blog posts Building back a tiny piece of prairie Nov 15, 2021 8:00 am760 views Early November may not be an optimal time to visit a tallgrass prairie in central Illinois. But if you know what to look for, as my two guides do, it’s as good a time as any. Despite recent heavy rains, the prairie looks as dry as a skull. Grass and flower stalks rattle in the cold breeze, and each plant appears to sport its own special array of desiccated seeds, leaves and flower heads. The ground is still damp but the tops of the plants are crispy. I’m here with Fred Delcomyn and James Ellis, the authors of “A Backyard Prairie,” a book about Fred and Nancy Delcomyn’s personal project, a 3-acre swath of prairie that they began installing near their home in 2003 and have nurtured ever since. Staging a threatening encounter at a blackbird nest Oct 7, 2021 8:15 am527 views It’s early morning, about 6 a.m. A light fog has settled over the marsh. I park my car, step out and double-check my backpack for all the necessary equipment before heading out. After a short walk on a narrow paved path, I veer into the unmarked marsh. I’m here to study how red-winged blackbirds respond to the vocalizations that signal nearby nest parasites called brown-headed cowbirds. Exploring the remnants of an ancient forest Sep 2, 2021 8:00 am1240 views At first glance, Trelease Woods looks like any other central Illinois woodland. There’s a well-worn track inside its fenced eastern edge, and the forest floor is littered with twigs and branches. But as I walk along the path with my companions, I notice that some of the trees are bigger than any I’ve seen in this area. Hunting a creature that hunts me Aug 20, 2021 8:00 am1670 views It’s a sweltering summer afternoon. I’m pushing aside tree limbs and crunching leaves to get back to the trap that I baited two hours ago with dry ice to attract ticks. When I get closer, I can see a gossamer mist hovering over a bright white cloth in the dark underbrush. Dry ice “sublimates” in the open air, going from a solid to a gaseous state. It gives off a vapor of carbon dioxide gas that’s denser than the air, mimicking the breath of a tick host resting on the ground. In pursuit of Indiana bats Jun 22, 2021 8:00 am702 views An hour before the sun goes down, my colleagues and I arrive at our site: a human-made pond in the middle of the forest. The high-pitched croaking of Cope's gray treefrogs greets us as we get out of our truck. Surrounded by trees and full of salamanders, these ponds are an essential water resource for our forest-dependent bats. We do a brief survey of the site, then set up our mist nets around the pond’s perimeter. We’re hoping to catch our target species – the Indiana bat, Myotis sodalis. Taking a cicada road trip May 27, 2021 8:00 am1184 views CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – A tough semester and an even tougher year have just ended. I need a break. I’m fully vaccinated and want to escape the yearlong lockdown. And I’m an entomologist. What do I do? I grab my best friend, also an entomologist, and we hit the road, of course. This is the year of my people’s “Woodstock.” Catching bats for conservation May 18, 2021 8:00 am624 views The sun just dipped below the horizon and the warm early spring air mixes with the stone-chilled currents flowing out of the mine entrances. The nets are all hung and now we are just waiting for the bats to show up. This is my first mist-netting trip, but I have been warned this will not be a typical experience. Pondering a university's ecological impact Apr 22, 2021 8:00 am716 views Earth Day has one science writer pondering how much research conducted at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has direct ecological implications. Connecting a virus to cancer – in sea lions Mar 31, 2021 8:00 am464 views I distinctly remember the first day I saw the images proving our hypothesis about the connection between a herpesvirus and urogenital cancer in wild California sea lions. Our research team was the first to use a revolutionary technique to probe preserved cancerous tissue from marine mammals as we looked for signals of specific viral genes. And we found them: Wherever there was tumor, there also was a strong signal of multiple cancer-promoting viral genes, called oncogenes. There were no viral genes in the adjacent cancer-free tissue. This meant that the virus clearly played a role in cancer development and was not merely a bystander in the animals’ reproductive tracts. Hunting Goodenough Days Nov 30, 2020 9:15 am525 views HUNTING GOODENOUGH DAYS aptly describes what I am doing during the isolation of 2020. These words are surnames found among the 7,000 headstones that I have photographed during my travels to cemeteries seeking new names that are parts of speech – words that I can use to create poetry for my visual books that investigate language, history and life’s events. Adjusting to these 'ever-changing times' Nov 24, 2020 8:00 am807 views My mask keeps my face warm as I make my way to the Wildlife Veterinary Epidemiology Laboratory this cold November morning. Campus is starting to empty out as students leave for the holidays. However, with cases of COVID-19 increasing again, many