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Illinois—UC Berkeley discovery turns seaweed into biofuel in half the time

Published August 29, 2011
University of Illinois scientists have engineered a new strain of yeast that converts seaweed into biofuel in half the time it took just months ago. That's a process that's important outside the Corn Belt, said Yong-Su Jin, a University of Illinois assistant professor of microbial genomics and a faculty member in its Institute for Genomic Biology.

"The key is the strain's ability to ferment cellobiose and galactose simultaneously, which makes the process much more efficient," Jin said.

Red seaweed, hydrolyzed for its fermentable sugars, yields glucose and galactose. But yeast prefers glucose and won't consume galactose until glucose is gone, which adds considerable time to the process, he said.

The new procedure hydrolyzes cellulose into cellobiose, a dimeric form of glucose, then exploits a newly engineered strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae capable of fermenting cellobiose and galactose simultaneously.

The team introduced a new sugar transporter and enzyme that breaks down cellobiose at the intracellular level. The result is a yeast that consumes cellobiose and galactose in equal amounts at the same time, cutting the production time of biofuel from marine biomass in half, he said.

The research, performed with project funding from the Energy Biosciences Institute, included team members Suk-Jin Ha, Qiaosi Wei, and Soo Rin Kim of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Jonathan M. Galazka and Jamie Cate of the University of California, Berkeley.

Jin compared the previous process to a person taking first a bite of a cheeseburger, then a bite of pickle. The process that uses the new strain puts the pickle in the cheeseburger sandwich so both foods are consumed at the same time.

Co-fermenting the two sugars also makes for a healthier yeast cell, he said

"It's a faster, superior process. Our view is that this discovery greatly enhances the economic viability of marine biofuels and gives us a better product," he added.

Is seaweed a viable biofuel? Jin and his colleagues are using a red variety (Gelidium amansii) that is abundant on the coastlines of Southeast Asia. In island or peninsular nations that don't have room to grow other biofuel crops, using seaweed as a source of biofuels just makes good sense, he noted.

But biofuels made from marine biomass also have some advantages over fuels made from other biomass crops, he said.

"Producers of terrestrial biofuels have had difficulty breaking down recalcitrant fibers and extracting fermentable sugars. The harsh pretreatment processes used to release the sugars also result in toxic byproducts, inhibiting subsequent microbial fermentation," he said.

Jin cited two other reasons for use of seaweed biofuels. Production yields of marine plant biomass per unit area are much higher than those of terrestrial biomass. And rate of carbon dioxide fixation is much higher in marine biomass, making it an appealing option for sequestration and recycling of carbon dioxide.

The study appears in Applied and Environmental Microbiology and is available online at www://

The Energy Biosciences Institute is a public-private collaboration in which bioscience and biological techniques are being applied to help solve the global energy challenge. The partnership, funded with $500 million for 10 years from the energy company BP, includes researchers from UC Berkeley; the University of Illinois, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Details about the EBI can be found on the website


Fall lawn care tips

Published August 29, 2011
It has been a tough year to grow grass in Illinois. Heavy spring rains, followed by drought in many parts of the state, caused poor grass growth and death from disease. But there's hope for a better lawn in 2012 if you start working on it now.

"Most Illinois lawns are made up of cool-season grasses that thrive in late fall, early winter, and spring," said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Rhonda Ferree. "This means that the cool days and warm nights of fall make a perfect environment for fall lawn care. It's a great time to aerate and fertilize, dethatch, and consider a broadleaf weed control."

If you only fertilize your lawn once a year, this is the time to do it. Ferree recommends using holidays to remember when to fertilize your lawn. "If you fertilize once a year, do it around Labor Day; twice a year, Labor Day and Mother's Day; three times a year, Labor Day, Mother's Day, and Halloween." Core aerating, dethatching and power raking are useful lawn care activities. Ferree says they help reduce soil compaction and thatch, improve surface drainage, and improve conditions prior to overseeding. It's best to do this when the grass is actively growing, and that's usually in spring or early to mid-fall. "The key is to do it early enough in the fall for turf recovery to take place before the onset of severe cold weather," she said.

