blog navigation

Behind the Scenes

blog posts

  • Image of Research: Bare Witness

    Deaths from homicides, accidents, disasters or armed conflicts can result in unknown human remains that require identification before further investigation. To identify these remains, an anthropologist can piece together details about a person’s life from their bones. The accuracy of such anthropological methods depends on the diversity of available skeletal research collections, of which there are few around the world. 

  • Poetry inspired by painting

    Poet Janice Harrington wrote her poem "Domino Players, 1943" based on a painting by African-American artist Horace Pippin.

  • Deciphering the history of a Chinese vase

    Scientists are helping determine the age of an antique Chinese porcelain vase in Krannert Art Museum’s collection through an X-ray fluorescence analysis of its paint.

  • Stink bug babies

    While hiking in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, looking for unusual things to photograph, I found a hidden world of newly hatched stink bugs clustered around their empty eggshells.

  • Chasing waterfalls

    MIRI, MALAYSIA — We awake from our post-training slumber at 6:30 a.m. for an activity unlike any of the team-building exercises we have experienced so far. This is only the first week of training for the Fulbright Program here. There are nearly 100 of us on this waterfall hike, braving the rain and humidity together to swim in one of Malaysia’s hidden pools.

  • BLOG: Expedition to the highest lake in the world: Changes in plans

    We thought that the expedition was over. My husband's altitude sickness left only three of us to climb Ojos del Salado, make our way up the mountain in the thin air, find the lake, collect the biological samples and get back down safely. It wasn't feasible. Then we learned something that changed the entire expedition.

  • Aiming for hoops and practicing English

    Saturday afternoons for your typical Malaysian high school student are drastically different than what they’re like in the United States. The overriding emphasis here on government exams and grades often confines these youngsters to hours of extra classes and studying, even on the weekends. One of our jobs as Fulbright English teaching assistants is to try to make learning fun by organizing special camps that promote conversational English. But as we get started, the students seem a bit wary.

  • Symbols of Service

    The Symbols of Service exhibit at the University of Illinois Library tells the stories behind the tattoos of student veterans.

  • Image of Research: Kinetic structures

    As an architecture student, I came across a whole new world of kinetic structures. I learned that almost any form can be given mobility and deployed by calculating its geometry accurately and by strategically selecting the joints to allow rotation.

  • Chamber singers, laughter and schnitzel with music: A few of my favorite things

    Illinois Chamber Singers got a taste of Europe this summer.

  • BLOG: Discovering the bones of Tam Pa Ling

    Tam Pa Ling cave sits at the top of Pa Hang Mountain, in Hua Phan Province, Laos. Every day, we climb the mountain and descend into the cave to dig. The view from outside the cave is spectacular, but its location means that the only equipment that we can use to dig through the wet clay of the cave floor is what we can carry up the mountain.

  • Between wilderness, tourism and civilization

    We spent yesterday in Grand Teton National Park, hiking Cascade Canyon. Today we’re in Jackson, Wyoming, just south of the park and a very different setting

  • Life onboard the research boat

    Given the confining nature of our vessel, many routines that require no thought or preparation in our everyday lives become chores on the boat.

  • Maya Rituals Unearthed

    Deep in the untamed lowlands, we search for artifacts buried under hundreds of years of sediment. We are excavating two ancient Maya sites nestled in the sacred landscape of Cara Blanca in central Belize. Both date to A.D. 800-900, when prolonged and severe droughts struck this region, disrupting the daily life of the Maya.

  • From pythons and ferrets to coughing parrots: Adventures in exotic animal medicine

    Working with exotic animals in the Small Animal Clinic involves a lot of thinking on my feet. Each type of animal comes with unique needs and challenges. Parrots often have nutritional deficiencies and, like humans, can develop atherosclerosis – the result of a poor diet and too much sedentary time. (We sometimes refer to them as “perch potatoes.”) Reptiles and mammals tend to develop fungal infections on their skin. Birds, snakes and mammals need stimulation and like to explore – with sometimes tragic results.

  • Pet burials blur the line between human and animal rites

    A new book by anthropology professor Jane Desmond explores humans’ complex relationships with other animals.

