College of ACES
College News

STRONG Kids program receives additional support from the National Dairy Council

Published February 23, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Exploring how multiple factors contribute to the development of childhood obesity, the Family Resiliency Center’s STRONG Kids Program recently received an additional $548,275 of funding from the National Dairy Council (NDC) to extend its current research project, STRONG Kids 2, through 2019.

STRONG Kids 2 is one of the first comprehensive research projects to explore how individual biology and dietary habits, including milk and dairy consumption, interact with the family environment to provide unique insights into the underlying causes behind childhood obesity. Originally, project participants were to be observed from birth to three years of age. The increased support from the NDC allows researchers to follow participants until they reach five years of age—a critical point for children as they become more vocal about their food preferences and spend more time in out-of-home care.

The increased observational time will be critical in providing a clearer picture of early childhood health. “We are already seeing important shifts in growth during the first year of life in this group of infants,” says the program’s co-director Barbara H. Fiese. “Being able to track these patterns into the preschool years will allow us to identify potential points of intervention to protect children against unhealthy weight in the early years. We are tracking the importance of breastfeeding, timing of introduction of solids, presence of dairy, and good sleep habits as predictors of healthy outcomes for these children. Being able to do so for five years is quite remarkable.” 

The additional support has also allowed researchers to expand recruitment to ensure enough families are retained over the length of the study. The expansion of the participant pool and the length of time they are involved in the project is significant according to co-director Sharon Donovan. “Being able to expand the cohort and the length of the time that we are obtaining data are both important because they will ensure that we have sufficient statistical power to examine health and dietary changes over time a time,” Donovan says, “and we will be able to follow the children as they are transitioning from preschool or home to school.” 

Project staff has worked hard over the past three years to recruit a cohort of expectant mothers throughout central Illinois to participate in the project. At present, the project has passed its recruitment goal of 450 participating families.

Over the course of the study, biological samples and measurements are collected from this cohort at intervals, and mothers are surveyed about weaning, dietary habits, and household routines, as well as children’s emotions, feeding styles, and milk and dairy consumption. The new funding allows researchers to enhance these measurements through added questionnaires and home observations to ensure they have a clearer picture of dietary intake. Says Donovan, “We’re able to add more home observations and 24-hour dietary recall measures, which will complement and extend upon the current measures of dietary intake in the cohort.” 

Ultimately, the findings from STRONG Kids 2 will serve as the foundation for obesity prevention and intervention programs throughout the country.

Nematode resistance in soybeans beneficial even at low rates of infestation

Published February 23, 2017
soybean cyst nematode
Soybean cyst nematode and egg
  • Soybeans with resistance to soybean cyst nematodes seem to have a yield advantage compared to susceptible varieties when SCN is present.
  • Until now, scientists did not know what level of SCN infestation is needed to achieve the yield advantage.
  • A new University of Illinois study shows that SCN resistance from the soybean accession PI 88788 offers yield advantages even at very low infestation rates.

URBANA, Ill. – Each spring, tiny roundworms hatch and wriggle over to the nearest soybean root to feed. Before farmers are even aware of the belowground infestation, the soybean cyst nematode silently begins to wreak havoc on soybean yield.

Fortunately, breeders have identified soybean varieties with genetic resistance to the nematodes and have used them to create new resistant varieties. As you might expect, resistant varieties yield more than susceptible ones when SCN is in the soil. But, until now, it wasn’t clear whether that yield advantage held up at low SCN infestation rates.

“The University of Illinois has been organizing a regional testing program of university-developed experimental soybean lines through funding from the United Soybean Board. In the last decade, we have collected data on agronomic performance, including yield, but also data on the resistance of the lines as well as on SCN pressure in the field. We’ve built up a massive dataset from these tests,” says University of Illinois soybean breeder Brian Diers.

By looking at 11 years of data from 408 sites around the Midwest, the researchers found that there was a yield advantage for SCN resistance even at low infestation levels—as low as 20 eggs per 100 cubic centimeters of soil. In environments with no SCN infestation, the team saw evidence of yield drag, where resistant varieties yielded slightly less than susceptible ones.

