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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.

ACES hosts international perspectives seminar for Illinois Agricultural Leadership Program

Published February 21, 2018

Twenty-nine emerging leaders in Illinois agriculture visited the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) on February 8-9, 2018, to gain an international perspective on agricultural policies and regulations as part of the Illinois Agricultural Leadership Program (IALP).

The ACES Office of International Programs (OIP) coordinated a diverse and knowledgeable line-up of speakers for the attendees, who are members of the IALP Class of 2018. The two-day program focused on the culture, economy, agriculture, and political issues in Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Taiwan, where the group will travel as part of their curriculum.

The seminar participants were welcomed by Dean Kimberlee Kidwell and enjoyed presentations on relevant topics presented by ACES faculty: 

Farm and Trade Policy Discussion by Dr. Jonathan Coppess, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics

Economic Implications of Agricultural Transformation Abroad by Dr. Alex Winter-Nelson, Professor, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics and Director, Office of International Programs

Managing the Changing Mekong Delta Landscape in Vietnam by Dr. Ken Olson, Professor Emeritus, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences

The program also included cultural presentations on the focus countries and tips for healthy and safe international business travel:

3,000 Kilometers of History from Coast to Coast by Ly Dinh, Graduate Student from VietNam

China’s Impact on Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Taiwan via Skype by Damien Ma, Fellow and Associate Director, Think Tank, Paulson Institute

Tips for International Business Travel – Health & Safety by Andrew Collum, Associate Director, Safety and Security, Illinois International Programs

Current Issues Facing Pork Value Chains in Vietnam: Findings from the PigRisk study via Skype by Dr. Karl M. Rich, Principal Scientist - Policy, Impact, & Value Chains, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)-Hanoi, Vietnam

Agriculture in China and the Southeast Asia Region by Mark Frank, PhD Candidate, Department of History

Discover Taiwan: The Heart of Asia by Philip Kuo, Graduate Student from Taiwan

How to Win Friends & Influence People in Greater China by Dr. Jeff Martin, Professor, Department of Anthropology

Economic & Cultural Overview – Taiwan by Robert Chang, Director, Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Chicago and David Dong, Education Division Director, Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Chicago

The attendees left with a greater international understanding that will be beneficial for their careers and for the future of agriculture in Illinois.  

The IALP ( is a non-profit educational corporation that recognizes the need for strong agricultural leadership and serves to develop knowledgeable and effective spokespersons to become policy and decision makers for the agricultural industry. This seminar was endowed by Ron and Melanie Warfield.

De Mejia named director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I

Published February 21, 2018
Dr. Elvira de Mejia

URBANA, Ill. - Elvira de Mejia has been named as the director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences (DNS) at the University of Illinois.

Dr. de Mejia has over 15 years of experience as a faculty member in the U of I Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and DNS. She has almost 10 years of experience as interim assistant dean for the College of ACES Office of Research, where she has led the Research Academy and the ACES Summer Internship Program.

“Dr. de Mejia brings a wealth of experience in research, teaching, administration, international cooperation, internal and external interdisciplinary collaborations, industry relations, and interdepartmental programs,” says Kim Kidwell, dean of the College of ACES. “Her experiences will bring significant value to the Division of Nutritional Sciences for achieving its mission of providing an exceptional interdisciplinary graduate program through innovation, education, and discovery.”

German Bollero, associate dean for research in the College of ACES adds, “Dr. de Mejia is passionate about graduate education and will provide DNS with a new perspective for enhancing its research portfolio.”

DNS, housed in the College of ACES provides comprehensive and progressive graduate education in nutrition and serves as a catalyst for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary nutrition research. Today, DNS faculty represent 17 departments and nine  colleges or schools on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Illinois at Chicago campuses.


Differences in white mold behavior on soybeans in U.S. and Brazil revealed in new study

Published February 20, 2018
white mold
white mold on soybean pod

URBANA, Ill. – The fungus that causes white mold on soybeans and other crops behaves differently in the United States and Brazil, according to a new study completed at the University of Illinois.

“White mold, also known as Sclerotinia stem rot, occurs worldwide, and the pathogen attacks and causes disease in many different crops. In the U.S., the fungus needs a cold period like winter before it can produce microscopic spores that infect soybean flowers in the summer. But in Brazil, the fungus does not need a cold period to produce spores,” says Glen Hartman, a USDA Agricultural Research Service research plant pathologist and professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois.

There is concern that if Brazilian strains were imported or if U.S. strains became adapted to warmer temperatures, southern soybean farmers in the U.S. could face the disease. Due to its prevalence in the north-central region, white mold is often listed as one of the top ten soybean diseases in the country, and can result in significant yield losses.

To validate observations from the field, Hartman and his team conducted laboratory tests to evaluate the ability of U.S. and Brazilian fungal strains to cause symptoms on soybeans, common beans, and canola plants with and without the fungus being exposed to cold temperatures beforehand.   

Brazilian strains produced spores and infected plants without exposure to cold, but U.S. strains did not. “Brazilian isolates formed spores right away,” Hartman says.

The researchers wondered if the Brazilian strains were also better adapted to heat than U.S. strains, but they weren’t. All strains, regardless of their origin, were more likely to produce spores at a pleasant 68 degrees Fahrenheit than at 86.

The result may be good news for southern soybean farmers where the summer soybean season routinely reaches high temperatures. But Hartman notes that a few isolated outbreaks have been documented south of its usual area, in the St. Louis, Missouri, area and in Kentucky.

“That outbreak in Kentucky is kind of curious. I think that’s the furthest south we’ve ever seen it in the U.S. in a summer crop,” he says. “If that happened once, can it keep going? We don’t know, but it’s out there.”

The article, “Mycelial growth, pathogenicity, aggressiveness and apothecial development of Sclerotinia sclerotiorum isolates from Brazil and the United States in contrasting temperature regimes,” is published in Summa Phytopathologica. Researchers from Embrapa Soja in Brazil, Agricen Sciences, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U of I contributed to the study.