop and the buildup in stocks are expected to result in a 2014-15 marketing-year average farm price in the low- to mid- $3 level, well below the cost of production for most producers,” he said.

Good said that one way to approach the question of how many corn acres are needed in 2015 is to determine the combination of production, consumption, and year-ending stocks that would result in a 2015-16 marketing-year average farm price closer to the cost of production, estimated to be in the low $4 range (assuming trend yields) in much of the Corn Belt. 

“The marketing-year average farm price was $4.20 in 2007-08 with an ending stocks-to-use ratio of 12.8 percent, $4.06 in 2008-09 with an ending stocks-to-use ratio of 13.9 percent, and $4.46 in 2013-14 with an ending stocks-to-use ratio of 9.1 percent,” Good said. “It may be that a marketing-year average farm price in the low $4 range next year would require ending stocks near 12 percent of consumption.”

According to Good, if consumption of U.S. corn during the 2015-16 marketing year remains near the record level projected for this year, year-ending stocks near 1.64 billion bushels would represent 12 percent of consumption. With beginning stocks near 2.2 billion bushels, imports of 20 million bushels, and consumption of 13.655 billion bushels, a 2015 U.S. corn crop near 13.075 billion bushels would result in 2015-16 marketing-year-ending stocks near 1.64 billion bushels.

With a trend yield near 162.5 bushels in 2015, 80.46 million acres would need to be harvested to produce 13.075 billion bushels of corn. That magnitude of harvested acreage for grain would require about 88.26 million acres of corn to be planted for all purposes. That is 2.625 million fewer acres than the USDA’s most recent estimate of planted acreage in 2014, 8.895 million less than the record acreage of 2012, and equal to acreage planted in 2010.

Good said that the market’s assessment of needed corn acreage in 2015 may well reflect different conditions than assumed here and will surely vary between now and planting time.

“Changing assessments will reflect the pace of consumption of U.S. corn, the size of the final 2014 production estimate to be released in January, and the development of the South American crop,” Good said.

Good reported that current prices for the 2015 corn crop suggest that the market is encouraging some reduction in corn acreage in favor of soybeans and wheat. The ratio of cash soybean and corn prices for 2015 harvest delivery in central Illinois, for example, is currently near 2.6 to 1.0. That ratio has been declining, but still favors soybeans over corn for many producers. Similarly, the ratio of July 2015 wheat futures to December 2015 corn futures and November 2015 soybean futures favors wheat over corn and soybeans.

Good sees as the bigger dilemma that, while a reduction in U.S. corn acreage is likely needed in 2015, an increase in wheat and soybean acreage may not be needed. U.S. wheat stocks are expected to increase during the current marketing year and a trend yield in 2015 would result in a larger crop than produced this year with no increase in acreage.

“A trend soybean yield in 2015 would result in a smaller crop than produced this year, but production would still exceed the projection of use during the current marketing year,” Good said. “It may be that low prices will result in some decline in total crop acres in 2015.  

“At this juncture, it appears that corn acreage may decline sufficiently in 2015 to generate a 2015-16 marketing-year average price in the low $4 range,” Good concluded. “However, price ratios will have to continue to motivate that acreage decline into planting time,” he said.

The first indication of producer acreage decisions will be revealed in the USDA’s Winter Wheat Seedings report to be released in early January 2015.



Peace Corps recognizes Illinois alum Colón for ongoing commitment to service

Published October 10, 2014
L-R: Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet, Manuel Colón, and Peace Corps Chief of Staff Laura Chambers
L-R: Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet, Manuel Colón, and Peace Corps Chief of Staff Laura Chambers

Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet honored University of Illinois graduate Manuel Colón and five other returned Peace Corps volunteers with the Franklin H. Williams award on Wednesday, Oct. 8, during a ceremony at Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The award recognizes returned Peace Corps volunteers from ethnically diverse backgrounds who exemplify an ongoing commitment to community service and Peace Corps’ Third Goal of promoting a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

“In memory of Franklin H. Williams, we honor some of the brightest stars in our Peace Corps family who are incredible champions of our mission at a time when the Peace Corps has never mattered more,” Hessler-Radelet said. “These extraordinary individuals embody what the Peace Corps is all about – a lifelong commitment to service, social justice and cross-cultural understanding.”