“But most fields in the Midwest do have at least some infestation,” Diers says. “So, in most cases, there’s little justification in planting susceptible varieties to avoid that potential yield drag.”

The most common source of SCN resistance is from a soybean accession known as PI 88788. It is well known that SCN is increasing in its ability to overcome 88788-resistance throughout the Midwest. The researchers wanted to find out if varieties with 88788-resistance are still able to produce high yields despite mounting pressure from nematodes.

Using the same large dataset, the researchers found that those varieties still provide at least enough moderate resistance to produce good yields. “For me, it’s a message to the soybean community that the sky hasn’t fallen, that 88788-resistance is, on average, working well in most fields,” Diers says.

Diers cautions that other sources of resistance, such as Peking or 437654, are better choices in fields where SCN is able to overcome 88788-resistance at a high level. However, he also notes that those varieties are harder to find.

“Farmers should rotate soybeans with a non-host crop such as corn, and also, if possible, with soybean varieties that have SCN resistance from alternative sources,” Diers suggests.

The article, “Impact of soybean cyst nematode resistance on soybean yield,” is published in Crop Science. The research was supported by the United Soybean Board.

News Source:

Brian Diers, 217-265-4062

2016 FSHN faculty awards and recognitions

Published February 23, 2017

The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois has award-winning faculty in all of its departments. These faculty in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition are recognized for their excellence in teaching, research, outreach, and service at the university level as well as on the national and international stages.

What follows is an incomplete list of the awards and recognitions received by faculty in 2016.

Food Science and Human Nutrition

Karen Chapman-Novakofski      Excellence in Practice Award, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Jill Craft                                     NACTA Educator Award, North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture

Justine Karduck                        Outstanding Abstract Award, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Elizabeth Jeffery                       Dannon Institute Mentorship Award, American Society of Nutrition

Zeynep Madak-Erdogan           Mary Swartz Rose Young Investigator Award, American Society of Nutrition and the                                                 Council for Responsible Nutrition

Elvira de Mejia                         Sheth Distinguished Faculty Award for International Achievement, Illinois International Program

Shelly Schmidt                         Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Teaching, University of Illinois

See the full list for ACES at

News Source:

Stephanie Henry

NIFA’s Director of International Programs offers global perspective

Published February 23, 2017
Dr. Otto Gonzalez speaks about global engagement.

Why should ACES engage globally?

This question was answered convincingly by Dr. Otto Gonzalez who serves as Director of the Center for International Programs at the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) when he spoke recently on campus as part of the ACES International Seminar Series.

Using four categories, Dr. Gonzalez explained the benefits of active international engagement:  

1. Trade and food safety

A great portion of our food comes from other parts of the world so by sharing science, we are also protecting ourselves.

“We want people to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. This is one of USDA’s promotional messages. ‘Eat your colors - Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables’ – this is what we tell people. But even though we produce a lot here, half of our fresh fruits and nearly half of our vegetables are imported,” Gonzalez said.   

The United States imports fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables from 64 different countries, he noted.

“We need to share our science, including techniques for diagnostics, prevention, and detection, with other countries so they can better protect against microbial contamination which ultimately protects us as well,” he urged.   

2. Emerging and reemerging diseases as threat to food safety

Plant and animal diseases often initiate elsewhere, so it is beneficial to address them before they arrive in the United States.

Gonzalez provided multiple examples of how diseases threaten our food safety. Wheat blast, which causes plants to be absent of seed, somehow made its way from Latin America to Bangladesh. And the cost of the 2013 Asian influenza in chickens amounted to $1 billion worldwide. “Not only are the birds lost, but faith in the industry is lost,” he said. 

“In working with other countries we are able to share information and test out resistances in different areas of the world. Being able to protect ourselves from these emerging and reemerging diseases is a strong case for global engagement,” he said.

3. Climate trends as a threat to food security

Uncertainties in climate are contributing to global food insecurity.

Using a color-coded map of the world, Gonzalez demonstrated that “The areas already most affected by food insecurity are also the areas being most affected by variabilities and uncertainties in climate.”

“Many of these areas are already dry, and the changes in rain patterns are further exasperating the situations,” he added. And droughts and lack of access to water often contribute to migrations, further compromising food security.

