Sundaram Gunasekaran

Friday, January 27th, 2017

Sundaram Gunasekaran, a professor of biological systems engineering, was recently selected to serve as faculty director of CALS International Programs.

Gunasekaran—or Guna, as he is widely known—has made his mark as a food engineer. His research focuses on the rheology of food, especially cheese. More recently, he has focused on applying nanotechnology and other methodologies as tools for pathogen detection and processing validation in foods.

But it’s his life experiences, along with his research prowess, that distinguish him as ideal for his new position. Guna’s international experience is geographically diverse. He received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, India, his master’s degree in food process engineering from the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, Thailand, and his Ph.D. in agricultural and biological engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s been a visiting professor in South Korea, a Fulbright Fellow in Denmark, a USAID Farmer-to-Farmer consultant in Bangladesh and a mentor for a Syrian scientist under the Scholar Rescue Fund.

“I have also traveled widely and enjoy working with individuals and groups from different walks of life and interests,” he says.

As leader of CALS International Programs, Guna will identify and pursue international activities consistent with the college’s strategic goals. He will lead efforts to identify new resources for international activities and oversee the distribution of seed funding for new projects.

Why are international programs so important for CALS? 

The world has become very interdependent, and so have the problems we face. Many of today’s scientific challenges and practical problems can be solved not through isolated islands of intellectual pursuits, but rather by seeking out and incorporating ideas and approaches from different disciplines and across state and national boundaries.

Indeed, the scope of research and outreach performed by CALS faculty and staff extends far beyond the boundaries of the state and the nation. In a recent survey we found that more than 200 people in CALS have been working in about 80 countries around the world in various projects at one time or another. We are very engaged internationally.

International Programs can help elevate our international engagement from an “individual project” level to a more cohesive programmatic effort focusing on key areas of expertise in the college and implement a strategic framework for sustaining this activity in the long term.

What is your vision for CALS International Programs? 

My vision is for CALS to become one of the leaders among the nation’s land-grant colleges in international engagement, and for it to effect positive change in global agricultural, natural resource, energy, environmental and life science enterprises through research, education and outreach. We are a world-class institution, and CALS is among the very best land-grant colleges in the nation. Thus it is very appropriate that we envision an international program of similar stature.

How do we currently compare to other institutions? 

Other institutions have much larger international program activities. That’s something we want to see happen at UW– Madison.

Most major international collaborations deal with USDA and USAID projects. The United States government has resources to help developing nations solve their problems in securing a food supply, growing more food and developing infrastructure for storage, handling and distribution of food.

For example, the U.S. government has a large grant program called Feed the Future. We are one of the largest agricultural research schools that is not involved with that type of program. We are a player, but we are not considered to be a leader. That’s what I would like to help change.

How else is this work funded? 

In addition to funding from international agencies, there are local governments and private entities like the Gates Foundation. We also have support from alumni donors and alumni groups.

How has international research been changing over time? 

The United States is still a major intellectual and knowledge base—but now, as other countries and regions in the world are also growing their expertise, we can join hands and solve problems together rather than just being the problem solvers ourselves.

What are the hurdles to developing international research? 

Building relationships takes time. Normally if somebody is familiar with your institution or you as a person, that is the first point of contact. And then we get to know their strengths and needs, and then figure out how we can plug in our strengths and capacities. This kind of “feeling-out” process takes time.

We have to take time to travel and meet people and learn about their region and identify the problems they face there, and then identify researchers in Madison who have the capacity and the intellectual base to help solve some of those problems.

Does this process take resources away from our research endeavor here? 

On the contrary, it actually helps add to our research capacity and resources. Sometimes we develop a solution and international program activities provide additional resources to put that research output into action where it is needed. It takes some effort and capacity from our researchers to be able to focus their attention on international problems, but I don’t think it takes substantial resources away from what we are doing here.

How does international research enterprise affect students? 

We, as an institution, are responsible for developing future generations of citizens, and a student who is knowledgeable and well-versed in global issues and is sympathetic to different languages and cultures is a student who is able to solve the problems of the future. In that respect we believe that international engagement for students is critical for them to become future leaders and citizens of the world.