Postemergence broadleaf weed control is suited to fall too, especially for weeds such as dandelions, buckhorn, broadleaf plantains, and ground ivy. These weeds are preparing to go into dormancy for the winter. "There's a lot of movement of materials within the plant, and that's when herbicides work best to kill the entire plant," Ferree said. "When using any lawn or garden chemical, be sure to read, understand, and follow all label instructions for the safest, most effective application of herbicides."

For more information, visit Ferree also welcomes questions on her Facebook page at


Fall tips for controlling weeds in lawns and gardens

Published August 26, 2011
Some of the weeds you may have seen this summer in your lawn and garden are starting to strategize now so they'll be ready to torment you next year.

According to a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, winter annual weeds such as henbit, deadnettle, and common chickweed germinate from seed in the fall and spend the winter as seedlings. If you had a problem with winter annuals this year, fall is the best time to control them.

"If you prefer chemicals, consider applying a preemergence herbicide in September, before these plants germinate again," Rhonda Ferree said. Choosing the best chemical will vary, depending on where the weeds are located. For many flower gardens, Ferree recommends Preen. When using any chemical pest control, be sure to read, understand, and follow the label directions for proper use.

If you prefer to use manual control options, Ferree says to watch for the winter annual weeds to germinate in late September or early October. All plants are easiest to control when they are small. Simply hand pull, hoe, or rake the weeds out.

"Try not to disturb bare soil surfaces too much because that will bring up additional weed seeds to the soil surface," Ferree said.

Difficult weeds such as creeping Charlie, dandelion, white clover, and many thistles are easier to control with chemical applications in the fall. "These are herbaceous perennial plants, meaning that they live from year to year from the same root structures, but above-ground growth dies back each fall. As the plant moves its food and energy to its roots to overwinter, it will move systemic chemicals with it to kill the entire plant," Ferree said.

Remove debris and weed growth from among your landscape beds and in spent vegetable gardens, taking note of which weeds are most prevalent. Ferree says that if you have a lot of crabgrass, you should consider using a preemergence herbicide in the spring that will control kill the crabgrass seed before it germinates in your garden.

"Bare soil areas often produce more weeds," Ferree said. "Consider planting more perennial flowers or shrubs to cover the area and outcompete the weeds. Add 2 to 4 inches of mulch to reduce weed growth in bare soil areas by keeping weed seeds in the dark and smothering small-seeded annuals as they germinate.

For more information, visit Ferree also welcomes questions on her Facebook page at


Illinois students go the extra mile

Published August 25, 2011
University of Illinois student James Karnia was given an opportunity many students dream about. Through a new, mentor-guided program, he is conducting groundbreaking research using bioinformatics, the application of computer science and information technology to the field of biology.

The New Biology Fellows program, a four-year quantitative biology and informatics research program for undergraduate students is funded by a $662,836 National Science Foundation grant. Karnia is one of seven students participating in the first year of this program.

The mentor-guided program includes a 12-week summer research immersion experience, an academic year of research, and an optional second summer internship experience. In addition, students are required to take a graduate-level bioinformatics course and attend seminars to help them prepare for graduate school and their future.

Open to everyone, the program encourages Latino students and other underrepresented groups to apply in order to enhance their exposure to state-of-the-art academics and research.

"We wanted the students to be matched with mentors that would be interested in exposing them to the entire research spectrum where they find the data, analyze the data and investigate a clear hypothesis. We want the students to be real scientists," said Karnia's mentor and New Biology Fellows steering committee member Sandra Rodriguez Zas.

With bioinformatics, Karnia is creating networks of genes that are associated with inflammation, which is linked to depression, drug abuse, Alzheimer's disease and other diseases. Understanding these networks of genes may help with the development of therapeutic drugs.

"While the research has taught me patience and determination, the seminars have provided me with important information about the interviewing process, resumes techniques and financial resources to help me prepare for the future," he said. "The seminars have already begun to prepare me to communicate my skills and abilities to others so they will know what I can do and give me a chance to succeed."

Rodriguez Zas also mentors Cynthia Zavala, a junior in animal sciences. Zavala studies genomic polymorphisms associated with growth in order to identify animals that will grow faster than others. This research will help select animals with superior genetic potential to produce more with less impact on the environment.

"This program is very personal. My advisor is always there for me, and even the graduate student I work with is always there if I need him. These are people I know I can go to if I need advice," Zavala said.

