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University leaders share what’s new at ISU

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The Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa State University have a longstanding, symbiotic partnership. ISU President Wendy Wintersteen spoke to the importance of that partnership during the ISA District 1 Meeting in Spencer. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Lauren Houska, ISA communications specialist

The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) capped off its summer of district meetings with a unique panel discussing emerging opportunities in agriculture and at Iowa’s land-grant university.

Iowa State University (ISU) leaders shed light on topics ranging from research and innovation to trade war fallouts and consumer trust during the event last week at the Clay County Fair in Spencer.

Doug Cooper of WHO Radio’s Big Show moderated the discussion between ISU President Wendy Wintersteen, ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Endowed Dean Daniel Robison and Vice President of ISU Extension and Outreach John Lawrence.

Here’s a glimpse into the conversation:

On what’s new at ISU:

Wintersteen: The new Student Innovation Center — opening spring 2020. This is an $84 million-dollar project with $40 million coming from private partnership funding. Students will be able to come from all across the university to create and innovate together and think about what it might mean to become an entrepreneur.

One of the big new programs that will be in the Advanced Research and Teaching Building is the Nanovaccine Institute. Engineers are working with individuals from veterinary medicine, genetics and biochemistry to figure out the future of vaccines in a different way. Things are going to change because these disciplines are coming together to work and we’re engaging with our partners on what’s needed and what they see as the future of innovation.

Robison: The university broke ground on a feed mill and grain science center on Sept. 14. It’s a $21.5 million project that will transform our ability to see what’s happening with all the grains grown across the state of Iowa and how they’re transformed into feed for animals and other sorts of things. This is going to revolutionize our ability to study the whole range of value and do great things for the state of Iowa, so that’s very exciting.

Lawrence: In August we welcomed our new head clover — Debbie Nistler, the  new 4-H Youth Development State Program Leader. She’s been a 4-Her all her life, showed livestock. Her first four days were at the Iowa State Fair — on her second day, she was doing science experiments at the fair with (country music superstar) Luke Bryan and the Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. She asked if it was always like this in Iowa 4-H; we assured her that it is!

Recently, we announced the start of a discussion about how we are organized between county and campus. We’re having discussions with county councils and county staff now about how we can rebuild the connection between county and campus. We have a couple of models out there that people are looking at, but it is really about how we can increase capacity for local programming and relieve some of the burden on our elected officials (each county has nine elected council members).

Robison expressed how impressive it is that ISA has provided more than $60 million toward soybean-related research at the university since the early 1970s. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

On the importance of partnerships and innovation at ISU:

Wintersteen: ISU helps position agriculture for the future through its many partnerships and this big multi-disciplinary approach to bring expertise of us to the table and ask: What is it that agriculture needs? What is it that science is saying to farmers in Iowa? We’re up here on the stage with ISA, a historic and great partner for ISU. I think private support is going to be required to keep ISU on the path to the great future that we know is in store for us.

I’ll give you another great example: Boehringer Ingelheim came to Iowa and bought a vaccine company, planning to take the business back to Germany. But they realized that four of the six top-selling vaccines produced at this company had been developed in partnership with faculty at our College of Veterinary Medicine. So, they now have a big building in the ISU Research Park and are working hand-in-hand with our faculty. That’s the connection of science to industry that will allow Iowa to grow. If Iowa doesn’t grow economically, if it doesn’t grow in population, then it restricts future opportunities.

Robison: ISA is an incredible group of people and I’m always just so astounded by one figure: Since the early 1970s, ISA has provided more than $60 million toward the CALS research enterprise. That’s transformative and has an impact on what all of you do on your farms and what soybean farmers do around the world, because the work we do here matters so much.

In the Advanced Research and Teaching Building, we’ve got this phenomenal crucible of scientists working together. ISA was a major contributor to that building and we are so thankful for ISA’s support. We look forward to continuing that partnership.