  • A night in grizzly country

    We spent last night in Yellowstone’s backcountry, at Grebe Lake, a lovely lake at the base of the Washburn Range. For most of the students, this was their first experience backpacking: carrying a tent, sleeping bag and food into the backcountry. They had to learn a few new skills, like how to hang food from a bear pole. Some also had to adjust emotionally to the idea of sleeping in the middle of grizzly country.

  • Preserving a fragile history

    I drive slowly over the hilly terrain in Fossil Basin and park near the remnants of an old campsite. In the 1950s and early 1960s, botanist Herman Becker camped here and collected fossil insects and plants from the Renova Formation’s paper shales. We are the first, since Becker, to explore this fossil bed. Our work begins where his left off.

  • BLOG: Expedition to the highest lake in the world: Expect the unexpected

    You may think that mountain expeditions are all about action, but in fact there's a lot more time spent sitting around. Plans may be perfect, but obstacles arise. The weather is unexpectedly cold, the ice on the lake is too thick, the snow on the mountain is melting much later in the season than normal.

  • Healing Peter with T-shirts and silver

    As a veterinary dermatologist, I see my share of unusual cases. I’ve treated a cheetah with dental disease, an itchy wallaroo, an alpaca with allergies and an alligator snapping turtle with an obstructed throat. But infections in dogs, cats and other critters can be among the most difficult conditions to treat.

  • Learning from the Lenca

    The warmth of the cookstove fire belies the blustery wind outside, whipping through the pines and occasionally lifting the corrugated steel roof under which we sit uneasily. I am with my volunteer interpreter/research assistant/daughter, sitting at a small wooden table in the kitchen. We are in Llano Largo, the highest point in Central America and also the client community of my course in international water-system design, Honduras Water Project.

  • Serpents of the Badlands

    Tchk-tchk-tchktchk

    I stop dead in my tracks. Despite the howling prairie winds, that unmistakable sound cuts through the bluster and into my ears. My eyes search the ground, scanning through the prairie grasses, yucca, scoria and prickly pear. Nothing.

  • Rocks, moss and muddy tree roots

    It’s a summer day in June, and as my husband and I approach the Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitor center, I have one goal in mind: I want to see something extraordinary. At my request, the ranger at the visitor center pulls out a map, smiles and immediately points to the tallest waterfall in the area: Ramsey Cascades. Getting there will require hiking a rugged 8-mile trail that gains 2,200 feet in elevation. Our reward: a 100-foot waterfall – something you won’t find in Illinois.

  • Tracking a forest’s recovery one year after storm

    We walk out of the typical southern Illinois shady forest into a crazy jumble of fallen trees, thorny vines and tangled shrubs. It’s almost 100 degrees, the humidity is over 85 percent and all of the shade has disappeared. My lab mate and her undergraduate technician volunteered to work with me today, and I wonder what I’ve gotten them into.

  • BLOG: Expedition to the highest lake in the world - DAY 1

    MENDOZA, ARGENTINA -- We arrived in Mendoza, Argentina today and tomorrow we are going on our first trek: up from 2,080 meters to 2700 meters on Mount Mihlo, outside of Mendoza. This will begin the acclimatization process for us. 

  • Saving our natural heritage, one stopper at a time

    The rubber stopper is sticky in my hands. I can see it drooping into the vial, threatening the two tiny insect specimens inside, a pair of small green stoneflies, Alloperla furcula. Vial stoppers should not be sticky, and definitely should not be melting into the glass vial holding these important reference specimens. I have to save them from total annihilation.

  • Turkey tango

    During one late October visit to the Mermet Lake Conservation Area in southern Illinois, I noticed a shape approaching from the distance. The day was windy and wet, and my first thought was that a stray garbage can was rolling down the road. As we drove closer, the black-and-white blob resolved into a pair of yearling turkeys (called “jakes”) involved in a tussle.

  • In search of ‘white birds in a nest’

    It’s summer in the Florida Panhandle, and we are either drenched in rain or covered in sweat. The mosquitoes are out in full force, and the risk of stumbling upon a venomous snake in the seepage slope and swamps is palpable. If I can look beyond the immediate discomfort, the payoff is enormous.

