A weekend bike ride down Hutchinson Drive

CIERA PASTUREL / AGGIE

Tractors, bee hives and medical research

Extending west from the heart of campus toward the very outskirts of Davis, a bike ride down Hutchison Drive can take anyone on a journey through green fields and thriving intellectual hotspots.

First stop along the way is the Western Center for Agricultural Equipment (WCAE), located off of Hutchison Drive just west of West Village. This center, which opened in 2001, is part of the department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE), a hybrid department that is a part of both the Agricultural and Engineering colleges.

“After a multi-year effort towards fundraising and construction, [the center] in part replaced an old metal building where we hosted many classes,” said Victor Duraj, an associate development engineer at BAE and the outreach and safety coordinator for WCAE. “Our new center was designed to bring that teaching to a modern facility, [while integrating] research and outreach activities in a larger, shared environment.”

The WCAE has continued its commitment to education by offering various courses, serving as a senior capstone field and bringing together resources in the industry from which students can directly learn.

“We even have a school of education course that’s called teaching agricultural mechanics,” Duraj said. “It’s taken by students who are earning their teaching credentials and a masters degree. [These students] become vocational agricultural teachers throughout California.”

Research and outreach are the second half of WCAE’s mission, with faculty members pursuing new technologies and advances in agriculture and allocating a wing of the building to outreach efforts. One of WCAE’s most notable achievements in outreach is its partnership with CNH Industrial, which provides some of the tractors students use in classes.

“Another big thing that people out here work on is safety for farm workers,” Duraj said. “Probably our most exciting recent work has been in researching potential improvements in orchard ladders. An orchard ladder is a three-legged ladder that’s used to harvest fruit. In a field environment the surface is not even, and a three-legged ladder provides a much more stable platform on which to work. We are working on different designs to make them safer for workers to use. I guess you could sum it up as ergonomics for agriculture.”

Stop number two’s colorful and inviting entrance is hard to miss: a mosaic sign depicting a beehive, honeycombs and cherry blossoms. At the intersection of Hutchinson and Bee Biology Road, the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility focuses on bee biology and genetics research, with the larger goal of addressing global bee health. They investigate declining populations of insect pollinators — a phenomenon that could have catastrophic consequences on the global economy and food industry.

Jessica Drost, a fourth-year animal biology major who helps conduct research at the facility, explained that a majority of the research concerns “conserving our pollinators,” and how to manage honeybee populations.

“People are aware that there’s something happening,” Drost said. “They are hearing that we have huge declines of pollinators, which is affecting our food systems. Part of that conversation is how we can plant things in our garden to increase [bee] populations, and people are seeing that there’s things they can do. Planting wild flowers is always a good idea.”

Colony collapse disorder is also becoming a major issue, and certain parts of the world are having to cope with the loss of the pollination service bees provide humans through artificial methods of pollination.

“I know in China that’s definitely happening, especially with apples,” Drost said. “If we keep seeing declines we will have to self-pollinate. We study bees not just because we care about our food systems, but also because we love [our bees] and it would be a sad day to see robots pollinate our crops.”

Next to the facility is the Honey Bee Haven garden, sponsored by Haagen Daaz.  Planted in 2009, this unique outdoor museum is adorned with a giant bee sculpture created by artist Donna Billick and native plants specifically placed for visiting bees and patrons to enjoy.  

“Often there’ll be classrooms of kids that come on field trips to learn about honey bees over there, which is great because I don’t think I learned about pollinators when I was younger,” Drost said.

Next, at the very west end of Hutchinson as it intersects with Lincoln Highway is the Center for Comparative Medicine (CCM). Run jointly by UC Davis’ Medical and Veterinary schools, the CCM’s mission is to use animal models of human disease in order to understand disease processes and to work toward their prevention and intervention.

“This center started in concept about 20 years ago,” said Peter Barry, the director of CCM. “Today we look at influenza, chlamydia, cytomegalovirus (CMV) […] and we use the power of animal modeling to investigate in tractable model systems how we can improve human and veterinarian health.”

Barry’s research focuses specifically on CMV, a virus that is widespread but often hidden due to symptoms not surfacing until the immune system is weakened for another reason.

“CMV is a virus for a most part that our immune system contains,” Barry said. “Some people get mild flu-like symptoms, but most people don’t even know they’re infected. But once you’ve been infected, you are infected for life.”

A vaccine to prevent the virus has been the subject of research efforts for about 40 years now.

No one has [a vaccine] yet,” Barry said. “We’ve been trying to come up with ways to develop vaccine strategies to help achieve the goal of getting a vaccine for this virus because it is a major source of morbidity around the world.”

However, the medicalization of CMV and efforts to prevent it through a vaccine don’t negate the social, economic and political factors contributing to the manifestation of disease.

“If you look at the frequency of CMV, it is inversely related to socioeconomic status,” Barry said. “People lower down on the economic ladder have a higher incidence of CMV infection than people higher up. That becomes important clinically because on average 1 percent of all fetuses [in developed countries] are infected by CMV, but 5 percent are affected in less developed countries.”

Dr. Barry believes there are many factors contributing to this issue, such as poverty, stress or poor nutrition.

“All that could have a role on the immune system,” Barry said. “This all contributes to a whole conspiracy of factors which make CMV a bigger problem in people of lower socioeconomic status.”

Along with a thirst for knowledge in all three of these intellectual hotspots along Hutchinson Road, there is a strong desire held in these research centers to work for the betterment of humanity.

“All of us are working hard on campus to figure out a way to feed 9 billion people in the not so distant future,” Duraj said. “So any of the kind of work that we can do to make agriculture more efficient and safer is very important.”
Written by: Sahiti Vemula  — features@theaggie.org