He noted that NIFA has already worked with Tanzania to develop a climate change resistance plan to adapt to the changing climate.  

4. Conflict

Much of the world’s conflict is rooted in a lack of resources.

“Another reason to engage with the rest of the world is to prevent conflict. Because so much of conflict is rooted in the loss of people’s livelihoods, often which are agricultural,” he said.

To conclude the first segment of his presentation, he said, “There are lots of good reasons to engage globally, but I’ve found these categories to be a handy way to summarize them.”  

Opportunities for engaging with NIFA

Gonzalez next discussed how academics can use NIFA as a resource for international engagement.

He clarified that obviously a National Institute of Food and Agriculture is national in nature. In fact, he said only 2.6% of NIFA’s current projects have global engagement. He noted that at least five of these awards are based at the University of Illinois!

 “NIFA supports global engagement that advances U.S. agricultural goals,” he clarified.

The flagship competitive grant for U.S institutions is the Agricultural and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) program. The NIFA website posts the AFRI calls at:

The site states that in Fiscal Year 2017, there will be seven Requests for Applications (RFAs): Foundational Program; Childhood Obesity Prevention Challenge Area; Climate Variability and Change Challenge Area; Food Safety Challenge Area; Sustainable Bioenergy and Biproducts Challenge Area; Water for Food Production Systems Challenge Area; and the Food, Agriculture, Natural Resources and Human Sciences Education and Literacy Initiative.

“International collaborations often show a greater impact, and you can write your partners into your proposal,” he noted. “The objective has to come back to a domestic objective,” he clarified.

Many of the points covered by Dr. Gonzalez about AFRI’s international partnerships can be found on this AFRI Q&A page:

He noted that NIFA has added several international partners to give U.S. researchers additional opportunities to work with international colleagues. NIFA and its international partners hope to issue more joint proposals in the future.

 “We are not giving each other money; we are each funding our own researchers,” he said of the international collaborations.

Dr. Gonzalez said a way to collaborate with your former international students is to encourage them to apply for the Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) grants:

The Office of International Programs and the College of ACES were honored to have Dr. Gonzalez as a speaker and guest. During his visit, he was able to meet with several members of ACES administration, faculty, and students.

More about Dr. Gonzalez: Otto Gonzalez in February 2016 became the Director of the Center for International Programs at the NIFA. Prior to that he was a Special Projects Officer in the Office of Capacity Building and Development in the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), based in Washington, D.C. with frequent travel, where for 19 years he led international technical assistance activities to build capacity in natural resource management, agriculture, and rural development. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central America are among the areas where Gonzalez has had projects. He earned his PhD in Natural Resources and Environment (focused in forest ecology) from the University of Michigan.

More about NIFA:



ACES celebrates 10 years of the Global Academy

Published February 23, 2017
Juan Andrade and Jan Brooks give testimonials on their experiences in the ACES Global Academy.

The College of ACES recently celebrated 10 years of its unique faculty training program, the Academy for Global Engagement (Global Academy). At this showcase event, Academy alums and other ACES faculty and staff were joined by colleagues from across the campus to reflect on the impacts directly attributable to this program.   

The attendees, warmly welcomed by Dean Kidwell, learned more about the Academy, listened to testimonials from previous participants, and met the new cohort of scholars.

Dr. Alex Winter-Nelson, director of the ACES Office of International programs, explained, “The Global Academy is rooted in the idea that there is great promise to increasing the impact of our activities by broadening the scope of application beyond our national borders. But there are barriers to international engagement, so the Academy aims to enable scholars to more easily overcome those barriers and achieve greater impact. Half of what we try to do is build capacity of individuals for international engagement. The other half has to do with the capacity of the institution.”

Winter-Nelson noted the program has evolved over the years and that it will continue to evolve. He acknowledged the Arlys Conrad Estate for the gift that allows the Global Academy to exist and said he hoped the event would lead to conversations about engaging units outside of ACES.

Suzana Palaska, associate director of the Office of International Programs and manager of the program, explained how the Academy themes and immersion locations are selected each year and how the cohort is assembled.

