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Few Chicagoland wetlands left without non-native species, study finds

Published February 23, 2018
Invaded wetland near roadway
Invaded wetland near roadway

URBANA, Ill. – The wetlands in and around Chicago are overwhelmingly invaded by non-native plants, according to a new study by University of Illinois researchers. The study, which pulls together species occurrence data from over 2,000 wetlands in the urban region, is the first to describe wetland invasion patterns on such a large scale in the Chicagoland area.

The data came from a decade’s worth of environmental assessments, a required step in any new road or building construction project. Normally, once these assessments are submitted to regulatory agencies, they’re filed away and rarely seen again. But the U of I researchers suspected that, together, the assessments contained a goldmine of information.

“For us, it was a shame that all of these data are available and are not being used to answer some large questions about the state of natural communities across the region. Compiling them into a large regional data set allowed us to answer questions at a large scale that hadn’t been addressed before,” says Jeff Matthews, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at U of I, and co-author on the study.

The main question had to do with the degree of invasion by non-native plants in Chicagoland wetlands. And the answer was staggering.

“We have worked in the Chicago region long enough that we thought we knew the extent of the problem. But even having that past experience and knowing that invasive species are pervasive, the numbers were still shocking to me,” Matthews says.

Non-native plant species were present in over 99 percent of the wetlands in the data set, and, on average, non-natives made up over a third of the species present in individual wetlands. One species in particular, reed canary grass, was nearly ubiquitous: it was found in some 74 percent of the surveyed sites. 

Being non-native is not necessarily a bad thing – many of our most important crops are non-native – but when non-native species thrive and steal space and nutrients from native plants, that’s a problem. And with a third or more of the native species being replaced by non-natives, ecosystems can be inextricably altered.

“We saw a recurrence of certain groups of non-native species that are associated with major roads,” Matthews says. “We assume this linked to road salt, because most of the species in these recurring groups are highly tolerant of salt; they’re actually maritime species that have moved in from the coast. We’re seeing the same collection of species throughout the Chicago region along the tollways and major interstates.” 

Invasions can happen anywhere that aggressive non-native species are introduced, but the researchers say urban centers like the metropolitan Chicago area are at greater risk.

“Urbanization can lead to loss or extirpation of species entirely from a region, through habitat loss and pressure from non-native species,” says Dennis Skultety, a GIS/GPS specialist with the Illinois Natural History Survey at U of I, and the lead author on the study. “Urban areas are an introduction point for non-native species, whether they’re coming in through commerce as hitchhikers on trucks or ships, or are intentionally introduced through the horticultural industry or pet trade.”

Although the overall picture looks bleak, Matthews says even invaded wetlands have value. “These wetlands still provide flood water storage, improve water flowing through those sites, and provide wildlife habitat to some extent.”

Skultety says that a practical lesson from the work is to redefine what is achievable for wetland restoration in urban areas. “We should focus more on the functional values that wetlands provide, and not necessarily get hung up on a single metric of vegetation quality.”

The article, “Human land use as a driver of plant community composition in wetlands of the Chicago metropolitan region,” is published in Urban Ecosystems.

Evaluation of I-TOPP examines the process and outcomes of transdisciplinary doctoral training program

Published February 22, 2018
I-TOPP Scholars at the University of Illinois.

URBANA, Ill. - Over the past 30 years, the prevalence of overweight and obesity has doubled in 2- to 5-year-olds and tripled in children aged 6 to 11 years. To address this public health concern, in 2011, the USDA funded the Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program (I-TOPP), a joint doctoral/Masters of Public Health (MPH) degree program, at the University of Illinois with the goal of training future leaders to address the problem of childhood obesity.

Although transdisciplinary doctoral training programs in academic settings are relatively new, these types of research approaches are increasingly being used to address complex research areas, such as childhood obesity.

“We know the causes of childhood obesity are multifactorial, involving both genetic and environmental causes,” says Sharon Donovan, professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I and director of I-TOPP. “Of the environmental factors, family routines, nutrition, food security, physical activity, sedentary behavior, and sleep are all important.