Lawrence: We have a three-way funding mechanism — federal, state and county dollars. Those county dollars largely — 97 percent — stay in the within your home county. It’s really about that partnership of how we work together to use those resources most effectively. Innovation and people are going to shape the future of agriculture. In addition to the environmental and science and the productivity pieces of it, there is also the people piece in our rural communities. Production and profitability are key to sustainability, but having livable communities, ones that our children and grandchildren want to come back and be a part of, is crucial. ISU will be a part of that, working on leadership development and working with communities to be a place that people want to live.

On the relationship between fundamental and applied research at ISU:

Robison: It’s a continuum — you’ve got to have both. I think CALS has a good balance. For example, earlier this year we received a $3.2-million-dollar gift from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust to deploy a new electron microscope in our department of biochemistry. We have scientists working on the impacts of climate change. We have scientist using machine learning to diagnose soybean stress. These people will be able to look inside molecules to see the structure and function, which is fundamental to what we do. That’s the kind of research that led to the discovery of DNA, which downstream led to the ability to genetically-modify organisms. The link and association between fundamental and applied sciences is great and both are critically important.

On ISU’s role in understanding and dealing with the impact of the trade war with China:

Lawrence: We have great folks like Dermot Hayes and Chad Hart and the entire team at the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development that did an analysis of what a trade war would look like. Many of that is still quoted today, now that we are more than a year into this, and they continue to do research and really try to inform the public and policymakers what the impact truly looks like.

Another role that we play in is the farm financial piece of this. We have farm financial associates who can confidentially help work out plans to see what farmers’ options are going forward. And there’s also the productivity aspect that our agronomists and animal scientists work on.

We’re hearing more about stress in our youth and in our farming communities. We’ve added a behavioral specialist, David Brown to our staff to help with the mental health aspect in our communities. We’re doing more in this arena now; teaching what to watch for, how to observe, how to listen. We’re also preparing a program to work with agribusinesses, because often times it is the retailer, the lender, the implement dealer, the seed dealer, that’s at the kitchen table. They often observe these behaviors in a customer, but often don’t know what they are observing or how they can help. We’re helping those who interact with farmers on a daily basis figure out how they can play a role as a listener or help direct people to find assistance.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and ISU Extension and Outreach work hip-to-hip and shoulder-to-shoulder to effectively serve the people of Iowa, Lawrence explained. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

On improving water quality:

Robison: We have great challenges with respect to water quality. We have the most incredible cadre of people working in the realm of water quality and water resources. And I know everybody in this room is committed to that. I’m always impressed, no matter where I go, no matter which organization I meet with, every one of them is talking about clean water. How do we manage it? How do we improve it? How do we adjust our production systems to meet those goals that we as individual producers want to have but our society demands, too? ISU is positioned to address those most difficult questions, because those places are where a positive future lives. We want to be leaders. That’s what we do best.

Lawrence: One example of a technology that can help get us there is the Gross-Wen Technology, which our scientists developed and tested. This technology uses algae as a wastewater treatment system. Algae absorbs phosphorus and nitrogen from the wastewater along with carbon dioxide from the air. As communities begin to outgrow their existing system, they can put on one unit at a time. So instead of scrapping any current system with a multi-million-dollar investment, it can scale up. It’s been tested in Chicago and it’s been installed in the town of Slater in central Iowa. We need to find these types of solutions for our communities that are incremental and affordable rather than just starting over.

On ISU’s role in elevating science in the eyes of consumers:

Wintersteen: We’ve learned some hard lessons. We went through a period of time where we just wanted to show data: “Here is the data, the data is clear, you should understand this, you should believe like I believe.” And that simply was a failed approach.

Right now we have a wonderful faculty member, Dr. Michael Dahlstrom, in the Greenlee School of Journalism, who is on the front edge of what has been talked about now for a number of years, and that is that you change people’s minds not by showing them data but by telling them your story. This is the way I think we are going to be more successful in helping people understand science. It also means that scientists have to stop talking like scientists. We are working on this concept of how we tell the stories of the work that is being done. How do we help people see themselves in these stories? There’s a whole area of the study of storytelling happening at ISU to further this cause.

Panelists' quotes have been edited for length and clarity. Contact Lauren Houska at

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