Weird Ways Global Warming Will Affect Us & From Grass to Gas: A BioFuels Update

Explore the Unknown!   

For October 21, 2020       

Please share this missive with your friends & neighbors. 

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Hi WN@TL Fans,

Twenty-five years ago last week the public outreach program I lead at the Biotech Center moved from our old home in the Enzyme Institute at 1710 University Avenue into our new place in the Genetics Biotechnology Center at 425 Henry Mall.  The new building had some key advantages for outreach over the old building.  First, because of the foresight of Dick Burgess, the founding director of the Biotech Center, the building provided two outreach & teaching labs for welcoming the public to campus.  Second, it had a 130 seat auditorium with some of the best sight lines and acoustics on campus.  Third, it had attached to it the new Lot 20 parking garage with some 80 spaces dedicated to parking for the public.  That’s close to a perfecta trifecta when it comes to hosting outreach events.

My job in Extension & outreach originated with the controversy over biotechnology and food, and specifically over bovine growth hormone.  I came to believe that one good way to help members of the public cultivate their own science savvy would be to welcome the public to campus to experience science as exploring the unknown within this campus community of researchers who view science not so much as what we know but as a process of figuring out stuff nobody yet knew.  The new building fed and sped that hope.  After all, hospitality counts, and venue matters.  What better place than here for outreach programs to grow science savvy so that people could use science bettering making personal choices, in forming public policies, and in making decisions in the face of uncertainty?

At about the same time as the biotech & food controversy was coming to the fore in the late 1980’s, another controversy was abrewing:  global warming caused by humans burning fossil fuels and thereby increasing the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.  In both controversies researchers were compiling data year after year, decade after decade, and extending the reach of their research questions into social, economic & ethical issues in addition to the physical & biological concerns.  Outreachers were reasonably thinking that more and more convincing data would be more and more persuasive to more and more people, and that public policy could be reasonably formed and moved forward based on, if not scientific certainty, at least scientific consensus.

Well, not quite.  In both topics, after some 35 years of research, scientific bodies such as the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have arrived at a scientific consensuses.  Biotech-derived foods are as safe as other foods, and human-caused climate change is real.   And yet in these and in several other issues—vaccinations and covid most pressing right now—my outreach colleagues and I face the reality that large numbers of individuals and sufficient numbers of elected officials don’t accept the consensus or the evidence & reasoning behind it;  and now not a few are taking to assailing the integrity and intelligence of some of our finest researchers working in government.

In a late summer when the skies turned orange with smoke from record wildfires, and in a fall when the US death toll from covid is clicking past 220,000, it’s also time to persevere, to continue to extend our hospitality and to engage learners of all ages, to listen and to learn, and to endure in a commitment to follow the data, to try to disprove hypotheses, to alert policy-makers to the probabilities, to invent and test new possibilities.

In the fields of science & policy, 2020 has become The Year of Living Rancorously. As we move forward towards 2021, we approach a year with a different brandname:  The Year of Living Resolutely.  It’s already here and now, where continual & fearless sifting & winnowing streams together with the Wisconsin Idea. We move ahead in the knowledge that our work in doing and sharing science is vital to our common good and to our individual well-being.

This week we have a splendid example of research that helps us to see farther and to foresee what we otherwise might not have expected.

On October 21 Ankur Desai, Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, will speak on weird ways climate change is hitting us.  I was in California in August for the beginning of the fires, and the apocalyptic skies sufficed for me.  Alas, I’m guessing the list runs much, much longer.

“Weird Ways Climate Change Will Affect Us That You Probably Didn’t Know”

“You’ve probably heard about climate change and you’ve probably seen the news about heatwaves, forest fires, intense hurricanes, or shrinking glaciers. You can guess how those are linked and be mostly right. But there are also some harder to make sense impacts and some innovative ways to address those. Our lab has found curious links between climate change and windier lakes, wetter snow storms, lower crop yield, and cooler wetlands. Learning about these are not just academic exercises, but help us better understand how the Earth system works, improve our computer model predictions of future climate change, and develop novel ways to combat the worst effects.  So come join and get weird with us!”

About Professor Desai’s lab:  Our lab studies how organisms and abiotic features in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems influence and are influenced by climate and weather and how those effects change as you scale from plot to landscape to globe. We specialize in making long-term, ecosystem-atmosphere observations of emission or uptake of carbon, energy, and water, in particular using eddy covariance flux towers. We rely on theories from the disciplines of climate science, ecosystem ecology, biogeochemistry, micrometeorology, land surface modeling, atmospheric boundary layers.

Our lab is highly collaborative, with many of our project revolving around scaling and synthesis of our observations with other groups around the world.


Next week on October 28 Caryn Wadler and Allison Bender of the Wisconsin Energy Institute will be here for their talk entitled, “From Grass to Gas: A BioFuels Update.”  Converting biomass other than sugars and starches to liquid fuels other than alcohol is a major objective in scaling up plant matter into gasoline-type fuels we can use to drive our cars.  Find out more about the biology, biochemistry, enzymology and fermentation savvy being developed by researchers at WEI.

Caryn Wadler is a Postdoctoral Researcher with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in Michael Thomas’ lab in the Department of Bacteriology. Caryn received her doctoral degree from the lab of Dr. Garret Suen for studies on microbial cellulose degradation and cellulosic ethanol generation. Her current research focuses on using bacteria to generate useful products from the biorefinery waste to increase the cost effectiveness of making biofuels.

Allison Bender joined the Wisconsin Energy Institute in 2018 as Outreach and Events Coordinator. She has a background in environmental education and has worked as a naturalist in state parks across Wisconsin and Minnesota. After completing a B.A. in environmental studies at St. Olaf College in 2017, she served as an AmeriCorps Member in the Minnesota GreenCorps program conducting watershed outreach and education at Whitewater State Park in Minnesota’s Driftless Region and state-wide. At WEI, Allison coordinates a wide variety of educational programming and works with scientists and researchers to translate their work into hands-on activities, lessons, and events for learners of all ages.

Remember, we now meet by Zoom, since we can’t gather all in one room.  If you have registered for the WN@TL zoom series, you should be good through the end of May 2021.

If you haven’t signed up yet, please register at

A Zoom Meeting allows everyone to choose whether to turn on their video; and I’ll be able to unmute you in the pre-talk warmup (we’ll fire up the video around 6:50pm) and you’ll be able to ask questions by audio or by chat.

So the WN@TL by Zoom will be include 4 components:
1. Prelude Chat (not recorded),
2. Intro & Talk (recorded),
3. Q&A (recorded), and then
4. Linger at the Lectern when you can chat with the presenters informally (not recorded).

I believe this is as close to the WN@TL experience in the Biotech Center Auditorium as the technology permits.

I’ll record the presentations and Q&A and post them on the WN@TL YouTube site.


I hope to see you tonight at 7 by Zoom, now that we can resume Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.

Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Division of Extension, Wisconsin 4-H