“To tackle such a multifaceted issue, many perspectives need to be brought to the table, necessitating a transdisciplinary approach,” she adds.

Because Donovan and her fellow researchers were undertaking a new approach to doctoral training, they wanted to evaluate the education process as well as the outcomes. To understand the barriers and benefits to transdisciplinary doctoral training—versus focusing on a single discipline—the researchers conducted focus groups with the faculty and students at the start of the program and after five years into the program.

A paper focusing on the perspectives of faculty and students in the program, published in Palgrave Communications, describes some of the perceived benefits and barriers to transdisciplinary education. Some of the benefits cited were greater collaboration and networking, more guidance and support from advisors, newly broadened ways of thinking, and expanded opportunities for learning and research.

Some of the barriers cited by students included time concerns; feeling like they had too much to do and not enough time to do it, as well as feeling like they were under greater pressure compared to their traditional counterparts. “While both the faculty and students acknowledged the benefits of I-TOPP, it is important to think about ways to lower the barriers to transdisciplinary training in order to be successful,” Donovan adds.

Previous research has shown that the timing of publications from transdisciplinary research can be delayed due to the need for the team to come together and the nature of the complex questions the teams often undertake. Thus, the researchers were interested in determining if that was the case for I-TOPP.

A second paper, recently published in PloS One, shows that the program’s success in training doctoral students has included higher-impact research publications by I-TOPP students, more collaborators (co-authors) on those papers, and more disciplines represented when compared to the publications of students in traditional doctoral programs. Publication impact indicators were significantly higher for I-TOPP students, including higher citations in Google Scholar and Scopus.

Publication productivity was somewhat, though not significantly, higher for I-TOPP students, as well. 

The program’s transdisciplinary approaches span beyond the expertise of instructors and researchers within academia and also involve community stakeholders. These approaches, which are often a component of team science, teach students to master and then integrate broad methods to find solutions to complex public health problems such as childhood obesity.

“Our students work with the community to find real-world solutions when it comes to research,” explains Anna-Sigrid Keck, program coordinator and lead author on both papers. “It’s really applied research that the students are working on during their doctoral training. Students in the I-TOPP program take the disciplinary foundation, and create new thinking and new hypotheses, and then merge them together. That takes more work but the publication impact is an indication that it might be worth the extra work effort.”

The program has 11 doctoral students, who were enrolled in three cohorts in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Seven I-TOPP students have already begun or have accepted prestigious grant-funded post-doctoral positions. Another student recently accepted a faculty position at Boston College, the first faculty position for one of the program’s graduates.

Keck says the intent is to continue following the careers of I-TOPP graduates over the next 10 years, continuing to compare them to traditional doctoral students. “Even now there are publication differences, but I think the real impact will be 5-10 years out,” Keck says.

Donovan adds, “When we started I-TOPP in 2011, we proposed that the graduates of the program would be ideally positioned to undertake complex public health problems, due to the combined PhD, MPH degree, and the transdisciplinary educational approach. Given the high-quality institutions where we have placed our graduates, including the Baylor College of Medicine, Boston College, Harvard, Northeastern University, Northwestern University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Minnesota, we are beginning to see that promise fulfilled.”

The four co-principal investigators for I-TOPP are U of I professors Sharon Donovan, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition; Barbara Fiese, Department of Human Development and Family Studies; Hillary Klonoff-Cohen, Department of Kinesiology and Community Health; and Rod Johnson, Department of Animal Sciences. Donovan and Johnson are also members of the Division of Nutritional Sciences.

I-TOPP was one of four similar USDA-funded programs also at Pennsylvania State University, South Dakota State University, and California State University.

“Productivity, impact, and collaboration differences between transdisciplinary and traditionally trained doctoral students: A comparison of publication patterns,” is published in PloS One. Authors include Anna-Sigrid Keck, Stephanie Sloane, Janet M. Liechty, Barbara H. Fiese, and Sharon M. Donovan.

