Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Blending a Love for Science and Nature

Rylie Ellison, a PhD student researcher at the University of California-Davis, was given the opportunity to attend the 2018 CAST Annual Meeting in Sacramento, California, during the last full week of October. Ellison and four other UC-Davis students were selected through the pilot CAST Science Communication Scholarship program. As part of her application process, Ellison was asked to submit a 30-second video explaining why she chose a career in scientific research and why science communication plays a crucial role in sharing her findings. Ellison's video can be found on CAST's YouTube channel and other CAST social media.

Ellison's appreciation for the outdoors was developed in her home state of Washington where she grew up hiking, camping, snowboarding, and kayaking. "As a researcher in agricultural and environmental chemistry, I can effortlessly blend my love for science with my love for being outdoors." In high school, Ellison had an "incredible teacher" whose passion and enthusiasm sparked her interest in science. As an undergraduate she knew she wanted to be a chemistry major, but she wasn't quite sure what she was going to do with it yet. Between her classwork and undergraduate research, she developed an interest in going to graduate school for applied research in an environmentally focused program. "I discovered the Agricultural and Environmental Chemistry Graduate Group at UC-Davis, which seemed to perfectly suit my desire for interdisciplinary research in a field where I could do research that would potentially make a real difference in agriculture."

She has wanted to be a scientist since high school and a researcher since college; however, her interest in agriculture wasn't developed until graduate school. "Going from thinking about agriculture in the abstract to being in and around it every day has shown me how important and thankless the work that farmers do every day is. They feed the world and I am happy to do research that helps them to continue to do just that."

Now that Ellison is done with classes she is completely focused on her research, which is centered around a process that uses hydrodynamic cavitation to rapidly break down and sterilize manure, along with stabilizing chemical additives to produce a stable fertilizer for field application. She is then testing how this affects nutrient cycling, plant growth, and gas emissions in agricultural soils. "I think with the way the climate is changing, we will have to continue to adapt the way we grow food to keep up with the changes in conditions, resources, and populations."

When looking toward the future, Ellison is hoping to make a career out of environmental policy and science communication. "I believe that providing a balanced scientific voice in policy-making is essential to influencing informed decision-making skills that affect both people in the agricultural industry and consumers. It is my goal to bridge the communication gap between different groups, including policymakers and the public. Another exciting project that Ellison is working on allows her to showcase her love for nature--the development of a curriculum for an outdoor STEM program for high school girls. It has been a pleasure getting to know her and we look forward to working with her in the future.

Click here to watch Rylie Ellison's video on why science communication is important to her research. You can also follow Ellison and her science communication efforts on LinkedIn.

By: Kylie Peterson

Monday, November 19, 2018

Capitalizing on a Coffee Addiction

Mackenzie Batali, a graduate student researcher at the University of California-Davis Coffee Center, was given the opportunity to attend the 2018 CAST Annual Meeting in Sacramento, California, during the last week of October. Batali and four other UC-Davis students were selected through the pilot CAST Science Communication Scholarship program. As part of her application process, Batali was asked to submit a 30-second video explaining why she chose a career in scientific research and why science communication plays a crucial role in sharing her findings. Batali's video can be found on CAST's YouTube channel and other CAST social media during the month of November as a reminder of why supporting CAST during this season of giving is so important for the future of science.

Batali brings a unique perspective to the agricultural industry because she grew up in a "foodie family" where she was most comfortable in a kitchen, the Seattle restaurant scene, or on stage for open mic night and karaoke. Ever since she was young, she expected to be a writer or an actress. That dream was derailed once she took her first high school chemistry class. "I discovered a knack and love for the subject."

Coming into science with a background in theatre, improvisational comedy, and creative writing, she decided to keep the arts as a hobby and pursued a degree in chemistry, focusing on organic synthesis at Lewis and Clark College. After completing her undergrad degree, Batali worked as a research and development synthesis chemist at Emerald Kalama Chemical where she synthesized flavor and fragrance products. This job gave her the freedom to revamp their internal fragrance analysis program and inspired her to pursue a graduate degree in food science at the University of California-Davis. "This gave me the opportunity to work at the forefront of coffee sensory research on a product I've loved for years."

