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  • Three men stand in the woods near a depressed track and a fallen tree.

    Exploring the remnants of an ancient forest

    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.

  • Vector ecologist Holly Tuten stands under a tree and buttons up her white coveralls.

    Hunting a creature that hunts me

    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.

  • Gloved hands hold an Indiana bat.

    In pursuit of Indiana bats

    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.

  • Two Brood X adults of the genus Magicicada rest on a fern leaf.

    Taking a cicada road trip

    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.”

     

  • A gloved researcher holds an Eastern red bat, Lasiurus borealis.

    Catching bats for conservation

    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.

  • Young woman sits on a fallen tree in the woods.

    Pondering a university's ecological impact

    Earth Day has one science writer pondering how much research conducted at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has direct ecological implications.

  • Photo of sea lions gathered on the breeding beaches of one of the Channel Islands

    Connecting a virus to cancer – in sea lions

    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.

  • Image of the word "Goodenough" from a gravestone.

    Hunting Goodenough Days

    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.

  • Lupas processes a tissue sample for analysis.

    Adjusting to these 'ever-changing times'

    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.

  • Photo of a wooden boardwalk (with wooden rails) cutting through tall vegetation on either side. The sun rises to the right, casting long shadows on the boardwalk, which doglegs to the left a bit.

    Finding one elusive bird

    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.

  • Scene of wetland with low-growing vegetation and flowers in the foreground, yellowing grasses beyoond that and a line of immature trees in the distance.

    Unearthing a fossorial snake

    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.

  • A heap of thick noodles is topped with a pile of crushed peanuts, scallions and red chili.

    Celebrating our diversity

    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.

     

  • A male M. dorsatus calls loudly from a compass plant flower stem in Loda Cemetery Prairie Nature Reserve.

    Following the sounds of prairie cicadas

    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.

  • Photo of a hand holding a Blanding's turtle that has retreated into its shell.

    Gathering data to save a rare turtle

    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.

  • Entomology professor Alexandra Harmon-Threatt stands in a prairie with a clipboard in her hands. She is wearing a hat, a long-sleeved shirt and a mask. In the background, undergraduate student Sabine Miller carries a bucket of sandbags used to weigh down the tent traps.

    Building a prairie and watching for bees

    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.

  • Tommy McElrath stands in tall prairie and swings his net after a bumble bee.

    Chasing bumble bees on a patch of prairie

    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.

  • Gary Stitt, 61, stretches his arms to the sky as people gather for a Dance for People with Parkinson’s class at Krannert Center.

    Grace and healing: Parkinson's dance class opens pathways to body and mind

    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.

  • “All these native stories talk about what happens when you die: Your soul goes to the edge of the world, jumps into the Milky Way and climbs into the sky,” says Illinois State Archaeological Survey director Timothy Pauketat.

    Rediscovering a path to the Milky Way

    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.

  • The team: Doctoral students Amir Malvandi and Nahla Kreidly, and food science professor Graciela Padua standing in their lab at the Agricultural Engineering Sciences Building.

    Dehydrating plant proteins at the speed of sound

    Food scientists at the University of Illinois devised an energy-efficient, cost-effective method for drying plant proteins using high-frequency ultrasound.

  • Bioengineering professor and Cancer Center at Illinois director Rohit Bhargava

    Rohit Bhargava: My path to Illinois

    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.

  • Photo of social work professor Will Schneider standing with arms crossed in front of the logo at the School of Social Work

    Will Schneider: My path to Illinois

    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

    Patrick Earl Hammie: My path to Illinois

    Patrick Earl Hammie is a professor of painting and sculpture whose work explores the body in visual culture, black experiences, cultural identity and family.

  • Photo of U. of I. labor expert Teresa Cardador

    Teresa Cardador: My path to Illinois

    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.

  • Agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary.

    Girish Chowdhary: My path to Illinois

    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.

  • Entomology professor Esther Ngumbi describes the life events that led her to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    Esther Ngumbi: My path to Illinois

    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.

  • A female vendor in a mahila bazaar in New Delhi stares solemnly at the camera. A young man in the background is looking at the wares of a nearby vendor.

    Building trust in a market for women vendors

    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. 

  • Illinois State Archaeological Survey postdoctoral researcher Rebecca Barzilai maps and collects soil samples from the floor of a religious shrine in Greater Cahokia, an ancient Native American settlement on the Mississippi River in and around present-day St. Louis.

    Reading history in the soil

    “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.

  • Graduate student Lucas Buccafusca looks for ways to improve the efficiency of wind farms. He had a key insight on a foggy day near a wind farm in central Illinois.

    Finding clarity in the fog

    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.

  • Graduate student Mary Lyons studies teachers’ strategies for supporting young children’s play-based learning.

    Finding time for play

    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.

  • Bedlam unfolds as Illinois fans celebrate a major upset victory over heavily favored Wisconsin.

    Surviving a football frenzy

    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. 

  • Veterinary medicine students perform general wellness checks on the animals at Wildlife Prairie Park in Peoria County. Zoological resident Lauren Kane helps guide the students as they examine Molly, an American black bear.

    Weighing bears, corralling otters and healing wild beasts

    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."

  • Researchers can learn about the life of a river without seeing the animals that live there.

    Measuring the unseen life of a river

    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.

  • Serina Taluja scanned thousands of specimens belonging to the Illinois Natural History Survey Herbarium.

    Bringing yesterday's plants to digital life

    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.

  • Sleep-deprived for science: Graduate student Ananya Sen rests briefly on the office couch.

    Tracking an invisible world

    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.

  • Field archaeologists Marie Meizis and Doug Jackson work together to record their data.

    Extracting history from a cornfield

    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.

  • Plant biology professor emeritus Govindjee, who has made key contributions to the scientific understanding of photosynthesis, is also an archivist and historian of photosynthesis research.

    Govindjee's photosynthesis museum

    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.

  • Carrillo-Estrada silver casting

    Interweaving technology and tradition

    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.

  • Image of facility coordinator Jimmy Gonzalez using a lift to shelve books at the top of the stacks.

    Discovering treasures in Library’s storage vaults

    The University Library’s Oak Street Library Facility stores more than 4 million volumes in climate-controlled storage vaults.

  • A limestone boulder with petroglyphs carved into it sits inside a rock shelter with a view toward the Mississippi River floodplain, below. One of the carvings is of a superhuman eye with a cross-in-circle motif at its center.

    Preserving the Past in 3D

    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.

  • The University of Illinois Saxophone Ensemble tackles music never meant for the saxophone.

    Building an orchestra of brass

    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.

  • Illinois Natural History Survey avian ecologist Bryan Reiley looks for rare birds on conservation lands.

    Destination: Conservation

    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

    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.

  • Melting rubber stoppers threaten millions of insect and arthropod specimens in the Illinois Natural History Survey collection.

    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.

  • Scientists are finding Iowa darters in Illinois streams that are too small to map.

    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.

  • The 26th Meeting of the General Congress of Weights and Measures, Versailles, France.

    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.

  • Professors David Huang and Laura Shackelford and their colleagues are designing Virtual Archaeology, a course that will allow students to experience an archaeology field dig without leaving campus.

    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.

  • Everywhere we went in Zomba District, we attracted large crowds of curious kids.

    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!”

  • 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.

  • Postdoctoral researcher Mikus Abolins-Abols peers into the nest of an American robin.

    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.

  • The Valley of Peace Archaeology project team explore an ancient Maya site in central Belize.

    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.