“Longitudinal perspectives of faculty and students on benefits and barriers to transdisciplinary graduate education: program assessment and institutional recommendations,” is published in Palgrave Communications. Co-authors include Anna-Sigrid Keck, Stephanie Sloane, Janet M. Liechty, Megan S. Paceley, Sharon M. Donovan, Kelly K. Bost, Brent A. McBride, and Barbara H. Fiese.

The work was funded by a grant (2011-67001-30101) from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and by three areas of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Office for Vice Chancellor for Research, Colleges of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and College of Applied Heath Sciences) to the Division of Nutritional Sciences.

News Source:

Anna-Sigrid Keck

Retired Illinois soil scientist digs up information about Vietnam War tunnels

Published February 22, 2018
Tunnel system schematic
Tunnel system schematic

URBANA, Ill. – To satisfy decades of curiosity about the resiliency of the Viet Cong’s underground tunnels, an emeritus soil science professor from the University of Illinois traveled to Cu Chi, Vietnam, to crawl through the restored tunnels. His resulting publication on the wartime tunnels and their soils is attracting significant attention from U.S. veterans groups, military historians, and Vietnam War archivists.

These hundreds of miles of soil tunnels changed the outcome of the Vietnam War. Over time they grew from temporary quarters for a few soldiers to encompass underground villages of soldiers with kitchens, living quarters, and hospitals. Some tunnels even had large theaters and music halls to provide the soldiers with entertainment.  

“Bombing and search-and-destroy missions from 1966 to 1968 were not able to eliminate these tunnels, and thus the Viet Cong were later able to invade Saigon,” recaps Kenneth Olson, who is retired from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I.

Olson is a Vietnam-era veteran who served in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1973.

“Because the U.S. involvement in the War was winding down, my all-expense-paid trip to Vietnam was cancelled by the Army. I always wanted to go at a later time as a civilian. However, life happened, and I was not able to go for another 43 years,” he says.

Specifically, he wanted to examine the Cu Chi and Iron Triangle soil tunnels that connected the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia and Saigon. He finally took this trip in March 2016 to see restored remnants of these tunnels at Vietnam War Memorial Park in Cu Chi. 

“After walking into tunnel chambers and crawling into the tunnel complexes, I utilized my training to assess the well-drained soils and to determine why the tunnels were so difficult to find and destroy by our ground troops and bombers,” he says.

Olson’s work is the first to combine historical information about how the tunnels were used during the Vietnam War with information about the soils’ resiliency and their ability to support the tunnels.

“During the monsoon season, the Viet Cong were able to dig the tunnels by hand in the moist clayey soil,” Olson explains. “The alluvial terrace soils were degraded in a tropical climate for thousands of years. Iron oxide was slowly dissolved and transported by water draining through the soil to the underlying geological parent materials. During the dry season, the water evaporated and the iron oxide remained in the soil pore space and cemented the tunnel walls.

“The soil tunnels became stable, resilient, and hard to destroy with bombs. When aerated and dried, the soil walls took on properties similar to concrete and no additional external support was needed to hold up the ceilings.”

Although exploring and evaluating the tunnels has been his longtime goal, Olson says the resulting article has received even more attention than he expected. The article was published in a Chinese journal and had a record 2250 downloads in the first year.

“This paper has taken on a life of its own. The article has now been translated into Vietnamese by three Hanoi scholars. The translated version of the paper is being submitted to a Vietnamese History journal for publication and to the Vietnam War Memorial Park board in Cu Chi for possible distribution to daily visitors and tourists,” says Olson.

“The Vietnam Center and Archive in Lubbock, Texas, has archived the paper. As part of an archived document exchange program, the Vietnam Center is planning to send the Vietnamese translation of the paper to State Records and Archive of Department of Vietnam in Hanoi for their archiving. These papers will then be preserved and made available to future Vietnam War historians.”

The article by Olson and co-author Lois Wright Morton, “Why were the soil tunnels of Cu Chi and Iron Triangle in Vietnam so resilient?” is available from Open Journal of Soil Science.