You held a number of listening sessions with faculty and staff from across the college to hear about their international work and their needs. What did you learn? 

The general consensus is: 1) they value international engagement; 2) they’re very active in it already; and 3) they’d like international programs to support their cause so they can do it more and better.

For example, they’d like us to help with their administrative needs so that they can focus on the technical and scientific aspects. Our office can help with budgetary issues, signing MOUs, and dealing with interinstitutional or intergovernmental issues. They also want to be more actively involved in large projects. So we are in the process of identifying opportunities where we can have multiinstitutional, multiinvestigator-based projects. It is something that individual investigators are not able to do, but that CALS International Programs can facilitate.

Beyond funding, are there other ways for alumni to assist in this effort? 

Certainly our alumni can be the spokespeople, our ambassadors. Especially our alumni who are internationally inclined, who have gone on a study abroad, or people from different countries who studied here and went back home—or even if they stayed here but still have strong connections back home. They identify with UW–Madison, and this is the institution they think of first when they think of collaborating, and so we become the first point of contact for them.

And when we go to another country, we look for someone who has been here, and they become our first point of contact—a resource center, so to speak, to help us navigate the local bureaucracy or culture. They become very valuable partners in this process. We have a number of examples of alumni we work with in engaging with different countries.

A place to belong: CALS student organizations offer personal growth, professional development and community

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

They sell holiday roasts and turkeys, fix lawn mowers and snowblowers for the public, grow and give away fruits and vegetables and volunteer in school classrooms. They present posters, hold fun runs and bike rides, give talks at national conferences and help manage wildlife around the state. They conduct community service and research projects around the world, doing their part to keep the Wisconsin Idea global.

And for the most part they do it themselves, with minimal assistance from faculty and staff.

These are just a few examples of activities conducted by members of student organizations, the hands-on social and preprofessional groups— nearly 1,000 of them are registered on the UW–Madison campus— that allow students to cultivate significant life skills while also creating community.

And they’re a vital part of student life at CALS. Sarah Pfatteicher, CALS associate dean for academic affairs, sees student orgs—along with such activities as internships, independent research and study abroad—as a crucial component for students to take their learning “beyond the classroom,” to make their time at CALS an experience they have tailored by pursuing their unique blend of interests.

They’re also a great way to make a big campus feel more like home, Pfatteicher notes. “We tell students, ‘You wouldn’t move to a city of 60,000 people and expect to suddenly know everything about the city,’” she says. “You pick a neighborhood within that city, and you get to know your neighbors, you get to know the restaurant on the corner.”

Of all the enriching activities available to students, Pfatteicher notes, the key advantage of student organizations is embedded in the name. “Student orgs are student-organized, right? They allow students themselves to identify interests, develop their own bylaws, set their own membership requirements—to come together and really be in charge of what they’re doing. That helps develop student autonomy and maturity in ways that other experiences maybe can’t.”

And let’s not forget they’re a lot of fun. Here’s what a half dozen student orgs at CALS are up to.

TWS group

UW–Madison members of The Wildlife Society worked with the DNR to help build and move large pens as part of an elk restoration effort in northern Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Laine Stowell/WI DNR (Banner photo: courtesy of Laine Stowell/WI DNR)

Helping Wild Wisconsin 

Once upon a time, elk roamed plentifully throughout the land that would become Wisconsin. By the late 1800s they had vanished from the landscape, victims of overhunting and loss of habitat. Efforts to reintroduce elk in northern Wisconsin have expanded in recent years—and the UW–Madison chapter of The Wildlife Society (TWS), the nation’s premier society for wildlife professionals, has been part of the effort.

Over the past three years, students have worked with elk herds alongside wildlife managers and volunteers. They put their muscles and passion into building fencing for large pens— one of them 1,600 feet long and eight feet high, encompassing four acres— used to contain elk being moved from Clam Lake to vacant elk habitat southeast of Winter. Recently students helped take down that fence and move materials to the Flambeau River State Forest, where a seven-acre pen will be built to quarantine elk brought in from Kentucky.

