blog navigation

Behind the Scenes

blog posts

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Basketball and other sports give Malaysian high school students a chance to test their language and athletic skills.

    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 new exhibit includes the upper torso and head of a red goddess sculpture, carved from stone and found buried at the ancient American Indian city of Cahokia. Note the serpent wrapped around her head. This artifact dates to the 12th century.

    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. 

  • U. of I. students did some experiential learning in the Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks this June in a course on the politics and other issues surrounding national parks. Here the class relaxes before a campfire dinner and discussion.

    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.

  • 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."

  • Michael Jeffords found himself in a bit of trouble while photographing musk thistle in western Illinois.

    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.

  • A group of University of Illinois students spent two weeks in June in the Greater Yellowstone area, learning through on-site experience about the politics and other issues surrounding national parks. Here's the class on its first day in Grand Teton National Park.

    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

  • A pied-billed grebe, a bird that is built for swimming, not walking, scoots up a mud bank to catch an earthworm, a hunting behavior never before described in the scientific literature.

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

     

  • The road to Ojos del Salado is beautiful and harsh.

    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 - 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 - 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 - 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.

  • Acclimatization hikes are necessary before attempting to climb the 22,615-foot Ojos del Salado volcano.

    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 - 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: The child decides

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

  • Nesterenkonia, one of the microbial species used in this petri dish art, has been found in other high-altitude lakes in Argentina.

    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: 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: 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. 

  • llinois Natural History Survey graduate researcher Benjamin Williams follows the activities of ducks migrating along the Wabash River in southeast Illinois. The birds stop at wetlands and other habitats on their way to their summer nesting areas further north.

    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.

  • 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.

     

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

    Illinois Chamber Singers got a taste of Europe this summer.

  • 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.

  • Fulbright grantees set out into the wilderness as part of a team-building exercise in Malaysia.

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • The crew spends an afternoon preparing GPS transmitters with cords that will be tied to turkeys.

    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!

  • 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. 

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • The team shuttles gear across the confluence of two creeks.

    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.

  • 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.

  • Graduate student Jeannie Larmon surveys the landscape before the trek.

    Finding an ancient Maya city in the jungles of Belize

    The jungles of central Belize contain thousands of species of insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, trees and flowers. They also contain ancient Maya cities, some of which remain unknown and unexplored. 

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!”