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Award-winning Research

April 03, 2024

“Calves are in flames! I mean they’re inflamed.”

Alexandra Pace, a University of Idaho graduate student studying animal physiology, grabbed her audience’s attention with a bad pun and then explained that her Three Minute Thesis speech would address a “burning” question facing the dairy industry.

Pace’s punchy synopsis of her research on the effects of wildfire smoke on dairy calf health won second place in the annual Three Minute Thesis competition, both within the university and at the state level. In fact, U of I students swept the top three positions in the state competition, hosted Feb. 6 on the College of Southern Idaho campus in Twin Falls. Abbey Rode, a master’s student in psychology, claimed first for her speech on sentencing inequities in the criminal justice system and Yoram Terleth, a doctoral student in geology, placed third for his speech on the loss of glaciers.

The competition was developed by the University of Queensland, Australia.

Pace, of Walton, Nebraska, is studying under Amy Skibiel, an associate professor specializing in lactation and environmental physiology, and is on track to earn her doctorate in the spring of 2025.

Pace was also the top-ranked presenter at the Conference of Research Workers in Animal Diseases, hosted in Chicago in late January. She presented her 2022 research on the pulmonary responses of dairy calves to wildfire smoke.

She and Skibiel followed the same group of calves over time — before, during and after an extremely smoky wildfire season. They found the calves had more inflammation throughout the body immediately following smoke exposure, as well as changes in metabolism. The summer after the smoky season, they conducted a follow-up study assessing the effects of wildfire smoke on the calf lung by looking at cell populations and using lung ultrasounds.

They hypothesize that calves exposed to smoke may grow to be cows that produce less milk or suffer from chronic illness. They expect wildfire smoke will become increasingly significant for the dairy industry as blazes are becoming more common and more severe.

“The cool part about it is we have seen similar changes year to year,” Pace said. “We think this has implications on dairy production. We think it’s important for dairy producers to understand this.”

In May 2023, they received a four-year, $772,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to evaluate the mechanisms contributing to inflammation in smoke-exposed dairy cows and calves and to characterize immune cell populations in bovine lungs following smoke exposure.

The grant will fund construction of environmental chambers, in which they’ll be able to manipulate smoke levels to compare health changes in calves at various levels of exposure against a control group with no smoke exposure. They’ll also be testing a potential solution for dairy farmers — the use of air filters designed to suck in and clean automobile exhaust in urban areas. The filtration study will be done in an open-air barn in Moscow. Those trials will commence this summer.

“Ultimately, our goal with all of this work is to educate producers, stakeholders, Extension educators and veterinarians on what the risks are in cattle associated with wildfire smoke exposure and develop guidelines that those individuals can implement to protect their herds,” Skibiel said.

Pace is drafting a doctoral dissertation on her smoke-exposure research that will include five chapters, each comprising about 60 pages of data and observations. In her view, the key to effectively distilling so many facts into a three-minute presentation was to focus on telling a compelling story and to strive to keep the audience engaged.

“We’ve been trained to talk at such a scientific level about the research, then all of a sudden you’re switching gears to this really general audience, but I think it’s an important skill to learn,” Pace said. “It makes you think, ‘What are the main points of this research?’ and, ‘this is why you should care.’”

Representatives from the College of Graduate Studies helped train the U of I Three Minute Thesis presenters on public speaking and stage presence. Each presenter was allowed one slide to use as a visual display.

“I love sharing this research,” Pace said. “I think that’s what gets people excited about it.”

The ongoing research projects are funded by a four-year, $771,596 USDA-NIFA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant under award No. 2023-67016-39658, of which 100% is the federal share.

Published in Catching Up with CALS

Alexandra Pace's punchy synopsis of her research on the effects of wildfire smoke on dairy calf health won second place in the annual Three Minute Thesis competition, both within the university and at the state level.

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at


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