UW–River Falls announces four faculty fellowships funded by state-sponsored Dairy Innovation Hub

The University of Wisconsin–River Falls College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES) recently awarded four faculty research fellowships to help increase dairy-related research capacity through the Dairy Innovation Hub initiative. The selected faculty members will tackle 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.

Funded through a $7.8 million per year investment by the state of Wisconsin, the Hub harnesses research and development at UW–Madison, UW–Platteville and UW–River Falls campuses to keep Wisconsin’s $45.6 billion dairy community at the global forefront in producing nutritious dairy foods in an economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable manner. Since its launch in 2019, the Hub has funded more than 220 projects across the three campuses.

A faculty research fellowship is a temporary position for permanent faculty members. The goal is to provide support for a specific research project and any ancillary costs — including ensuring that the faculty member will have time to conduct the research and support for existing teaching responsibilities.

The following UW–River Falls faculty fellows were selected for funding:

Grace Lewis, Department of Animal and Food Science

“Processing-induced alterations in casein protein digestibility and enzymatic interactions”

Lewis is an assistant professor of animal and food science at UW–River Falls who specializes in dairy processing. Her research interests include processing interventions to improve dairy protein functionality, dairy food byproduct enhancement and utilization, high-pressure technologies and nanoparticles, emulsions, and foams. Lewis’s position is funded by the Dairy Innovation Hub.

Project Summary: A previous Hub-funded project titled “Optimization of casein nanoparticle formation using high pressure homogenization and processing aids” revealed that dissociation of casein proteins may increase gastric digestion rate. Faster digestion of proteins would be appealing to certain groups of people such as athletes, who desire immediate protein bioavailability post-workout, or infants, who have been shown to digest proteins at a slower rate. However, researchers need to evaluate how changes to casein’s protein structure effects interactions with enzymes encountered during digestion and dairy manufacturing. This project will evaluate the hydrolysis kinetics of milk proteins in dissociated samples vs. native samples using a variety of proteolytic digestion enzymes. Additionally, the researchers aim to determine the gelation properties of dissociated samples upon exposure to traditional coagulation procedures.

Jill Coleman Wasik, Department of Plant and Earth Science

“Growing a new UW collaboration to continuously measure groundwater nitrate in western Wisconsin farm wells using a novel sensor technology”

Coleman Wasik is an associate professor of plant and earth science at UW–River Falls. Her work aims to understand how human activities benefit from natural processes while lessening their impacts on natural systems.

Project Summary: Nitrate contamination of groundwater in Wisconsin affects the health of rural residents and the bottom-line of farming operations. Elevated nitrates in drinking water are associated with a variety of adverse health outcomes such as colorectal cancer in adults, neural tube defects in newborns, and increased risk of adverse birth outcomes. Additionally, elevated nitrate levels have demonstrated varying impacts to animal health such as poor growth and reduced reproductive performance. This project aims to initiate a collaboration between UW–River Falls and UW–Madison faculty with the objective of improving understanding of how nitrate concentrations fluctuate in wells in response to factors such as rain events and nutrient management practices. Collaborators will grow an existing well water-quality database, collect high frequency geochemical data, and develop continuous nitrate monitoring systems that can be deployed in active residential and farm wells. This project seeks to develop a system that empowers rural communities to track their nitrate exposure in real-time and to identify areas where changes in nutrient management will have immediate positive effects for well water quality.

Susanne Wiesner, Department of Plant and Earth Science

“Filling existing gaps in the monitoring of soil greenhouse gas emissions and environmental health at Mann Valley Farm”

Wiesner is an assistant professor of environmental science at UW–River Falls. Her research interests include agricultural atmospheric science and climate resiliency, land-atmosphere interactions, remote sensing, and ecosystem management. Wiesner’s position is funded by the Dairy Innovation Hub.

Project Summary: Dairy agriculture systems are large sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) despite many opportunities to economically and sustainably reduce emissions. The largest sources of agricultural GHG emissions are functions of nutrient management, changes in moisture dynamics, particularly with respect to nitrous oxide and methane (N2O and CH4), soil structure and composition, as well as interactions between plant metabolites and soil microbes. Thus, it is critical to assess how land management practices, crop physiology, and soil characteristics including terrain interact to quantify tradeoffs among soil health, climate resilience and sustained agricultural yields. This project aims to improve soil GHG emission and carbon uptake monitoring at the UW–River Falls Mann Valley Farm, to detangle the complex interactions between land use management, vegetation type and physiology, and soil characteristics. Data gathered from Mann Valley Farm will be used to improve recommendations for crop-type considerations with respect to soil type, terrain, and legacy.

Youngmi Kim, Department of Agricultural Engineering Technology

“Development of whey protein-lignin based film/coating materials for dairy food packaging applications”

Kim is an associate professor of agricultural engineering technology at UW–River Falls with research interests in food process engineering, renewable energy, and bioprocess engineering.

Project Summary: Whey, a primary by-product, and environmental pollutant from the dairy industry, stands out as a promising raw material for creating biodegradable films designed for food packaging applications. However, the considerable challenges related to low mechanical strength and insufficient water barrier properties in whey protein-based films impede their broad industrial use. Previous research has demonstrated that whey protein films incorporating lignin exhibit improved light barrier and antioxidative properties compared to films without lignin. Lab analysis has revealed non-uniform dispersion of lignin particles in the film matrix, limiting property enhancements. This project focuses on utilizing chemically modified lignin microparticles to achieve a more even dispersion of lignin particles in the film matrix, further enhancing film characteristics. The film’s application in dairy food packaging will improve the economic and environmental sustainability of dairy farms and processors by expanding markets for whey and advocating for sustainable whey management practices.

Contact: Maria Woldt, Dairy Innovation Hub program manager, (608) 265-4009, maria.woldt@wisc.edu