The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, Sept. 14, 2014

The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, Sept. 14, 2014

Continuing last week's theme, we asked frequent fliers from the University of Illinois: Where's the most interesting place your research has taken you?


School of Architecture

"I can name three places: Shanghai in 2005, Bangkok in 2006 and Washington, D.C., in 2010. My trips to Shanghai and Bangkok were to speak at the World Toilet Organization about my research on gender and family issues in the design of public restrooms.

"Instead of the usual books and journals on display at my typical academic conferences, I saw exhibits of state-of-the-art toilet designs and later purchased one of them for my home in Urbana. I was invited by Jack Sim, president of the WTO, a tour de force and an advocate for 2.6 billion people around the world who lack safe sanitation.

"My trip to Washington was to advocate for potty parity in the USA. I testified before a congressional committee about the need for equal or greater number of toilet fixtures for women in new and newly remodeled federal buildings. It was an experience I'll always remember."


Animal Sciences

"I visited a witch doctor and his family outside of Manguzi, South Africa while working in the KwaZulu-Natal province on a study relating to the protective effects of a traditional corn-based African diet on colorectal cancer risk. A nurse from the local hospital guided us to the remote area and served as an interpreter during our visit.

"We learned after spending several hours with the family that my colleague had locked the keys in the trunk of our rental car. After obtaining the closest thing they had to a clothes hangar, I began to attempt to unlock the door via what used to be a common approach. The witch doctor suddenly took the wire out of my hand and had the door open in only a few minutes. We were very relieved to see his powers at work."



"In 2009, I was invited to Heidelberg, Germany to deliver the keynote address at an international conference on high energy physics. The conference was fascinating, and held in a large auditorium that appeared to be unchanged in 100 years.

"But what I remember the most was sitting at a table during an early evening outdoor reception with several of my colleagues from England, Germany and Spain, listening to them exchange stories about being caught up in different European soccer riots — as fans, not as rioters. I learned that our March Madness isn't really very mad."


Recreation, Sport & Tourism

"My area of research is human-wildlife interaction, so it was a bit serendipitous when I attended a resource management conference in Estes Park, Colo. It's filled to the brim with wildlife, so it was a wonderful place to observe how people and animals — particularly elk — lived side by side.

"Probably my favorite experience came while visiting The Stanley Hotel, most famous for having inspired Stephen King's book 'The Shining.' While no one reported seeing any ghosts, there were occasional screams from nervous visitors who nearly stepped on the grazing elk. Apparently, people were so busy looking for shadows in the hotel, they forgot to look out for the 600-pound animals on the sidewalks."



"I have conducted research and published articles on every major mountain range in the continental U.S. — including the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming and the Sierra Nevada near Reno.

"While they are all heart-stopping beautiful, the most interesting place my work has taken me is the agricultural fields of central Illinois. I really mean it. The great challenges we face as a society and scientifically, in my view, are how we will adapt to rapid changes in the climate system caused by our reliance on carbon-based fuels, and how will we feed a human population well on its way to 9 billion people.

"I've been privileged to be part of research teams working right here that are exploring food security issues in the face of climate change and the efficacy of moving to a bioenergy economy to slow its rate.

"So, if you really mean interesting, I'd have to say South Farm."


Prairie Research Institute

"My answer would have to be: Illinois.

"I have been blessed in my career to have had the chance to explore almost every corner. I fully recognize that we have the reputation of being a corn and soybean desert. I'm sure you've heard people say that, but have they taken a hard look at this state? You have to work a little, but Illinois is home to some of the most beautiful places on earth. Some of it is admittedly geography — the state is so long, what is it, over eight hours north to south? And bounded by the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash, and crossed by the Illinois, Sangamon, Rock and DesPlaines. Illinois is the absolute definition of ecological diversity.

"And the contrasts are stunning — you can walk the boardwalk in Heron Pond one day, swearing you are in the bayous of Louisiana, and the next day be in a Cook County Forest Preserve, surrounded by millions of people. And it isn't just the plants, animals and natural communities; it's also the people — listen to the accents as you travel north to south.

