Graduate Students Move Research Forward

The University of Wisconsin­–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) recently awarded five, two-year graduate student assistantships to help increase dairy-related research capacity through the Dairy Innovation Hub initiative. The selected graduate students are tackling research projects in the Hub’s four priority areas: stewarding land and water resources; enriching human health and nutrition; ensuring animal health and welfare; and growing farm business and communities.

The Dairy Innovation Hub, which launched in 2019, is a $7.8 million per year investment by the State of Wisconsin to establish a world-class talent pool and support enterprising discoveries. The aim is to ensure Wisconsin’s dairy community remains a part of the global forefront in producing nutritious dairy products in an economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable manner. To achieve these goals, the Hub prioritizes recruiting, developing, and retaining top talent.

A graduate student assistantship is a salaried employment opportunity for students working toward an advanced degree beyond their bachelor’s. Students work alongside a faculty mentor and in return, receive tuition remission, health benefits, and a monthly stipend. Students gain valuable skills through assistantship roles that apply directly to their career goals and help build broad, transferable skills in areas like communication, teamwork, and leadership.

The following UW–Madison graduate students have been selected for funding:

Walker Crane, Department of Soil Science
Project title: Increasing environmental stewardship of dairy forage production systems with cover crops

Crane received a bachelor’s degree in plant and environmental soil science from Texas A&M University, where he developed a passion for soil health and sustainable cropping systems. As an undergraduate, he conducted research investigating the effect of cover crops and tillage on greenhouse gas emissions. He was also involved with research projects using low-field magnetic resonance imaging to phenotype sorghum roots and UAVs to implement precision irrigation scheduling. Crane is pursuing a master’s degree in soil science mentored by Francisco Arriaga from the Department of Soil Science.

Crane joins Arriaga’s team working to better understand the environmental impacts of corn silage production systems. Arriaga hypothesizes that the canopy structure and the amount of biomass produced by a cover crop influences environmental impacts. Additionally, biomass produced by a cover crop will be affected by its relative planting date and seeding rate. Understanding these relationships will help develop recommendations on establishment dates for fall-seeded cover crops. The overarching goal of this project is to help farmers make decisions that will benefit forage production and the environment.

Grace Enzien, Department of Bacteriology
Project title: Dairy residue bio-conversion into designer (d)-lactic acid

Enzien received a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Previous undergraduate research, internships, and professional experience, including as a formulation technician for Blistex, Inc., led to Enzien developing a breadth of lab skills, from basic protocols, such as lab upkeep, to extracting DNA and genotype samples. She is pursuing a master’s degree in bacteriology and is mentored by Timothy Donohue from the Department of Bacteriology.

Enzien joins Donohue’s research team exploring how residues from milk production can be used to create new materials. The team hypothesizes that residues left over after milk is produced into food-grade products can be bio-converted into valuable materials, which would also improve the sustainability of the Wisconsin dairy community. This project aims to produce a designer form of lactic acid from residues. By 2025, the global D-lactic acid market is estimated to be worth $8.7 billion dollars and industrial interest for this designer organic acid is expected to grow significantly. Knowledge gained from this study is predicted to reduce negative environmental impacts of residues, increase their value to consumers, farmers and industry, and be applicable to bio-conversion of non-dairy products into other designer chemicals in the future.

Jiahao Fan, Department of Biological Systems Engineering
Project title: Assessing maize silage yield and quality using UAV-based hyperspectral imagery and machine learning

Fan received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geographic information systems from Wuhan University in China. He was a PhD student in the Department of Informatics at the New Jersey Institute of Technology for two years. Fan is now pursuing a PhD in biological systems engineering, mentored by Zhou Zhang from the Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

Fan is working alongside Zhang to explore genetic and management technologies and innovations that enhance dairy forage production and nutritional value. The overarching goal is to help maintain and stabilize profitability while reducing the carbon footprint of high-quality dairy forages. Using corn silage as a model crop, the research team conducts in-field assessments of forage yield and quality by combining cutting-edge hyperspectral imaging and artificial intelligence technologies. This technique is non-destructive and non-invasive. The developed phenotyping methods can be adapted to access the quality traits of other forage crops beyond corn and could lead to a change in how forage yield and composition is accessed. This change could help speed up crop breeding. Additionally, there is also potential to improve timing in forage harvesting to optimize quality and production.

Benjamin Iesalnieks, Department of Food Science
Project title: Manufacturing natural cheeses containing bioactive peptides with improved antihypertensive properties

Iesalnieks received bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and chemistry from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. His undergraduate research experience and course work developed valuable, transferable, lab and analytical skills that he now applies to areas of food product development, formulation, and production. Iesalnieks is pursuing a master’s degree in food science mentored by Rodrigo Ibanez Alfaro from the Center for Dairy Research.

Ibanez Alfaro’s research team examines the antihypertensive peptide properties in cheese that could be used to lower high blood pressure in humans. The goal is to create a natural cheese with enhanced antihypertensive properties through traditional and alternative approaches. Cheese with the highest antihypertensive properties will be further evaluated to determine if the bioactive compounds are improved, maintained, or degraded after digestion as well as the potential to be absorbed and used by the human body. Once optimal conditions have been established, Wisconsin cheesemakers will be able to manufacture differentiated and enriched value-added products. These new cheeses will enhance human health and nutrition and have the potential to reach new domestic and export markets.

Kaylee Riesgraf, Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences
Project title: Improving the performance of dairy heifer operations by understanding maternal and management stressors impacting heifer growth and feed efficiency

Riesgraf grew up on her family’s farm, A&L Lisowe Acres, near Fond du Lac, Wis. and received a bachelor’s degree in dairy science from UW-River Falls. Previous experience on her home farm and an internship at Holsum Dairies in Hilbert, Wis. sparked a passion for diagnosing sick dairy cows and developing subsequent treatment plans. Riesgraf also developed strong analytical skills working with statistical data and using herd management software to drive decision-making. Riesgraf is pursuing a master’s degree in dairy science and is mentored by Kent Weigel from the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences.

Riesgraf joins Weigel’s team exploring the effects of stressful life experiences on heifers, including maternal stress during late gestation and neonatal stress before weaning. This study looks closely at dry matter intake, average daily gain, and feed efficiency of heifers subjected to common stressors in early life. These heifers, age 17 to 20 months, are located at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station. Additionally, samples will be taken at puberty and mid-gestation to evaluate DNA and metabolic related differences between stressors. Riesgraf’s graduate assistantship is collaboratively mentored and co-funded by UW-River Falls.