  • Playing a parasite for science

    It’s 5:30 a.m. in the tree farms outside Urbana, but the birds have been up for an hour already. I sip my coffee, putting on rubber boots that will be little help against the dewy, waist-high grass. A couple of brown birds sit on telephone wires above me, and I have a feeling I am being watched. These are brown-headed cowbirds, which lay their eggs in other species’ nests and then let the nest’s owners raise the offspring.

  • Searching for an ancient Maya pilgrimage path: Fire and water

    It is our final day in the field and we are searching for the last of the ancient Maya ceremonial pools, Pool 25. Mud sucks at our boots as we wade through a jungle swamp. The sap from black poisonwood trees (Metopium brownie) burns our skin. Spike-covered trees snag us, while others swarm with ants. The grassland around this last pool should be a welcome relief.

    At the edge of the jungle, however, we are met with cutting grass, aptly named for its razor-sharp edges, rising well above our heads. The knee-deep water hides holes that catch us unaware.

  • Finding water closer to home

    It is just past noon as Zuze Dulanya, Evance Mwathunga and I climb out of the van. The shiny new handpump for Jimu Village sits where just last week a drill rig bored the hole for this much needed, much anticipated new water source. Beneath a nearby row of sweet gum trees, two long benches surround a lone, red-cushioned side chair.

    “Ha!” Zuze says. “We know who will be getting the hot seat today!”

  • Tourists behaving badly

    So far this year, Yellowstone has seen a record number of visitors – and what seems to be a record number of visitors disobeying the rules.

  • Blog: Expedition to the highest lake in the world: The child decides

    El Nino stops many – but not all – climbers from scaling Ojos del Salado in 2016

  • Beautiful Musk

    One summer day, just outside of East St. Louis, I drove by a wheat field ready for harvest. The low afternoon light cast a beautiful glow, and I was struck by a lone thistle growing amidst the wheat. I stopped my university vehicle with the official state seal on the side, set up my tripod and was busy photographing. I stopped only when I heard an ominous double click to my right. I am not a hunter, but I knew the sound of the hammers being drawn back on a double-barreled shotgun.

  • BLOG: Expedition to the highest lake in the world - on the road

    IN TRANSIT – One of the reasons I felt comfortable joining this expedition was the attitude of the expedition leader, Francisco Seufferheld. He made it abundantly clear that this was to be a positive experience and that we were not to become so driven to reach the goal that we forgot to stay safe and have fun.

    It’s a good thing, too, because we will have to overcome a lot of obstacles to make it to the lake at the top of the volcano. The altitude is the most formidable challenge, but there are others.

  • Double the traps, double the turkeys

    I scan the woods around me, carefully eyeing the tree-line through the darkened windows on each side of my blind. I see no turkeys and go back to reading my book. After a few pages, I glance up again and jump in surprise as turkeys emerge over a hill in the field to my right. They are about 40 feet from the Netblaster. I text my crew to let them know our prey has arrived!

  • Mitzi and the giant hairball

    Mitzi is a longtime survivor of lymphoma. It’s been five years since her last chemotherapy treatment, but she has been vomiting and her owners are afraid the cancer is back. Her stomach feels very weird – kind of doughy, like there is a big lump of bread in there. That’s not how tumors feel; tumors are usually firm. The X-rays reveal a mass, but it looks like strange material in her stomach. We decide to go in with an endoscope.

  • Titan the survivor

    The first time I see Titan, a pit bull with mesothelioma in his chest, I give his owners “the talk.” The dog is breathing hard and fast because of the buildup of cancerous fluid around his lungs. Dogs develop some cancers that are very similar to human cancers. This is one that we don’t see very often and for which we don’t have really good treatment options, just like in humans. We eventually learn, however, that Titan is unique.

  • BLOG: Expedition to the highest lake in the world - Climbing higher

    VALLECITOS, ARGENTINA - Mount Franke is a giant rock pile. Some of the rocks are attached to the mountain. Many, many others are not. The loose rocks are engaged in slow tumble down the mountainside. Hikers often help them along.