“Early intervention is very important when it comes to cohort recruitment. Putting the Global Academy program on incoming faculty’s map, so to speak, ensures that they plan for it from the very beginning. It also allows for us to get to know them at the start of their careers in ACES and learn about their professional interests and goals as they relate to international engagements,” said Palaska.

Palaska then introduced several former Academy fellows who shared testimonials of their experience.  

Academy Testimonials

Dr. Mindy Mallory, associate professor and director of undergraduate programs in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, participated in the Global Academy in 2010. Mallory reflected on how beneficial it was to learn about India’s commodity markets in India and how her participation in the Academy launched an international component to her research. “The Academy provided invaluable perspective that has guided my research efforts ever since,” she said.

Dr. Juan Andrade, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, participated in the 2012 Global Academy. Now working with the Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL) on using the soybean for better nutrition in Ghana, he reflected on the value of having already met his current SIL colleagues during the Global Academy trip.

Ms. Jan Brooks, an instructor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, said her experience, also with the 2012 Global Academy, has especially impacted her teaching, giving her a global perspective and the background to push her students towards international involvement.

Mr. Gary Letterly, an educator for UI Extension, and a member of the 2013 Global Academy, discussed the benefit of seeing a different type of extension system in Taiwan. He praised the program for including extension staff because it gives “a new perspective and context in which to view our own work.” He further noted that the experience led to collaborations with faculty members in the cohort.

Dr. Erick Sachs, associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences, was thankful for the opportunity as part of the 2014 Global Academy to re-connect with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) where he had worked 14 years prior. He said, “The Global Academy was an outstanding experience. It was a well-timed as we had just started having a number of PHD fellows from Southeast Asia, and I had the opportunity to meet the IRRI advisors for these students as well as build relationships with IRRI staff who can potentially be Borlaug fellowship advisors for our graduate students.” Thanks to these renewed connections, Sachs is now partnering with IRRI to identify genes that confer flowering‐stage heat‐tolerance in rice.

Dr. Juan Loor, associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences, emphasized the value of being able to sit down and talk when making international connections. Thanks to his participation in the 2015 Global Academy, he was able to establish connections with several scientists in Mexico and is now collaborating with the University of San Luis Potosi to improve sheep nutrition.

Dr. Michael Miller, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, also spoke of specific outcomes related to his participation in the 2015 Global Academy, including a new collaboration with the Autonomous University of Queretero on Listeria monocytogenes and Hispanic-style fresh cheese.

These testimonials are just a small sampling of the many success stories, from the dozens of program alums, including publications, collaborations, and funding received that are attributable to the ACES Global Academy.

2016-17 Academy headed to Cuba!

Finally, the newest cohort of the Academy was announced. These scholars are currently participating in an on-campus curriculum and will travel to Cuba during spring break to explore academic partnerships for ACES.

The 2016-17 scholars are:

  1. Dr. Christensen, Peter, ACE
  2. Dr. Dall'Erba, Sandy, ACE
  3. Dr. Pittelkow, Cameron M, Crop Sciences
  4. Dr. Riggins, Chance, Crop Sciences
  5. Dr. Raffaelli, Marcela, HDFS
  6. Dr. Miller, Daniel Charles, NRES
  7. Million, William J, Extension
  8. Hannah Christensen, Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE)

-Senior Fellows-

  1. Dr. Brawn, Jeffrey D, NRES
  2. Dr. Nickols-Richardson, Sharon, FSHN
  3. Dr. Mike Ward (NRES)

For more information about the ACES Global Academy, visit:

Chris Evans of NRES on Harvesting Maple Sap to make Syrup

Published February 20, 2017
Christopher Evans, Forestry and Extension Specialist
Christopher Evans, Forestry and Extension Specialist

Christopher Evans, Forestry and Extension Specialist with NRES, recently gave an interview about harvesting Maple Syrup and other activities related to late winter in the woods of Southern Illinois, which will be lighlighted at the annual Maple Syrup Festival on February 25th and 26th, 2017.

Here is a link to the interview:

Does your relationship need spring cleaning?