She said the most rewarding aspect of the program is the feeling of accomplishment. In addition to achieving results, she discovered organization, communication and leadership skills she will continue to use for the rest of life. Zavala hopes this experience and the contacts she has made will help prepare her for veterinary school.

"I would encourage others to apply, because this program is a unique and exciting experience," Zavala said. "Everything we do in college prepares us for our future, so in the long run this program is worth the effort."

The program is about to begin recruiting 2012's New Biology Fellows. Rodriguez Zas said students should not wait to have this kind of research experience, because it can be a life-changing or career-changing experience.

"New Biology Fellows are conducting meaningful, high-impact research," Rodriguez Zas said. "This program is a great resource. It shows students career possibilities and we appreciate the help of motivated, well-educated students."

Digital photo available for three months at

Tips for seeding a new lawn this fall

Published August 25, 2011
If your lawn hasn't looked its best this summer, now is the time to do something about it. Seeding in late summer--August to September--has a much higher success rate than seeding in spring.

"Warm days and cool nights combined with more regular rainfall are ideal conditions for seedling growth," said Rhonda Ferree, horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension. "Also, there is less weed competition at this time of year."

The first step in seeding a lawn is to preparing the seedbed. A well-prepared seedbed is essential for rapid, successful establishment of a lawn, said Ferree.

Start by removing all debris from the lawn area, including large rocks, gravel, building materials, and roofing. Do not bury debris because it can interfere with water movement.

If needed, add soil amendments to the area. These might include organic matter, topsoil or pH adjusters such as lime or sulfur, based on soil tests. Spread organic matter or topsoil to a minimum of 2 to 3 inches over the area and rototill the site. Rake the area smooth, again removing any debris that may have surfaced during rototilling.

"If you are overseeding an existing lawn, rake the area by hand or with a vertical mower to remove old plant debris. Then you can add soil amendments if they are needed," Ferree said.

Broadcast a complete fertilizer with a 1-1-1 ratio such as 10-10-10 or 5-5-5. "You will need to apply 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. "Apply it evenly over the entire area, then rake lightly to incorporate the fertilizer into the soil," she said.

Second, choose a quality seed for your lawn. Ferree says that this is particularly important if you had problems with turfgrass disease in the past. Select a grass seed mixture with resistance to various diseases. This is often more expensive, but paying more up front will save you time and money in the future.

Spread the seed in two directions, dividing it into equal portions. This ensures uniform seed distribution. Lightly rake the seed into the soil and roll the entire area. This is for good seed-to-soil contact.

Third, wait for impending rain or water it yourself. New lawns are often seen with a layer of straw, but Ferree says it's not necessary although a light layer does help keep the seed moist.

"Seeds absorb and hold moisture, reaching a point where they burst open," Ferree said. "Dry periods can cause reduced germination rates and seedling growth, so you need to keep the seed and young seedlings moist. Light watering two times a day if not supplied by rainfall should be sufficient, but every spot is different so check the area often."

Finally, start mowing with a sharp mower blade when the grass is between 2 to 3 inches high. Mow regularly and often. "You can lightly rake off the mulch, but be careful. If the soil is dry not to pull the young seedlings out of the soil."

For more lawn care information, including recommended grass cultivars, visit Ferree also welcomes questions on her Facebook page at


Save the date for the Sustainable and Organic Farmers Network Potluck

Published August 24, 2011
Tour the five-acre sustainable Anderson Farm at the Sustainable and Organic Farmers Network Potluck on Sept. 26 in Leland. The potluck will begin at 5 p.m., with a farm tour following at 6 p.m.

"The rural ethic is to leave the world in a better condition than we found it for the next generation. Sustainability fulfills that rural ethic and the ethic of life," said Andy Anderson, owner Anderson Farm.

Learn how to start plants and trees in greenhouses, create cultivated raised beds, market your produce at roadside stands and farmer's markets, and understand the financial side of owning and operating a business.

Other topics include creating compost tea and bug banks, or insectories, to encourage beneficial insects. In addition, participants may view Anderson's sustainable pole-structure building with wood heating.

"There is a lot that goes into a sustainable farming operation and there are always questions about how much labor it requires, what equipment to use, etc.," Anderson said. "If visitors see what is in my field, they will have a better idea about what it takes to create and maintain a sustainable farm."