Each day in the lab is different for Batali, but her excitement and passion for her research remains the same. She is currently working with the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) on research to update and expand their classic Coffee Brewing Control Chart in hopes of including more rigorous sensory descriptive data to guide brewing. Ultimately, the goal is to quantify how flavor profiles change with different variables in different brewing methods to create a more specific and scientifically based chart.

"My research at the UC-Davis Coffee Center is done with industry partners, funded by the SCA with the intent to disseminate information to all members in the coffee industry. This is not a purely scientific community. It is a community of farmers, roasters, cafe owners, and baristas coming from all backgrounds with a shared passion for coffee. Quality science communication allows our research to immediately and effectively reach all interested and enthusiastic members of the community-- improving their business and their craft with data-backed evidence." Batali shares that there is little academic research done in the coffee industry and as UC-Davis gains financial and research traction, she expects much of academia to follow, allowing the near future of coffee to be filled with new innovation and an influx of academic interests.

Improved science communication is another avenue of opportunity in her area of study. "I have a desire to make chemistry communications more accessible and more appealing to a wider audience instead of gate-keeping for education with high-level, dry jargon." She shares how it is incredibly easy for poor communication to result in misinformation that ends up in pop science articles all over social media. "In my research, the biggest opportunity for science communication is attending industry events and disseminating research to coffee industry professionals. There is a challenge of breaking the academia barrier to encourage understanding between industry practices and traditions, versus what science seems to show as best practice for coffee brewing."

Aside from cooking and fueling her caffeine addiction, you can often find Batali rock climbing, writing, or hiking. Upon completion of her degree, she hopes to continue into industry doing sensory work either in coffee or other food and beverage products. It has been a pleasure getting to know her and we look forward to working with her in the future.

Click here to watch Mackenzie Batali's video on why science communication is important to her research.

By: Kylie Peterson

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Thanksgiving in Analog and the Real Black Friday

The latest American Farm Bureau Federation price survey for Thanksgiving came out, and the average cost of this year’s feast for 10 is $48.90-- or less than $5.00 per person. Of course, that is without alcohol and other frills--and I’m wondering if the dessert is humble pie—but the low cost is impressive.

I looked up the prices for 1961. I was eleven years old then, sitting at a long, crowded table in Granny Faye’s house. She wasn’t much for hosting events, but even after my grandpa died, she kept up the Thanksgiving tradition. Apparently back then she could buy turkey at 35 cents a pound, potatoes at 8 cents a pound, and two cans of pumpkin for 29 cents.

Granny’s two sons both farmed within a half mile of the home place. Farms were closer together then, and these were filled with kids—fourteen between the two families. Most of us were boys growing up under the influence of Moe, Larry, and
Curly, but we managed to sit quietly during the prayer, and we appreciated the accordion-paper turkeys and pumpkins that made up the table d├ęcor. No one wrote texts or tweets as we shaped our mashed potatoes into lake beds for the gravy. Our only snap chats were when one of us would flick a small roll at a brother and call him a dork--but I have no Instagram photos to prove how immature we were. 

We did not watch pro football on the black and white TV, but cousin Terry might have a beat up pigskin on his lap. We were itching to get outside to play ball—what kid really likes cranberry sauce anyway? A promise of pumpkin pie is the only thing that kept us from bolting.

I have little recall of the meal chatter, but Granny might inform us that turkeys were not always the guest of honor at Thanksgiving. “Back then,” she’d say, “we used to butcher and dress barnyard chickens for the feast. Not much fun steaming and plucking feathers on a chilly morning.” We kids had been present at poultry harvest times, so a cousin might start describing the chicken-with-its-head-cut-off ritual until he was shushed.

As the autumn sun shone through the large south windows, Dad might point out, “Even though today is perfect for football, we’ve seen Thanksgivings when the ground was covered with snow. When I was about your age, the 1940 Armistice Day blizzard surprised us all. Farmers were caught out in the cornfields, hunters were nearly frozen to death in duck blinds, and chickens were stuck solid to their roosts. No weather forecasts to warn us back then.” Even at that age, I’d seen a Thanksgiving or two when the creek banks were lined with thin ice, and the morning sun lit up frost that coated woven wire fences and corn stalks left in the field after the harvest.