"I don't want you to think I don't get out much. I've been to Mexico, Belize, Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba, all over Europe and to Kenya, but the breadth of scientific questions we can address in a few hours away from Champaign is vast, admittedly because there may be no other place on earth as altered by the hand of man, but that is what makes it a great place for a researcher, and the answers to those questions have tremendous relevance to all the problems facing all those other wonderful places all over the world."


Zoo Pathology

"Back in veterinary school as a student researcher, I studied efficacy of disbursement of oral rabies vaccines to raccoons in Fairfax County, Va. As part of that work, I spent a lot of time driving around northern Virginia asking folks if it would be OK for me to sit in their back yard and watch the raccoons they were feeding — to make sure it was raccoons and not other wildlife getting the vaccines. Not very exotic, but at least not your typical lab work."


Illinois Natural History Survey

"This past year, I went to southern Chile in search of insects for a project involving genomic sequencing. One of the insects, the moss bug, only occurs in southern Chile and New Zealand and, as the name implies, is specialized in living in moss. Moss bugs are possibly the closest relatives of true bugs. They are flightless and their bodies are flattened, with eyes on stalks. Quite the strange creature."



"Some time ago, I was invited by the National Science Foundation to participate in an education and research exchange workshop in Jordan. The purpose was to help the Jordanians innovate more effectively in electrical energy and consider how to expand energy availability and the base of skilled engineers in their country.

"This was soon after the disputed 2000 election, and I was perplexed when a senior university dean in Jordan took the occasion to lecture me on how his country was 'more democratic' than mine.

"During the trip, as we drove down a motorway, we were passed by a small, fast-moving pickup truck with a camel calmly sitting in the truck bed looking at us. I was also served an enormous mansaf meal, a dish that defines hospitality in the desert."



"I suppose everyone has a September 11 story. I was in Oxford, England giving a research talk on the evening of September 10. The talk went pretty well and, feeling a great sense of relief, I decided to skip out on the conference the next day and see the town.

"It was a perfect day and I wandered all over Oxford checking out the beautiful buildings, people watching and thinking what a great place the world can be. It was not until I returned to the residence hall around dinnertime that I heard the news and not until I saw the TV that I could really comprehend it.

"Coincidentally, my ex-wife was also there so our two kids were here in Urbana with an aunt for several anxious days while we were stuck in England. I stayed with friends and so, ironically, it was a great trip for me."


Nutritional Sciences

"Over the past 10 years, I have traveled to several countries in Europe, Asia and South America to give invited presentations or participate in research collaborations. Although the culture was not as different as some, I think the most interesting place my work has taken me was to Waltham on the Wolds, United Kingdom.

"My wife, three daughters, and I lived in Waltham, a small village in the East Midlands, in the fall of 2011 while I was on sabbatical. We were simply known as 'the Americans' and were welcomed and invited to any and all social functions imaginable.

"We not only developed long-lasting friendships and took in the local culture, but had the opportunity to travel to London, Paris and Greece that fall too. Traveling internationally by auto, train, plane and subway with three children under the age of 10 and with luggage made for some long and challenging trips, but provided us with a lot of great experiences and memories."


Landscape Architecture

"After a month of architectural history research in India, my last stop was the small village of Orchha to study its magnificent 17th-century palaces. Orchha is in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, but it is served by bus and train lines across the border in another state.

"I was packed and ready to leave for Delhi to catch my flight to the U.S. the following day, but I forgotten about national elections. I woke that morning to find the state borders closed to all traffic, including taxis, leaving me wondering how to get to Delhi, some 425 kilometers away.

"I took it one step at a time. A motor-rickshaw took me from Orchha to the border, which thankfully the guard let me cross on foot. From there, another motor-rickshaw took me to a checkpoint on the highway. I waited there anxiously for what seemed like hours until I could hop on the back of a crowded military transport vehicle, where my unlikely presence entertained the very young but hospitable soldiers until we reached the bus station.

"Made it back to Delhi late that night owing to the generosity and kindness of many people met along the way."


Veterinary Teaching Hospital

"The Pug National Specialty Show in Warwick, R.I. Our research group studies eye diseases that lead to vision loss, including one very common disease of pugs called pigmentary keratopathy. In 2010, I found myself surrounded by pugs at the biggest pug show in the country collecting data and information about pigmentary keratopathy. I loved being surrounded by fellow pug lovers and so many other people who were truly passionate about pug eye health."