  • Saying goodbye to an old measure

    I'm video recording on three DSLR cameras today, which is the most I can handle by myself. But I don't want to miss a second of this event, because I flew to Paris the day before yesterday just to film this auditorium of international delegates. These serious-looking men and women are actually very excited. I know that because several of them have told me so. In a few minutes, they will cast their nation's vote on whether to accept the proposed redefinition of the kilogram.

  • Searching for an ancient Maya pilgrimage path: The elusive pools

    CARA BLANCA, Belize — Armed with a compass, a map, a GPS device and a drone, we begin our exploratory trek through the jungle. The thick vegetation is no match for our team of eight, six of whom are quick with a machete.  Four hours after circumventing towering hardwoods and hacking our way through spidery vines, massive palm fronds and dense fern bushes, we stand at the edge of Pool 21, less than a kilometer from the road.

  • The weavers of Tambo Perccaro

    About 70 people are waiting for us in the courtyard of the community center when we arrive. They are llama herders, farmers and weavers. Many have walked for miles to be here, some with small children on their backs. We’re not sure what the community center staff told this crowd to get them to show up, but we’re here, and we’ve got something useful to share.

  • One lucky dog

    The first time we see Elliot, he has a fractured jaw and a bad prognosis. He is a senior rescue dog. The family has only had him for a couple of years, but their 16-year-old daughter has given him his own tiny purple Mohawk hairdo. Clearly, he’s a keeper. The family isn’t sure how Elliot broke his jaw. They say maybe he took a spill off a table. But the dog has such severe dental disease that anything could have caused it.

  • On the campaign trail: Breaking away from the pack

    Journalism professor Charles "Stretch" Ledford describes how he avoids the rules for photojournalists at presidential campaign events, getting a different angle on the people in the crowd.

  • Bringing home the bones of Tam Pa Ling

    Finding a home for the bones of Tam Pa Ling here in the capital city of Laos has special meaning for me.

  • Drawing insights from ancient plants

    I’m sitting near the top of our fossil excavation site in southwest Montana, my hammer and shovel ready. I have a perfect view of the mountains. A wall of fossil-laden shale lies before me, and I’m ready to dig in. This is our fourth day digging, and despite the early hour, I'm trembling with excitement. Today I might find something new, something no human has ever seen.

  • Drought and pilgrimage at the Cara Blanca Pools, Belize

    After driving the winding dirt roads of Yalbac Ranch, we venture for 20 minutes into a steep ravine surrounded by dense jungle. Cicadas sing to us from above as we approach Pool 1, a 60-plus-meter-deep cenote (steep-sided sinkhole fed by groundwater). It is difficult to see the pool at first.  But, as the truck tires grind over loose limestone, making those sitting in the back of the truck bounce, a water temple and the pool appear to emerge from the jungle. Previous VOPA excavations show that 1,300 years ago, Maya came from different regions of the lowlands to this sacred pool. 

  • Searching for turtles in a sea of grass

    Searching for reptiles and amphibians is often quite tedious. You have to carefully scan ahead of each step for movement before a snake gets away, or spend hours flipping over logs to find the particular salamander you are looking for. Today, we’re searching for turtles. Luckily, we have help.

  • Journey to the riverbank and back in time

    I wake up to the sound of the engine running. The cook needs power to begin making breakfast at 4:30 a.m., and the captain begins steering the boat to where we will examine the riverbanks. I get dressed, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and pants tinged with the red of the rocks we have studied – their iron stain is slowly becoming the main color of my wardrobe.

  • Finding darters where no one thought to look

    “Pull off in about a mile and a half,” I tell my colleague Josh Sherwood, an ichthyologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. A minute goes by before he flips on the amber light bar over our heads and pulls the truck into the grass alongside the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, about 60 miles west of Chicago. The ground is littered with trash, broken glass and bits of tire – like any major highway. A few feet away is a small, unnamed stream, barely more than 2 feet wide and less than 6 inches deep.

    “Why would anyone want to sample this site?” I ask myself.