Lettuce, potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, sweet corn, peppers, pumpkins, melons and strawberries are just a few of the multitude of crops grown on Anderson's farm.

Although there is no registration fee, attendees should bring a dish to share at the potluck and register online at

The event is co-sponsored by the University of Illinois Extension and the Sustainable and Organic Growers Network, an organization that promotes networking and discussion between farmers and producers in Northern Illinois.

"You cannot experience everything firsthand, but you can visit other farms to see what producers are doing and if there are practices you can incorporate on your own farm," Anderson said. "When people come together with similar backgrounds and different ideas, important sharing and collaboration takes place."

Anderson Farm is located at 2190 N. 45th Rd in Leland. For more information, contact University of Illinois Extension Local Foods and Small Farms Extension Educator Ellen Phillips at 815-732-2191 or

Severe root damage to Bt corn confirmed in northwestern Illinois

Published August 24, 2011
Severe root damage observed in Bt corn in northwestern Illinois last week should alert growers to carefully consider 2012 seed selection choices, said Mike Gray, University of Illinois Extension entomologist.

On August 16, Gray verified severe corn rootworm pruning on some Bt hybrids that express the Cry3Bb1 protein in Henry and Whiteside counties located in northwestern Illinois. The fields were in continuous corn production systems for many years, and the producers had relied upon Bt hybrids that expressed the Cry3Bb1 protein as their primary protection against western corn rootworm injury.

Lodged plants were common in many areas of the fields, and western corn rootworm adults were numerous and easy to collect. He also found plants with two to three nodes of roots completely destroyed. A shovel was not required for removing the plants from the soil, Gray said.

"Unfortunately, yield losses will be significant in these fields," he added. "In early July, severe storms swept through northern Illinois and caused significant lodging of many cornfields."

Earlier this month Aaron Gassman of Iowa State University confirmed field-evolved resistance by western corn rootworm to the Cry3Bb1 protein in an Iowa study. Resistant western corn rootworm adults were collected by Gassmann from continuous cornfields in northeastern Iowa where significant root damage had occurred. These Iowa fields had been planted with Bt hybrids expressing the Cry3Bb1 protein, Gray said.

The situations in Iowa and Illinois share some common features, he said. Adults were collected from the Illinois fields in question and will be further evaluated for potential resistance.

"I urge you to be very cautious in your choice of hybrids offering corn rootworm protection in light of these developments in Iowa and northwestern Illinois," Gray said. "Many producers have utilized a single-tactic approach for too many years, and now unfortunate consequences are beginning to emerge."

If you encountered less than satisfactory root protection in 2011 with your Bt hybrid, consider the following alternatives for 2012, Gray said.

1. Consider rotation to soybeans or another non-host crop.

2. Consider the use of a corn rootworm soil insecticide at planting.

3. Consider the use of a Bt hybrid that expresses a different corn rootworm Cry protein than one which may have performed poorly in your fields during 2011.

4. Consider the use of a pyramided Bt hybrid that expresses multiple Cry proteins targeted against corn rootworms.

5. Consider a long-term integrated approach to corn rootworm management that includes multiple tactics, such as adult suppression programs, use of soil insecticides at planting, rotation of Bt hybrids that express different Cry proteins, and rotation to non-host crops.

For more information, read The Bulletin at

Digital photo available for three months at

Few options exist for pre-harvest herbicide applications in corn and soybean

Published August 24, 2011
The list of herbicide active ingredients available for pre-harvest applications in corn or soybean is relatively short, said University of Illinois Extension weed specialist Aaron Hager.

"In corn, glyphosate, paraquat and some formulations of 2,4-D or premixes containing 2,4-D may be applied to provide suppression/control of weeds prior to harvest, while glyphosate, paraquat, dicamba (Clarity) and carfentrazone are labeled for pre-harvest applications in soybean," he said.

Hager encourages growers to consult the respective product label for specific application information. For example, not all formulations of 2,4-D are labeled for pre-harvest applications in corn. Specific application intervals, rates and restrictions can vary by product.