students may not return until next semester and many others will be isolating in their homes. Back in March, I worked remotely when the pandemic shut campus down, and since early summer, I have been working in person again. After the holidays pass, I hope we won’t have to give up our time in the laboratory to do virtual work alone. Finding one elusive bird Oct 16, 2020 8:15 am966 views It’s hot and my shirt is sticking to my back. I part scrubby marsh vegetation with one hand and shield my face with the other. Hiking along the margins of Illinois’ only open-water quaking bog, I’m carrying five liters of swamp water in bottles in my backpack, my samples sloshing with each step. Collecting wetland water samples is far from glamorous. My feet are wet, my legs caked in mud, and I frequently swat at hordes of mosquitoes as I hike, sometimes with as much as 10 liters of water in my pack. I’m not interested in the water; rather, if all goes well, I will find my samples contain the DNA of mysterious marsh birds, called rails, that breed and migrate through Illinois wetlands. Unearthing a fossorial snake Oct 12, 2020 9:00 am1555 views To the naked eye, it might appear as though I’m standing in a prairie oasis. Pockets of bright yellow goldenrod bring vibrancy to the sea of towering grasses. There’s not a soul in sight to spoil the serenity. A lone red-tailed hawk scouring the landscape from the top of a dead oak tree is my only companion. It’s not hard to imagine the entire region looking like this prior to European settlement, expanding miles and miles without interruption. I made the two-hour drive from Champaign to this tiny, fragmented prairie to search for an uncommon snake. Celebrating our diversity Sep 28, 2020 8:15 am1092 views NOTE: This post describes events prior to the coronavirus epidemic. It is snowing again, and I turn to look through the bus window as it slowly pulls into the final stop. I hide my face in my scarf, hoping to stop the cold air sneaking in. It has been almost six years since I moved to the Midwest from Taiwan, but I still cannot deal with winter and snow. Once off the bus, I follow footprints to the Wildlife Veterinary Epidemiology Laboratory and push open the glass door. Following the sounds of prairie cicadas Sep 24, 2020 9:30 am792 views When I arrive at the Loda Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve, Katie Dana is already out there. She’s wearing knee-high boots to ward off chiggers and ticks, and she’s carrying an insect net. Dana is on the prowl for cicadas: the loudest insects on the planet. On this hot summer day, they do not disappoint. The males are in full chorus. Gathering data to save a rare turtle Aug 13, 2020 9:00 am1313 views We are never more conscious of the summer sun than while struggling to unpack a trap full of turtles, watching with resignation as the wind slowly drags us and our kayak across the marsh. We are in Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, about 50 miles southwest of Chicago. We visit these wetlands two weeks per month during the field season, which runs from May to October. Building a prairie and watching for bees Aug 6, 2020 8:30 am1234 views It’s early evening as I follow the researchers to their work site on the Phillips Tract, just east of Urbana. When we get there, I immediately notice two things: We are standing in a vast grid of prairie plots with neatly mowed paths between them, and there are tents – dozens of dollhouse-sized tents. Two years ago, entomology professor Alexandra Harmon-Threatt built this outdoor laboratory by planting more than 80 prairie species here, most of them flowering plants. Her mission is to attract wild ground-nesting bees. She is here to see which bees are showing up and how they’re doing. But that’s not all she’s after. Chasing bumble bees on a patch of prairie Jul 20, 2020 1:30 pm3643 views It’s hot and the key to the gate doesn’t work. Heavy clouds hover to the north and east, and a distant rumble warns of potential rain.“Looks like you’re going to get the full prairie experience,” Tommy McElrath says. To our right is Trelease Woods, a remnant 65-acre patch of old-growth forest owned by the University of Illinois. To the left, a slice of restored prairie. We’re here to get a glimpse of what’s left of the 18 species of bumble bees recorded here in decades past. Grace and healing: Parkinson's dance class opens pathways to body and mind Jun 12, 2020 8:15 am1864 views Laughter ripples across the dance floor. Bodies bend in an arc. For some, that arc is much less pronounced, but that’s not important. Any expansion of movement is a celebration for these dancers – they have Parkinson’s disease. This is a session of Dance for People with Parkinson’s, a tradition for more than 10 years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rediscovering a path to the Milky Way May 6, 2020 8:15 am2246 views We’re standing on a roadside at the edge of a muddy expanse. I’m wearing rubber boots, but Tim Pauketat is going to get his feet wet. He left his waterproof boots in Indiana, but this won’t stop him from tromping out into the soggy, overgrown remains of the ancient city of Cahokia. Dehydrating plant proteins at the speed of