blog navigation

Behind the Scenes

blog posts

  • Exploring the unknown: The Motmot sinkhole

    Our first two days of searching are laden with humidity. Traversing the ridges and ravines of the Cara Blanca hills leaves us drenched in sweat as we ward off heat exhaustion beneath corozo palm leaves.

    Two years ago, during a helicopter reconnaissance over this dense jungle in central Belize, wildlife photographer Tony Rath spotted what is now our target: a cavernous hole overflowing with green vegetation, its edges marked by stark white cliff faces. We tried to reach the sinkhole last year, but our attempts were thwarted by a cliff we could not descend. This year, we’re trying again. This time, we came prepared.

  • Excavating a cave without leaving campus

    I’m in a cave with three identical waterfalls. The roar of water fills my ears as I look around, a little shakily. This is not what I was expecting when I showed up to Davenport Hall for an interview. But when I said, “Yes, I’d love to try out a virtual reality environment,” two students perched a headset on my head, adjusted the earphones and set me loose in this “cave.”

    I can hear anthropology professor Laura Shackelford gently guiding me. I’m aware that I’m in a room with her and the students, but I’m also in a cave, alone.

  • 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. 

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • Coring and Exploring Ancient Maya Life

    It is early May in central Belize, nearing the end of the dry season. While farmers anxiously await the beginning of the rainy season vital for crops, archaeologists hope it starts as late as possible. Tropical storms transform the landscape, making it difficult to get around, even in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Also, excavating in the clayey mud is not fun.

  • 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.

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

    Illinois Chamber Singers got a taste of Europe this summer.

  • Casting a net for conservation, and catching ducks

    I'm sitting in a camouflaged blind when the sun breaks the horizon and lights up the southeast Illinois wetland. Hidden by cattails and other vegetation, I watch my breath and note how cold my feet are despite the thick wool socks and insulated waders I’m wearing.

    A hundred yards away, ducks – most of them mallards or American green-winged teal – begin to drop from the sky to land on the water along the shore, right near my bait.

  • 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.

  • BLOG: Finding a Home for the Bones of Tam Pa Ling

    I am a paleoanthropologist, and with a team of researchers from France and Laos, I have explored the mountains of northern Laos since 2008. We have been looking for evidence of the earliest humans that migrated out of Africa and into Southeast Asia.

    Since 2009, we have excavated at Tam Pa Ling (“Cave of the Monkeys”), where we discovered fossils of the earliest modern humans living in this part of the world. Since then, we have found the bones of at least three people who lived in this cave around 50,000 years ago. Today, these bones will find a permanent home in a new museum in Vientiane.

  • BLOG: Expedition to the highest lake in the world: Timing is everything

    We had finished our acclimatization training. We had arranged for a truck to take us - again - across the vast Catamarca wilderness to base camp of Ojos del Salado. We had recruited two young men with mountaineering experience to join the expedition.

  • BLOG: Expedition to the highest lake in the world: The why

    MENDOZA, ARGENTINA - We head out to Fiambala tomorrow, near the base of Ojos del Salado, the tallest active volcano in the world. We will continue our acclimatization hikes at higher and higher altitudes before beginning our approach on the lake, where we hope to collect microbial samples without contaminating the lake with our own.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • BLOG: Expedition to the highest lake in the world - Day 2

    POTRERILLOS, ARGENTINA - The polar explorer Amundsen hated adventure and worked hard to avoid it. Adventures begin when things go wrong and are a sign of bad planning, he said.

    For us, the adventure began even before we landed in Argentina. One of our five giant duffle bags full of hignored-altitude gear never made it to Mendoza. All of my high altitude gear was in that bag. It took me four months to accumulate that gear.

  • 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. 

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • BLOG: Expedition to the highest lake in the world

    CATAMARCA, ARGENTINA - Early in 2016, a small team will climb Ojos del Salado, the tallest active volcano in the world. Unlike most climbers who tackle this volcano, however, this group has little interest in reaching the summit. Near the end of their trek, they will veer off the summit path to visit a lake that holds something seen nowhere else on Earth at this altitude: liquid water. The team will try to collect soil and water samples from this lake to see what microbes might be living there.

     

  • 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.

  • Bird gets worm, makes history

    It’s a warm April evening, and the air and earth are still heavy with moisture from recent rains. I’m perched on a plastic patio chair on my balcony when something catches my eye. I grab my binoculars and make out the details of a small bird paddling around in a new retention pond. It’s a pied-billed grebe, and it’s acting oddly.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • Backstage at an American musical

    Lighting-design students from the University of Illinois theatre department get a backstage look at the technical aspects of the musical "Hamilton."

  • 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.

  • Ancient American goddesses on display

    A new exhibit at the U. of I.’s Spurlock Museum offers a glimpse of the artistic and spiritual legacy of the American Indian people who built Cahokia, a great, thousand-year-old urban center on the Mississippi River. “Cahokia’s Religion: The Art of Red Goddesses, Black Drink and the Underworld” displays artifacts recently returned from the St. Louis Art Museum, including three of more than a dozen red carved-stone goddesses that the Illinois State Archaeological Survey found in our excavations of this ancient metropolis. You can view these figures alongside other cultural objects that reveal a civilization’s core beliefs and values. 

  • 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.

  • A guide to the Japan House gardens

    Japan House has developed a mobile guide to its gardens, which visitors can listen to on their phones for a self-guided tour.