Beckman Institute

"As a research scientist, my work has taught me that it is less important where you go but that you go. I study the positive effects of aerobic fitness and physical activity on the brain and cognition across the lifespan, and our work encourages individuals of all ages to lace up their sneakers and go.

"My favorite place does not require a car ride or plane ticket, only a pair of sneakers. As a fitness enthusiast, I am most productive when I am in motion. I live what I research — my walks, runs, swims and bicycle rides around Champaign-Urbana are my favorite times to brainstorm, read, perform literature searches, draft e-mails and write and edit research papers, as well as to log my personal fitness miles, spend time with my husband and enjoy the spectacular Illinois sunsets."

Only on our website: A dozen more travel tales from faculty at Research U.


Recreation, Sport & Tourism

"The most interesting place my research has taken me is rural regions in the state of Victoria, Australia. I was there to evaluate the efforts of the Commonwealth Games organizers to create social value from the Commonwealth Games (in Melbourne) throughout the state.

"I have lived for many years in Australia, but had not really experienced rural Australia in quite this way before. There is a no-nonsense feel to it — substance over form in a way one does not find elsewhere. That was refreshing."



"In 2003, I was part of a research team conducting a national study of exemplary middle level schools for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Our team visited Freeport Intermediate School, interviewing the principal, teachers, talking with students, and visiting classrooms.

"The principal, Clara Sale-Davis, was an outstanding example of a true learning leader of her school. FIS is a very diverse school in a high-poverty community and was underperforming academically. Through her leadership efforts, Ms. Sale-Davis was able to work with the teachers, parents and students to improve academic performance. Within a few years, student achievement had skyrocketed and the school attained a National Blue Ribbon School Award and other national awards. It was refreshing to see an outstanding, dedicated, enthusiastic leader who placed her students first."


Plant Biology

"The center of the Amazon. I had developed theory as to where the most productive land plants in the world might be found. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) then provided support to collaborate with scientists in the target countries to test out this theory and identify important genetic resources. (It's) important because if we can understand what makes the most productive plants be so productive, we may be able to transfer important properties to crops or mimic those properties in crops.

"One place the theory suggested were the floodplains of the whitewater rivers of the Amazon. What did we do and find? In collaboration with Mai-Te Piedade, a scientist from Brazilian National Institute of Amazonian Research, and Wolfgang Junk, a scientist from the Max Plank Institute of Limnology in Germany, we examined the growth, efficiency of solar energy use, photosynthesis and nutrient use of major grasses of the floodplain at monthly intervals over the annual growth cycle.

"One of these Echinochloa polystachya — creeping river grass — proved especially productive, producing over 100 dry tonnes in one year and an exceptional efficiency of conversion of sunlight energy into biochemical energy. The work was first published in the international journal Ecology in 1991 and, over 20 years later, it remains the highest productivity ever recorded for a land plant."


Atmospheric Sciences

"I have been fortunate to travel to many exotic places researching clouds during the course of my career. Probably the most interesting place was the island of Male in the Republic of the Maldives.

"The Maldives are a small set of atolls located about 400 miles south of Sri Lanka and India. I was there in 1999 on a field project attempting to determine how the emission of pollutants from the Indian subcontinent affected the properties of clouds over the Indian Ocean, the end result of our project being an increased understanding on the role of soot on cloud evolution, a result that directly contributed to an enhanced understanding of global climate.

"I was working with a C-130 Hercules aircraft sponsored by the National Science Foundation, based out of Hulhule Island, which was directly across from the main island of Male. Transport to the airport from the hotel was accomplished by a small boat called a dhoni, the process involving bargaining the cost of the trip each morning.

"I also spent some time at the more remote island of Kashidoo on the northern tip of the Male atoll, where a remote Climate Observing Laboratory had been built. No hotels or restaurants existed on this island so that breakfast; lunch and dinner consisted of tuna curry served in a local house."


Business Administration

"In my work, the most interesting place I have been to has been a small education institute named Laxmi Ashram in Kausani hills in India. I have been there many times on personal visits. Currently, Laxmi Ashram is home to 47 girls, aged from 7 to 20, who study, play, cook, as well as farm and do everything else that is required in order to be self-sufficient. The Ashram was started by Sarla Behn, an associate of Gandhi, in 1946 with six local girls. The ashram not only provides formal education like all schools, but also a sustainable and reliant lifestyle.