This article was published with funding support from the College of ACES Office of Research and the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University.  

Neuroimaging reveals lasting brain deficits in iron-deficient piglets

Published February 21, 2018
Dilger and Mudd
Ryan Dilger (left) and Austin Mudd (right). Photo: L. Brian Stauffer

URBANA, Ill. — Iron deficiency in the first four weeks of a piglet’s life – equivalent to roughly four months in a human infant – impairs the development of key brain structures, scientists report. The abnormalities remain even after weeks of iron supplementation begun later in life, the researchers found.

The discovery, reported in the journal Nutrients, adds to the evidence that iron deficiency early in life can have long-lasting consequences for the brain, said University of Illinois animal sciences professor Ryan Dilger, who led the study with Austin Mudd, a graduate student in the neuroscience program at the U. of I. The analysis, which relied on neuroimaging to study the piglets’ brains as they matured, homed in on specific brain regions most affected by iron-deficient diets. The use of neuroimaging was part of an effort to find noninvasive ways of studying pig brain development that could also be applied in humans.

Pigs are useful models for studies relevant to human health because they have some of the same nutrient and metabolic requirements as humans, Mudd said. For this reason, health authorities require that new infant formulas be tested in piglets before they can be used in clinical trials of human babies.

Pigs also have anatomically similar brains to humans, the researchers said.

“Pig brains and human brains follow very similar developmental trajectories,” Mudd said. “One week of piglet brain growth is roughly equivalent to one month of human brain growth. You can overlay those trajectories and they are almost identical.”

Pigs and humans also appear to respond in similar ways to dietary deficiencies – in particular, iron deficiencies, Dilger said.

“Nothing is as overt as an iron deficiency,” he said. “Both piglets and human infants with iron deficiencies are smaller, and they display other characteristic anomalies. Iron deficiency in humans is the most prolific deficiency the world over.”

“Research in humans has shown that iron deficiency early in life results in delayed motor development by 10 months of age, delayed cognitive processing by 10 years of age, altered recognition memory and executive functions at 19 years of age, and poorer emotional health in the mid-twenties,” the researchers wrote.

In an earlier study of the same 28 piglets used in the new analysis, the scientists found that those fed iron-deficient diets for the first four weeks of life had smaller overall brain volume than those fed an iron-sufficient diet. When the iron-deficient pigs switched to an iron-replete diet from four to eight weeks of life, their brain volumes caught up with those of pigs that had never been iron deficient. This might lead some to assume that iron supplementation later in life corrects all of the problems associated with earlier deficiencies, Mudd said.

“We know, however, that there are many different brain regions and each one of them develops at a different rate. There could be a critical window of development for one region and not another,” he said. “With our neuroimaging, we can look more closely at different brain structures and start to identify those developmental windows.”

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging and other noninvasive techniques to determine the relative iron content, volume and structural integrity of specific brain regions.

By comparing piglets with and without iron-deficient diets in the first four weeks of life, and then again at eight weeks after all received sufficient iron for four weeks, the researchers were able to determine whether the brain anomalies seen at four weeks persisted after the iron-deficient piglets’ diets were corrected.

The analysis revealed that the brains of iron-deficient piglets did not fully recover. They had reduced iron content in several brain regions, including the left hippocampus, a region essential to learning and memory. Giving the piglets an iron-replete diet for another four weeks did not appear to increase the iron content of these brain regions.

The iron-deficient piglets also had structural deficiencies in their gray matter and white matter in several brain regions at four and eight weeks. Only the olfactory bulb, a brain structure that supports the sense of smell, was bigger in the iron-deficient piglets than in those that had never been deficient. The olfactory bulbs of the deficient piglets also had greater iron content than those of piglets that had never been deficient.

This latter finding suggests there could be a compensatory mechanism in the brain that concentrates available iron in the olfactory bulb to encourage an animal that normally roots around in the dirt with its snout to do so more aggressively to obtain sufficient iron from soil, the researchers said. While this is only a hypothesis and has not been proved, the researchers said, it is interesting that humans with iron deficiencies sometimes experience a condition known as pica, which makes them want to eat unusual substances, including dirt.