But this day had the brilliant light of a slanting autumn sun, and as soon as we hit the yard, it was all pass, run, argue, punt, fumble, and argue some more as we conveniently ignored the fact that someone was cleaning up after the big event. Back then, adults were like benevolent extraterrestrials who usually stayed in their own universe—until chore time.

“The cow needs milkin’,” some galactic overlord would announce. “And the steers in the lot across the road need five buckets of grain and eight bales of hay.” No holiday shopping excuses to save us. The corporate Madmen of the 60s hadn’t come up with Black Friday. We were bright enough kids, but the word “shopping” was not in our vocabulary, and merchants back then didn’t even think of hoisting Christmas on us until Thanksgiving was over.

The day was for celebrating family and the harvest--and for kids playing outside in the sunshine or snow. And the evening was for eating the meal I liked best--the leftovers. Dark turkey meat, warmed-up dressing with gravy on it, Mom's homemade bread, a slice of pumpkin pie. Living was easy.

Until the morning after Thanksgiving. No school, but Dad--the human alarm clock--would call into the bedroom, "Time to get up, boys," and after our eggs, toast, and orange juice, we put on five-buckle boots and headed to the hog house. Grunting pigs, a layer of muck, and worn pitchforks awaited us. Now that's what I call a real Black Friday.

by dan gogerty (top pic from, turkey graphic from, Julia Child photo from, and cow pic from

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Genome Editing Cows, Pigs, Salmon--and the Platypus?

Before digging into discussions about genome editing of farm animals, consider the duck-billed platypus. I lived in Australia for four years, and I’m still not sure if it is a mammal, a bird, or one of J. K. Rowling’s fantastic beasts. The monotreme has a duck’s bill, a beaver’s tail, and an otter’s feet. It lays eggs, uses electroreception to locate food, and has ankle spurs that can deliver a toxic poison. The evolutionary planning committee for the platypus must have been in its “outside the box” mode the day it conjured up this one.

Now scientists can apply powerful new tools that have the potential to revolutionize agricultural practices and food production. Amazing advances in genome editing mean that we can breed hornless cattle, fast-growing salmon, and pigs that might resist diseases. Some scientists, organizations, and members of the public urge caution, and government agencies are debating what types of regulations should apply. The following links are just a few of the many articles and research papers that deal with this important topic:

*** The United States joined with 12 other nations to support policies that enable agricultural innovation, including genome editing.

*** Dan Carlson of Recombinetics uses genome editing techniques with cows, and he explains why he feels confident about the safety of the food they produce. Jennifer Kuzma of NC-State is also an expert about the potential of genome editing, but she notes that there needs to be a broad conversation about the underlying genetics.

*** Kuzma was involved with the CAST publication led by Adam Bogdanove of Cornell University titled Genome Editing in Agriculture: Methods, Applications, and Governance. The peer-reviewed paper looks at how genome editing is performed and the current state of regulations. 

Alison Van Eenennaam at the UC-Davis Cattle Facility
*** Maybe the most active proponent regarding animal biotech is Alison Van Eenennaam of UC-Davis. She believes that some regulations can protect food safety, but she also argues that current FDA policies restrict technologies that could make agriculture more efficient by reducing the environmental footprint of food production. Van Eenennaam was the 2014 Borlaug CAST Communication Award winner, and she chaired the ground-breaking CAST Commentary The Science and Regulation of Food from Genetically Engineered Animals.

Science has been affecting livestock for a long time. When I was growing up on a farm, selective breeding was common, and artificial insemination was the buzz. We kids just saw our livestock as steers we had to feed and pigs that produced manure we had to pitch. The only biotech creature we had were bullheads we occasionally caught in the pasture creek. A sinister-looking, oily skinned fish with beady eyes, it has stingers that we were convinced would paralyze us. Of course, that was a childhood myth, but we had to fantasize with what we had. After all, no duck-billed platypus swam the streams of Iowa. I guess we’ll see what animals inhabit the feedlots of our future. 

by dan gogerty (top pic from and bottom from kpeterson)