sound Apr 17, 2020 1:15 pm1196 views Food scientists at the University of Illinois devised an energy-efficient, cost-effective method for drying plant proteins using high-frequency ultrasound. Rohit Bhargava: My path to Illinois Apr 9, 2020 8:15 am2176 views I grew up in Jaipur, India, a city that is well-known for its architecture. My father is an architect, and I grew up helping him, looking at plans and making blueprints. I was always interested in building things. Will Schneider: My path to Illinois Apr 6, 2020 9:00 am772 views Social work professor Will Schneider examines trends in child maltreatment and suggests that interventions for child neglect overlook the most likely cause. Patrick Earl Hammie: My path to Illinois Apr 2, 2020 8:45 am1242 views Patrick Earl Hammie is a professor of painting and sculpture whose work explores the body in visual culture, black experiences, cultural identity and family. Teresa Cardador: My path to Illinois Mar 30, 2020 9:00 am932 views The concept of “meaningful work” isn’t something that’s found or discovered. It’s created over time through people and organizations with similar values to create meaning over time, said U. of I. labor expert Teresa Cardador in a presentation to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. Girish Chowdhary: My path to Illinois Mar 26, 2020 8:00 am2662 views I was born in Mumbai, India, to parents who worked full-time. My mother, who was the first woman to work as an officer in the Maharashtra Civil Services, came in at a time when parental leave did not exist. Because of this, I spent my early years with my grandparents in Kumta, India. My grandfather was a university physics professor and instilled in me an interest and respect for science – particularly astrophysics. Esther Ngumbi: My path to Illinois Mar 23, 2020 8:00 am2814 views I grew up on the Kenyan coast, in a town called Mabafweni, in Kwale County. My parents were teachers, but their income was not enough to sustain us and send us to school. So, we also farmed. I got up early every day to work on the farm before school. When I was a young person working on my family farm, I saw every year that halfway through the growing season, insects would come and take away much of our food. And then drought would come and take much of what was left. This had a big influence on me. Building trust in a market for women vendors Feb 13, 2020 8:15 am369 views This market street, like many others in the city, bustles with activity on a cold December morning as men and women set up shops on the sidewalks for the rest of the day. But something sets this market apart from the rest. This Sunday market is a mahila bazaar, a retail zone set aside for women vendors only. Reading history in the soil Jan 28, 2020 8:30 am598 views “Huh.” Looking down at the material in the glass beaker, I’m perplexed. I’m trying to determine the ratio of silt to clay in my sample and something isn’t right. The sediments in my beaker came from the floor of a religious shrine in Cahokia, an ancient Native American metropolis that grew up in and around present-day St. Louis, 900-1,000 years ago. Finding clarity in the fog Dec 16, 2019 8:15 am638 views My hypothesis about how to improve wind-turbine efficiency arose unexpectedly one day as I was driving to Chicago to visit my fiancée. For some reason, my GPS chose to take me off the main highway and onto country roads, and I found myself traveling through a wind farm. It was a lucky coincidence: A thick mist lay on the horizon and, thanks to the fog, I could see the turbulence fields each turbine generated in its wake. Finding time for play Dec 5, 2019 8:15 am924 views Before I step into the classroom, I hear children’s voices and feel the energy these five- and six-year-olds radiate. Once inside, I see bins of materials strewn about – a scene of organized chaos. The bins are full of toys, blocks, interactive cards, game pieces and other materials meant to develop the children’s fine motor skills and enhance their engagement with words and numbers. But I am keenly aware of a worrisome trend in classrooms like this one: They are devoting more time and attention to teaching academic content, thus reducing the time for play. Research suggests that the downward trend in time for play, coupled with growing stressors, could have negative implications for children’s mental health and, in turn, their long-term outcomes. Surviving a football frenzy Nov 15, 2019 8:00 am6080 views Thirty-one. That’s the number the Illinois football coaching staff writes on the white board for the players to see. Many of the fans filing into Memorial Stadium today know this number, as well. Thirty-one is the number of points by which pundits predict Illinois will lose to Wisconsin. That’s a tough number. Doesn’t matter. My job as a university photographer is to tell the Illini story. There is always plenty to capture and celebrate. The weather is spectacular. It is Homecoming. Illinois has been competitive against some tough foes. I can work with that. Weighing bears, corralling otters and healing wild beasts Sep 30, 2019 8:15 am2194 views How do you weigh a fully grown American black bear? These veterinary medicine students know