As an environmental education Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay from 2010-12, Colón carried out sustainable tourism development work, youth group education, and cultural exchange activities. His most successful project was a national environmental youth group workshop conference called “Paraguay Verde,” which fostered youth interest in environmental stewardship and is now in its fifth iteration with current volunteers in Paraguay.

But for Colón, Peace Corps service was about more than gaining skills and helping others overseas – it was about sharing his experience with people back home and inspiring others to consider making a difference. Even while he was still a volunteer in Paraguay, the Chicago native kept in touch with friends and family and used Skype to chat with prospective applicants at a recruitment event. While home on leave during his two-year service, he was the featured speaker at a 200-guest send-off event for new volunteers in Chicago.

“I'm beyond honored to be a 2014 Franklin H. Williams award recipient,” Colón said. “As I explain the three goals of Peace Corps to people, it's very clear that the first two are constrained to your 27 months abroad, while in service. The beauty of Third Goal is that every volunteer, at any and all stages in their life post-service, can engage in it.”

Now pursuing his Master of Education in Human Resources Development and working as an Undergraduate Recruiter at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Colón continues to assist with Peace Corps recruitment there. (He also earned his bachelor’s degree in natural resources and environmental science from Illinois in 2010.)

As the New Volunteer Coordinator for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteers association, he works closely with Peace Corps’ Office of Diversity and National Outreach to engage prospective, current, and returned volunteers, in addition to promoting recruitment and Third Goal activities to the Queer community through the group’s social media.

Both in his everyday life and while working, Colón never misses an opportunity to share his personal Peace Corps story with diverse audiences. At his alma mater high school, Whitney Young in Chicago, Colón recently spoke to students about the way Peace Corps could, one day, transform their lives, as it has transformed his. In the summertime, he enjoys drinking tereré (Paraguayan iced tea) and listening to music from Paraguay, sharing the country’s culture with his friends and co-workers in the U.S. This year he waved the Peace Corps flag at multiple Pride events, inspiring countless LGBTQ Americans to serve.

Colón’s commitment to bettering his world also extends beyond Peace Corps’ Third Goal. He currently volunteers with the University’s Intensive English Institute as a conversation partner, helping students from South Korea and Saudi Arabia improve their English and learn more about American culture. “The parallels to Peace Corps pre-service training are so strong, so I'm glad I can give back to visitors to our country the same way I was so warmly received by the people of Paraguay,” Colón said.

About the Franklin H. Williams Award: Franklin H. Williams was an early architect of the Peace Corps. He worked at the agency from its inception in 1961 to 1963 and helped Sargent Shriver, the first Peace Corps director, to promote the agency and its programs to the world. Williams’ exceptional public service career included positions as Peace Corps Regional Director for Africa, U.S. Representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and U.S. Ambassador to Ghana. Since the first Franklin H. Williams award ceremony in 1999, 107 outstanding returned Peace Corps volunteers have received the award. For more information on the award and bios for all awardees, please visit:

About the Peace Corps:  As the preeminent international service organization of the United States, the Peace Corps sends Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world. Peace Corps volunteers work at the grassroots level with local governments, schools, communities, small businesses and entrepreneurs to develop sustainable solutions that address challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment and youth development. When they return home, volunteers bring their knowledge and experiences – and a global outlook – back to the United States that enriches the lives of those around them. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 to foster a better understanding among Americans and people of other countries. Since then, more than 215,000 Americans of all ages have served in 139 countries worldwide. Visit to learn more.