"The interesting avenue for me, apart from working for the betterment of Ashram — we put in a solar panel heating system there last year — was the opportunity to do managerially relevant research. One of the outputs from the Ashram is local produce that is organically grown by Ashram inmates. My research was focused on how this produce can be sustainably supplied to consumers who may be living far away.

"The challenging part of research was not only the complexity of supply and demand, but also hitherto unresearched issues, such as a plethora of middlemen and intermingling of education with business."



"Chemists do chemistry in chemistry labs, and generally the labs aren't very pretty, aren't very clean, and don't change very much from one place to another. I did, however, spend a sabbatical at Oxford, once upon a time. Oxford, 'that sweet city with her dreaming spires,' should be on everyone's bucket list of beautiful places to visit.

"Their chemistry labs weren't different than ours, but the morning tea for the inorganic chemists was always in the Abbot's Kitchen, one of the first chemistry laboratories built at any university. Abbot's Kitchen, opened in 1860, still stands as a remarkable Gothic structure, octagonal with a steeple and four tall chimneys at the perimeter whose updraft originally carried the fumes of chemical reactions out of the lab).

"Right next to the Inorganic Chemistry Lab and Abbot's Kitchen was the Pitt Rivers Museum of Anthropology, built in 1884, whose original collection was donated by Lt. Gnl. Augustus Pitt Rivers and is now half a million items, packed as densely as only Victorian cabinets of curiosities could be — it's an adventure in sensory overload."


Recreation, Sport & Tourism

"Lakewood and Littleton, Colo., for the Foothills Study. We conducted this study — with older adults engaged in a community wellness program — during the time of the Columbines shootings. In fact, the park district administration offices are right next to the high school and park that became the memorial area.

"It was both inspiring and horrifying hearing stories from staff and the older people we interviewed for the project about friends and loved ones who had been affected by this tragedy. Despite this tragedy, I felt the community always maintained an upbeat and positive energy and resonated resilience and hope."


Natural History Survey

"The most interesting place I ever worked was in the Rainwater Basin Region of south-central Nebraska.

"At the time, I was a doctoral graduate student studying the effects of wetland sediment removal on vegetation, seed bank and waterfowl communities. The field work was great; however, the most interesting part was where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Games and Parks Commission decided to house me for three months each summer. I lived at the McMurtry Wildlife Refuge, an area comprised of hundreds of World War II ammunition bunkers and an area off limits to the public.

"These bunkers were solid concrete fixtures within the landscape covered with grass on three sides and a thick steel door in front. Right before I started working there, they decided to convert one of these ammunition bunkers into an apartment so that people could live there who were doing research in the area. I was the first person to use the bunker/apartment. The bunker was rather nice, with carpeted floors, a flat screen TV attached to an antennae on top of the bunker, full bathroom and kitchen, and a washer and dryer. The only problem was: You couldn't drink the water, which was polluted from the storage of munitions over the years.

"I'm still waiting for the consequences of cooking with the polluted water; especially from all the ramen noodles I ate those two summers."


Library and Information Science

"The most interesting place my research work has taken me was South Korea this past summer, where I was hosted like a rock star by the National Library of Korea to talk about our IMLS-funded grant on boosting children's summer reading with iPad apps at the public library.

"We saw all the latest library and information technology, from the National Digital Library to the National Library for Children and Young Adults. We had our own bus with Wi-Fi, tour guides dedicated to us the whole day, a five-course lunch, and visits to Gyeongbokgung Palace and Insadong Market.

"Then, more guides joined us for a trip to an oceanside resort, where we gave our conference presentations with live audio translation and a host of photo and video cameras."


Recreation, Sport & Tourism

"My research focuses on the factors that can make leisure, recreation and sport services and opportunities problematic for marginalized populations, including environmental degradation, insufficient access to open spaces, local crime and undocumented status. My research focuses primarily on African-Americans and Latino(a)s.