the answer, and it's a bit more complicated than just saying, "very carefully." Measuring the unseen life of a river Sep 24, 2019 8:00 am576 views It’s morning on the bayou. I’m in the Calcascieu River at the Fort Polk Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana, and the river is teeming with life. The bank is littered with freshwater mussel shells, no doubt a feast for a raccoon last night. Cricket frogs bounce around at my feet as if loaded with tiny coiled springs. Bringing yesterday's plants to digital life Jul 31, 2019 8:30 am961 views It’s about 65 degrees Fahrenheit in the herbarium, and the archival paper on which the plant specimen is mounted feels soft between my cold fingers. My hands are instantly warmed as I place the sheet in the light box. I check the computer monitor; everything looks good. I hit the spacebar. Tracking an invisible world Jul 22, 2019 8:30 am979 views It’s 2 a.m. on a cold winter night. My timer beeps loudly, waking me up for yet another measurement. It’s been a long day; I’ve been tracking bacterial growth every two hours for the past 18 hours. I stumble off the couch that has served as a bed for countless graduate students before me. I go to my lab bench, pick up the test tubes that I need for my samples, and groggily set off to the incubation room. Extracting history from a cornfield Jul 17, 2019 12:30 pm6318 views When I get to the archaeological site, I’m surprised to see that it’s in the middle of an active cornfield. Dusty furrows with tiny sprigs of corn come to within about 10 feet of the dig. The researchers are already here, gently peeling back their tarps, assembling their gear and getting ready for another day. The tarps cover the excavation of one of about two dozen dwellings that stood on this site roughly 800 years ago. A short distance away, another team works on a second house. Govindjee's photosynthesis museum Jul 9, 2019 8:30 am4020 views I am in Govindjee’s office suite and I don’t know where to look. Govindjee, a professor emeritus of plant biology who goes by the one name only, is a collector. There are layers of history here: artifacts and papers, books and photographs. There also are homemade scientific instruments that look like plumbing elbows, tiny satellites or props from vintage sci-fi movies. Interweaving technology and tradition Jun 19, 2019 9:00 am519 views The MakerBot on my desk is making sounds like waves on a beach. Back and forth, back and forth, it gradually builds up my design in layers. My work focuses on the cosmogony and mythology of Zapotecan motifs. I am especially captivated by the fretwork designs of the archaeological site of Mitla, Oaxaca in Mexico. Discovering treasures in Library’s storage vaults May 30, 2019 9:00 am1968 views The University Library’s Oak Street Library Facility stores more than 4 million volumes in climate-controlled storage vaults. Preserving the Past in 3D Mar 7, 2019 8:15 am1628 views We lug heavy equipment up a steep ravine in the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. A local landowner leads our team of archaeologists past a small waterfall up to the top of the bluff, where two rock shelters contain a number of ancient petroglyphs. Building an orchestra of brass Feb 20, 2019 11:00 am734 views Everything is chaos. We don’t have all our music. We don’t have a permanent rehearsal space. I’ve never had my own ensemble before. Everything is unfamiliar, and everything has come together much more last-minute than I had hoped for. But for this first-ever rehearsal of the University of Illinois Saxophone Ensemble we all share one thing – excitement. Destination: Conservation Feb 12, 2019 8:15 am599 views I’m soaking wet from head to toe after walking through a mile of head-high dew-covered grass. Finally, I make it to my destination: an overgrown field dotted with copses of shrubs next to the Spoon River in western Illinois. I take the caps off of my binoculars. I’ve got my clipboard, a new data sheet and the stopwatch app on my phone ready to go. For the next 10 minutes, I will make a note of every bird I see or hear (mostly hear), recording its species and estimating how far away from me it is. Highlights for the season Dec 20, 2018 12:00 pm749 views The Rare Book and Manuscript Library collection includes holiday- and winter-themed books and images, such as photographs of snowflakes, a depiction of a 1683 frost fair on a frozen River Thames and illustrations of Norse folk tales. Saving our natural heritage, one stopper at a time Dec 12, 2018 9:00 am1002 views 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. Finding darters where no one thought to look Nov 29, 2018 11:15 am1686 views “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. Saying goodbye to an old measure Nov 16, 2018 12:30 pm930 views 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. Excavating a cave without leaving campus Nov 14, 2018 8:30 am1723 views 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. Finding water closer to home Oct 10, 2018 8:00 am737 views 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!” Deciphering the history of a Chinese vase Oct 1, 2018 8:45 am1643 views 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.