“Essentially what we found in this study is that there is a critical window in development for providing iron, and that window is immediately after birth,” Mudd said. More research must be done to determine if this is also true for human infants, he said.

News Sources:

Austin Mudd
Ryan Dilger

News Writer:

Diana Yates, 217-333-5802

ACES International hosts seminar on funding opportunities with French institutions

Published February 21, 2018
Tatiana Vallaeys discusses funding opportunities with French institutions.

To facilitate partnerships with French institutions, the ACES Office of International Programs hosted the Attaché for Science and Technology Consulate General of France Tatiana Vallaeys on February 12. She presented a seminar to faculty and staff who are interested in funding opportunities for collaborations with French institutions.

“My job is to promote contacts between researchers in the Midwest and your peers and potential collaborators in France,” explained Dr. Vallaeys who is currently on sabbatical from her professorship at the University of Marseille to work in this position.  

She listed her two major aims in speaking to Illinois scientists as:   

1) Reconnecting them with INRA, the world’s second largest agricultural research center. “We have a long history that has fallen off, but now we need to see where we can reconnect,” she said. She worked at INRA for 15 years.

2) Finding potential collaborators for Pasteur Institute where she also worked for several years.

Vallaeys noted that most opportunities with these institutes would require an Illinois researcher to first establish a strong relationship with a French host institution or colleague.

“Please use me as an intermediary to help you find a French colleague who may be doing similar work,” she said.

She highlighted several initiatives and opportunities potentially of interest to ACES faculty and students including:

  • Make our Planet Great Again
    • An initiative of the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron that contains a series of ambitious and innovative measures to embed the objectives of the Paris Agreement in public action and to involve all actors in this global fight. Dr. Vallaeys said this is a great opportunity for sabbaticals to work with French scientists in France.
  • Thomas Jefferson Fund 2018 Call for Proposals
    • The 2018 Call for Proposals of the is now open until March 12. This program, launched by the Embassy of France in the United States and the FACE Foundation, aims to  to encourage cutting-edge, multidisciplinary research projects of the highest quality and especially seeks to support emerging collaborations involving a team of younger researchers. Each selected French-American project will receive up to $20,000 over a period of two years. 
  • Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowships
    • The Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions support researchers at all stages of their careers, regardless of age and nationality. Researchers working across all disciplines are eligible for funding. The MSCA also support cooperation between industry and academia and innovative training to enhance employability and career development.
  • French Innovation Week 2018
    • The 5th Annual event will take place during May 2018 with a variety of events throughout Chicago that showcase the best of French science, technology, innovation, and more.
  • Fulbright Grants for U.S. Citizens
    • The Franco-American Fulbright Commission's US Scholar Program offers grants to US academics, university and college administrators, professionals, and artists to lecture and/or pursue research in France.
  • Erasmus+ - Key Action 1 - Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees

    • Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees (EMJMDs) are international study programmes delivered by a consortium of higher education institutions (HEIs) from different countries and where relevant other partners with specific expertise and interest in the study programme.   

Vallaeys encouraged faculty and staff with questions about finding collaborations in France can contact her at or (312) 327-5237.

The website for her consulate office in Chicago is, and all the opportunities she discussed are available there.

More about the speaker: Tatiana Vallaeys was appointed as attaché for science and technology at the French consulate in September 2017. She is Professor of microbial ecology and biotechnology at the University of Montpellier, France. She holds a HDR (DsC) in Microbial Ecology from the University of Dijon France, a joined PhD degree from the University of Lille (France) and Cardiff (United Kingdom), a master degree in statistics from the Lyon university (France) and a second master in biology –biochemistry from Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, France. She also graduated in Management from IAE Montpellier France. She worked for over 15 years for INRA, the French Agronomic research institute, mainly on bioremediation and spent 5 years at the Institut Pasteur working on a NIH funded project to develop multipathogen screening techniques in biological fluids and aqueous environments.