"I have collected data at various sites in Chicago — parks, schools, door-to-door — and have witnessed the harsh conditions many residents deal with on a daily basis. I have had children tell me their parents are scared to let them play outside, for fear of them being shot and/or abused. I have also had children tell me that they can't participate in school sports/activities because it would require them walking home afterwards, which is not safe."



"In 2012, I had the opportunity to stay in Zurich, Switzerland, to do research at the Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule low-speed boundary wind tunnel at EMPA, a joint venture between the ETH Department of Architecture and EMPA Materials Science and Technology.

"I researched flow conditions around tall buildings, which I later applied in my design studio for the design of tall structures in the city of Chicago. The low speed wind tunnel at EMPA/ETH is a first-class, world-renowned — and very expensive — piece of equipment I wish we would possess one such facility here at UIUC.

"The research time was fascinating; people were very friendly; my co-author, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Klaus Daniels, was the department head at the time. I had the splendid opportunity to stay at his fabulous condo overlooking Zurich Lake, while he was gone.

"The time was not exclusively spend in the laboratory: I also visited various cutting-edge buildings, which were relatively new at the time."



"One of the most interesting places my research has taken me is Ixtapan de la Sal, a small and picturesque town in Mexico, 85 miles southwest of Mexico City. Ixtapan de la Sal is known to most as a tourist attraction for its rolling hills and therapeutic hot springs, but to my laboratory it was better known as the location of Miel Vita Real, a large and well-run beekeeping operation, used by Mexican bee scientist colleague Dr. Ernesto Guzmn-Novoa for research on honey bees.

"In 1994, my entomology department graduate student, Tugrul Giray, now a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, was performing doctoral dissertation research on the genetics of aggressive behavior, and we decided the best way to pursue this research would be to compare strains of honey bees that are known to differ in aggression. The region around Ixtapan de la Sal was ideal because there are many colonies of both the more gentle bees, derived from stock originally imported from Europe in the 1600s, and the more aggressive bees, derived from stock originally imported from Africa and accidentally released in the middle of the 20th century.

"Dr. Guzmn made all the arrangements for Tugrul to spend several months on site for extensive research. Being able to compare European and African bees in the same location improved the quality of the analysis and helped lead to the discovery of a surprise connection: bees that are more aggressive also are quicker to mature. This work in the '90s laid the groundwork for genomic analyses of aggression in my lab two decades later, which led to the discovery of specific genes associated with aggression.

"Tugrul got to have most of the fun but I made a quick visit to supervise the research, and yes, partake in the hot springs."


Veterinary Teaching Hospital

"I have been fortunate that my work in veterinary medicine, transplantation and microsurgery has introduced me to amazing people from all over the world. Most recently, I was asked to attend an international congress of veterinary specialists near Sao Paolo, Brazil, in July 2013.

"I was able to travel with one of my residents, who is native to Rio de Janeiro, and through her was able to connect with many talented and fascinating Brazilian veterinarians and researchers. As a result of that trip, a number of Brazilian veterinarians have traveled to Champaign to attend my microsurgery training course, and I am collaborating with a veterinary surgeon in Brazil on several research projects and other works, including cardiac research and a book chapter for a Brazilian textbook. We hope to continue to collaborate in the coming years to develop the fields of veterinary surgery and microsurgery."


Social Work

"I recently won the UIUC Research Board Fund, which enabled me launch my research on low-income Mexican women living in rural areas in Illinois. I was able to interview women in various parts of the state.

"It was wonderful reaching out to them. They were very receptive to the research and willing to express their perspectives of on the effect of Latino culture on their willingness to access mammography. Through this project, I was also able to meet and work with my undergraduate and graduate (students), who became my partners in this study. The excitement in the eyes as they completed the interviews was contagious. We also worked together in designing the study's T-shirt and named the study Lucha, which would signify fight against breast cancer.

"In a little over a month, together we completed over 50 interviews, each lasting one hour and a half. The Mexican community was extremely hospitable. Most of these interviews were completed in their homes. Food was always a part of equation.

"It is my understanding that this is the first study to reach out to women in rural Illinois, and by rural I mean cities with less than 2,000 inhabitants, removed from metropolitan areas and the mainstream services. We are now in the process of completing other interviews with the hope of having a total of 200 by the end of the year. The cities we will be interviewing include Onarga, Capron and DePue."

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