"Pre-harvest herbicide applications should be made soon enough before harvest to allow sufficient time to dry down treated weeds," he said. "Dry-down of weed vegetation may be slowed during periods of cool and wet weather conditions. All products labeled for these applications specify a period of time that must elapse between application and harvest, but additional time may be needed to dry down large weeds."

Hager said contact herbicides usually provide faster weed dry-down than translocated herbicides. Application practices that increase spray coverage of the target vegetation can improve control.

"Be very cautious not to make pre-harvest herbicide applications prior to the crop developmental stage indicated on the respective product label," Hager added. "Applying herbicides prior to these stated intervals may reduce crop seed production or viability."

For more information about weeds and other crop-related information, read The Bulletin at

2011 Illinois State Fair Pork Premiere Show Results

Published August 24, 2011
Meg Meeker of Logan County exhibited the Champion Junior Pork Premiere at the 2011 Illinois State Fair Pork Premiere Carcass Show. Meeker's pig was also named Champion Junior Land of Lincoln and Reserve Open Land of Lincoln.

"Meg's barrow had a hot carcass weight of 223.5 pounds with 0.90 inches of backfat and a 10.0 square-inch loineye," said Dan Jennings, University of Illinois Extension 4-H livestock specialist. "With 129 days on test, this barrow had 0.822 pounds of lean gain per day, which is the ultimate figure used in ranking the premiere hogs. Her 283-pound Duroc barrow also scored well on qualitative measures such as color, marbling, firmness and pH."

The second place hog in the Junior Premiere Show was exhibited by Kade Buysse of Henry County. His 258-pound crossbred pig had a hot carcass weight of 212 pounds, 0.70 inches backfat, and a 10.5 square-inch loineye.

"Kade's barrow came in with 120 days on test, which gives him 0.813 pounds of lean gain per day," Jennings explained.

Lauren Honegger of Livingston County captured the Reserve Junior Land of Lincoln title with a 259-pound Yorkshire barrow that charted 0.756 pounds of lean per days on test.

Champion honors in the Open Premiere Show went to Dean Zehr of Tazewell County with a 259-pound crossbred barrow that sported an 8.2 square-inch loineye area with 0.7 inches of backfat and 0.837 pounds of lean gain per day. Reserve champion honors in the Open Premiere Show and the Champion Open Land of Lincoln title also went to Zehr with a 273-pound Duroc barrow that yielded 0.834 pounds of lean gain per day on test.

"The Junior and Open Premiere Carcass shows for swine, beef and sheep rank as one of the more complete and educational livestock programs that youth can enter," Jennings said. "They incorporate live evaluation with production performance and carcass merit, which should be the bottom line in evaluating market animals."

Jennings collected and tabulated the carcass data to ascertain the 2011 alignment for these shows. Pigs were nominated and tattooed in the spring. The live and carcass data collected included breed, initial weight, live weight, average daily gain, hot carcass weight, length, 10th rib backfat, and loineye area. These figures were used to calculate the pounds of lean gain per day for rankings. In addition, qualitative measurements were taken for loin color, marbling, firmness, and pH.

Behrmann's Packing Company assisted and helped coordinate the harvesting of the pigs.

Renewable energy the focus of study abroad tour in Greece

Published August 24, 2011
URBANA - Five students from the University of Illinois spent a month in Greece this spring, studying renewable energy alongside students from the Agricultural University of Athens (AUA) and the University of Thessaly in Volos. Amy Girlich, Alex Heidtke, Grace Nelson, Rachael Ramsey, and Sarah Shimizu were part of a team-based collaboration that allowed students from both countries to experience the process of identifying and solving real-world engineering problems.

This is the third year Stephen Zahos, a lecturer and Senior Design Capstone Coordinator in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE), has coordinated and led students in the "Cradle of Democracy" study and cultural tour.

"The students learned about various technologies in renewable energy systems such as biofuels, photovoltaics, wind energy, and solar energy, through field trips to installations, and via lectures and demonstrations at both AUA and Thessaly," said Zahos. "This year we added a hands-on aspect to the trip. Students collected data at a university farm, using instruments that measured soil conductivity and other parameters. Then they used sophisticated software programs to produce three-dimensional plot plans of the ground that they covered.