Published February 20, 2017
Holding hands

URBANA, Ill. – Grand romantic gestures are the stuff of Hollywood movies, but romance is only one small part of how we should be working to maintain our relationships, says University of Illinois assistant professor of human development and family studies Brian Ogolsky. The researcher recently sat down to share the science of relationship maintenance during a Twitter chat in the #AskACES series, hosted by U of I’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Ogolsky started the chat off by defining relationship maintenance as “the thoughts and behaviors you use to keep your relationship in the state you want it to be in.”

Because 140 characters leaves a lot of room for interpretation, follow-up questions quickly poured in. Followers wanted strategies they could put into practice and Ogolsky obliged, with recommendations to engage in positive and open communication, to be responsive and supportive, to participate in joint leisure activity, and to be generous and thankful.

Ogolsky also explained the ways couples should think about adjusting their relationship maintenance strategies over time. Early on, he says, the emphasis is on mitigation of threats, such as alternative partners, while more established couples should put in time to “do the good,” rather than simply avoiding problems.

Chat participants wanted to know about the role of technology in relationships, how parenting affects relationship maintenance, and whether there is truth to the old adage that opposites attract.

Surprisingly, when it comes to avoiding break ups, Ogolsky says it’s not about being similar or putting down the phone during date night. The very best predictor of staying together, he explains, is feeling that you, your partner, and your relationship are better than everyone else’s. “In other words, be delusional,” he quips.

Search for #AskACES on Twitter to view the entire chat, and listen to Ogolsky delve a little deeper into his answers in an interview with #AskACES podcast host Jennifer Shike.

Drones are what’s next for plant breeders

Published February 20, 2017
Drone in flight
Drone in flight
  • Crop breeders grow thousands of potential varieties at a time; until now, observations of key traits were made by hand.
  • In a new study, unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, were used successfully to remotely evaluate and predict soybean maturity timing in tests of potential varieties.
  • The use of drones for this purpose could substantially reduce the man-hours needed to evaluate new crops. 

URBANA, Ill. – When plant breeders develop new crop varieties, they grow up a lot of plants and they all need to be checked. Repeatedly. 

“Farmers might have a 100-acre field planted with one soybean variety, whereas breeders may have 10,000 potential varieties planted on one 10-acre field. The farmer can fairly quickly determine whether the single variety in a field is ready to be harvested. However, breeders have to walk through research fields several times in the fall to determine the date when each potential variety matures,” explains University of Illinois soybean breeder Brian Diers.

“We have to check every three days,” masters student Nathan Schmitz adds. “It takes a good amount of time during a busy part of the year. Sometimes it’s really hot, sometimes really muddy.”

To make things easier, an interdisciplinary team including breeders, computer scientists, engineers, and geographic information specialists turned to unmanned aerial vehicles – commonly known as UAVs or drones.

“When drones became available, we asked ourselves how we could apply this new technology to breeding. For this first attempt, we tried to do a couple simple things,” Diers says.

One goal was to predict the timing of pod maturity using images from a camera attached to the drone, along with sophisticated data and image analysis techniques. “We used multi-spectral images,” Schmitz explains. “We set up an equation in the program to pick up changes in the light frequency reflected off the plant. That color change is how we differentiate a mature plant from an immature one.”

The researchers developed an algorithm to compare images from the drone with pod maturity data measured the old-fashioned way, by walking the fields. “Our maturity predictions with the drone were very close to what we recorded while walking through the fields,” Diers notes.

Predictions made by the model achieved 93 percent accuracy, but Diers says they might have done even better without some of the inherent limitations of flying drones. For example, they could only fly it and obtain good images on sunny days with little wind.

Drones are increasingly recognized for their potential to improve efficiency and precision in agriculture—especially after new FAA rules went into effect in August 2016—but this is one of the first studies to use drones to optimize breeding practices. Diers notes that the application could be particularly useful to large breeding companies, which test hundreds of thousands of potential varieties annually. If breeders can save time and effort using this technology, new varieties could potentially be developed and made available to farmers on a faster timeline—a welcome improvement.

The article, “Development of methods to improve soybean yield estimation and predict plant maturity with an unmanned aerial vehicle based platform,” is published in Remote Sensing of Environment. In addition to Diers and Schmitz, Neil Yu, Liujun Li, Lei Tian, and Jonathan Greenberg, all from the University of Illinois, are co-authors.