Piglet brain atlas new tool in understanding human infant brain development

Published October 10, 2014
brain imaging
A map created using the MRI based averaged piglet brain atlas. University of Illinois.

URBANA, Ill. – A new online tool developed by researchers at the University of Illinois will further aid studies into postnatal brain growth in human infants based on the similarities seen in the development of the piglet brain, said Rod Johnson, a U of I professor of animal sciences.

Through a cooperative effort between researchers in animal sciences, bioengineering, and U of I’s Beckman Institute, Johnson and colleagues Ryan Dilger and Brad Sutton have developed a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) based brain atlas for the four-week old piglet that offers a three-dimensional averaged brain and anatomical regions of interest. 

This averaged brain atlas, created from images from multiple piglets, will serve as a template for future studies using advanced MRI techniques that can provide important information on brain macro- and microstructure during this critical period of development. The template, as well as tissue probability maps that were also created, are available online and are freely distributed.

“The piglet brain is similar to the human brain in that it is gyrencephalic and experiences massive growth and development in the late prenatal and early postnatal periods. We are concerned that environmental insults such as infection or poor nutrition during these early periods may alter the trajectory of brain development,” Johnson said.

“Pigs provide an excellent translational model for biomedical research. This is a new tool that may be useful to others in the biomedical community,” he added.

While an atlas did already exist for the adult pig, Matthew Conrad, a doctoral student in Johnson’s lab said the previous atlas was created from a single adult animal. “The benefit to using an averaged brain is that it will produce a template that is a better representation of the population. The more animals included the better.”

The atlas was created by taking MRI images of the brains of 15 four-week-old York breed piglets—nine females and six males. The images were then reconstructed into 3D volumes for each pig. Through a series of deformations and averaging of the data sets, the images were eventually aligned to create the final averaged brain.

Conrad explained that having an averaged brain template available will allow better use of the software needed for more advanced techniques in studying the volume of brain regions.

An example of these techniques includes voxel-based morphometry (VBM), which can be used to detect volume difference in the brain. Additionally, diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which looks at white-matter track development and connectivity in brain regions, and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), which looks at white matter and neurochemical changes in the brain, are being conducted.

“The atlas will be used as the population average. When new data sets are brought in, you first line up the new brain images to this template,” Conrad said.

In addition to the average brain atlas, Conrad said they also created population averages for white and gray matter as well as cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). “This is another data set that helps predict the tissue classification,” he said.

Previous studies using MRI imaging of piglets have looked at the effects of iron deficiency on brain development. “For that we did MRI imaging and manual segmentation, and with manual segmentation you are looking at volume changes within very large areas of the brain, but with VBM we can pinpoint smaller changes within discrete brain areas,” Conrad said. “We are now reanalyzing data from those piglets and replicating this study with new protocols, which will allow us to see changes that we didn’t see before.”

Another study is looking at the effects of postnatal infections, such as pneumonia, on brain development. “These types of infections are common in infants, and again it’s a period of time when the brain is undergoing rapid development,” Johnson said.

A third study funded by the National Institutes of Health is focused on maternal viral infection during pregnancy. “The goal is to assess how mom’s immune response to infection influences brain development and future behavior of her piglets,” Johnson explained.

Conrad added that the piglet brain is now being recognized for its potential as a translational animal model for neurodevelopmental studies.

“Much of the research on the effects of pre- and postnatal factors on brain development has been done in rodent models, but the rodent brain develops very differently.  Therefore, the piglet can provide a complementary model wherein results better translate to humans,” Johnson said.

The brain atlas project and related studies are funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The atlas and other resources created during this project are available online at

An in vivo three-dimensional magnetic resonance imaging-based averaged brain collection of the neonatal piglet (Sus scrofa)” was recently published in PLOS ONE and is available online at Matthew S. Conrad, Bradley P. Sutton, Ryan N. Dilger, and Rodney W. Johnson were coauthors of the study.