"The practical use of that in renewable energy was to maximize the growth of energy crops that are planted specifically for energy use," Zahos continued. "In Greece's case, it's principally sunflower seeds, and other non-food crops, for biodiesel production."

Because this trip occurred earlier in the year than the previous trips, the students in Greece were still in school and the U of I students were able to work closely with their counterparts.

"Spyros Fountas is an assistant professor at Thessaly, and he set up the program there," said Zahos. "This wasn't a typical experience for the students in Greece. They don't get a lot of hands-on experience - they mostly attend lectures. But Spyros earned his Ph.D. at Purdue, so he was familiar with the American style of teaching and instruction. His students seemed to enjoy the alternative method as well."

Zahos noted that the installation and application of renewable systems in Greece is guided by European Union directives, which sets goals for each of the member countries. Currently Greece uses approximately 9 percent renewable energy sources, but the goal is 20 percent by the year 2020. "It's going to be difficult to reach," said Zahos, "but progress is being made, as evidenced by several installations that popped up since 2010."

Amy Girlich, a junior in civil and environmental engineering, said the experience was an excellent opportunity to learn more about her intended career path. "I'm looking to focus on environmental engineering and this was a great way to obtain some hands-on experience and learn about biodiesel and sustainability," she said. "It was interesting to note that Europe and the United States view environmental concerns differently. Almost every house in Greece has a small solar panel on its roof. Many buildings have no air conditioning but instead are built using marble on the inside to keep the air cool. In the United States as a whole, we don't think as much about what impact we have on the environment."

"So often, students in a university setting, especially engineers, are spoken to only in terms of the technology - this is what it is, this is how it works," Zahos said. "But the political, societal, and economic components are the 800-pound gorillas in the room."

That's why Zahos was pleased when students were able to attend a lecture by two U.S. Embassy personnel almost immediately on their arrival. "They gave a great talk on sustainability and spoke about all the components of renewable energy, acceptance, sustainability and operation," he said. "That provided the students with grounding and a framework for them to be thinking about."

Zahos said another educational — albeit unintended — aspect of the trip was observing the current economic upheaval in Greece. "We happened to be there at the time their legislature was debating whether to accept the austerity measures required by the EU for a loan bailout," he said. "I encouraged the students to pay attention and to think about some of the conditions that exist there, and compare and contrast them to what we're possibly facing here in the States. It's not good that it's happening, but I knew the students could learn from the experience."

The students lived together in an apartment in a typical Athens neighborhood, surrounded by markets, shops, restaurants and ordinary citizens. "They got plenty of exercise walking," said Zahos, "and we made good use of the city's well-developed public transportation system."

Of course, a trip to the beautiful country of Greece has to include seeing the sites, and Zahos said the balance of work and play was about equal. "After travel time, we probably spent 12 days in classes and 12 days sightseeing."

Sightseeing included a four-day bus trip to learn about the history of Greece, traversing the Samaria Gorge on the Island of Crete, and a one-day, three-island cruise near Athens. Katerina Kassimati, a young woman from Patras who had studied with the department of ABE the previous year, went on the cruise with the visiting students, and then welcomed them to her family's summer home near Athens. The students spent a day touring the area and enjoyed a home-cooked meal prepared by the Kassimati family.

The five students took it on themselves to plan another excursion, a trip to Santorini for a weekend, which was "amazing," said Grace Nelson, another junior in civil and environmental engineering. "There were so many memorable experiences in Greece, it's hard to pick just one. We saw the ruins all over Greece, we saw black sand and red sand beaches, the sunset at Oia, and we met some awesome people at our hostel. This study abroad experience in Greece couldn't have been better," Nelson concluded. "I'll remember it for the rest of my life."

The students were even able to connect with Illinois alumni while in the country. The first meeting of the University of Illinois Club of Greece, started by a recent graduate, George Lokkas, who received his master's in finance at Illinois, was held on the roof garden of the Athens Gate Hotel in full view of the Acropolis and Parthenon at night. Approximately 25 UIUC and UIC graduates, now living in Greece and other parts of Europe, attended the event. Zahos is proud charter member number 25.

Support for the program was provided in part by the Illinois European Union Center under a U.S. Department of Education Title VI grant, the Transatlantic Bioenergy Network, the Illinois College of ACES, the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and the Illinois International Programs in Engineering office.