Laine Stowell, an elk biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, is grateful for the students’ assistance. “Their participation provides an abundance of enthusiasm and youthful strength,” notes Stowell. “We get a lot of work done in a short period of time, and all it costs us is food and lodging. We share our experience and time, they share their efficient effort, and we all accomplish excellent things for Wisconsin elk!”

Recent chapter president Lucas Olson BS’16 counts working on elk reintroduction among his most cherished TWS memories. As icing on the cake, he received a scholarship from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in part for his student leadership in that effort.

Like many TWS members at UW, Olson is proud of the group’s special legacy in Wisconsin. “Wildlife management’s roots can be attributed to one of UW–Madison’s own—Aldo Leopold,” he notes. “Leopold’s tie to our department gives me a huge sense of pride. Leopold’s connection to TWS is one of great importance as well, as he was one of the first presidents as the society was taking off in the late 1930s. My involvement with TWS has been richer because of this, and has made my experience at UW– Madison extremely significant.”

In addition to hands-on wildlife management help, UW TWS activities include birding, helping with prairie burning and research projects, participating in regional and national conferences (including an annual quiz bowl at the national meeting), and holding an annual game dinner and fundraiser.

“I am in my major—wildlife ecology—because of the club,” says senior Daniel Erickson. “Through all the classes and field trips, I have made such a great group of long-lasting friends and connections with professors. TWS allowed me to realize that I have always had a passion for animals, nature and the great outdoors.”

DNC at work

Dietetics and Nutrition Club member Carley Bosshard (second from left) helped out at a REAP local veggie tasting event at Samuel Gompers Elementary School in Madison. Photo courtesy of Emily Latham

Good Food for All 

Students who study nutrition understand the importance of healthy food. And, as members of the Dietetics and Nutrition Club (DNC), they are committed to sharing their knowledge and excitement about healthy food with people of all ages, from all walks of life.

Hanna Hindt participates in a club program with Porchlight, a Madison nonprofit offering emergency shelter and other support services for the homeless. “We get to talk with members of the community and answer questions about their own diet and food choices and those of their friends and family,” she says. “It’s a great way to apply what we’ve been learning in our nutrition classes.”

And, since Hindt hopes to have a career working with people for whom buying food is a constant challenge, the experience offers good professional training as well. “I’m able to get a feel for what a typical diet is for the low-income population—the daily challenges they face, and common health problems within this group,” Hindt says. “This background will help me approach and personalize nutrition counseling and offer reasonable and manageable options and advice within their limitations.”

Fellow DNC member Jackson Moran participates in club activities with REAP, a nonprofit that strengthens ties between growers, consumers and community institutions. DNC students help out at REAP events including Chef in the Classroom, where local chefs prepare meals with kids, and Family Food Fest, a community farm-to-school event. Moran has learned a lot about getting kids to eat their veggies. “It’s important for parents to be on board with a healthy diet, and to keep healthy foods available in the home,” Moran says. “Also, children will be much more likely to eat new, healthy foods when they can be involved in preparation, or have some interactive role.”

Other DNC activities include running exploration stations at Saturday Science in the UW–Madison Discovery Building and holding nutrition-themed Lunch & Learns—expert talks for faculty, staff and students. The club’s biggest annual event is “Dinner with Dietitians,” where club members pre-pare a meal for nutrition professionals at an evening of networking and panel discussion.

Recent DNC vice president Maria Gruetzmacher BS’16 helped plan that event, and cites that experience and many other DNC activities as pivotal to her personal and professional development.

“These experiences have taught me how to be more proactive and work collaboratively, and have strengthened my event-planning skills,” Gruetzmacher says. “With each event I participated in, I met new members, each with a different path and unique ideas. I was also able to meet practicing registered dietitians who allowed me to shadow them and provided meaningful advice.”

Continue reading this story in the Fall 2016 issue of Grow magazine.