Distinguished alumni honored for careers
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Distinguished alumni honored for careers

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MADISON, Wis. – Three alumni of the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently earned distinguished-alumni awards from the UW-College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Being recognized for their lifetime achievements are Barbara Barton, Elzie Higginbottom and Steven Ricke.

Barbara Barton was raised on a family farm near Fairview, Pennsylvania. The family raised dairy cows as well as beef cattle, pigs and chickens.

“It was very much a family operation,” she said. “If there was a job to be done and I was the only one home at the time, I did it. No one told ever told me I couldn’t do it.”

Her experiences as a farm youth served as a foundation throughout her college years and beyond, she said. She earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science at Pennsylvania State University before moving to Madison.

As a graduate student at UW-Madison she worked with Neal Jorgenson, a professor in dairy science, to determine the causes of milk fever and ways to prevent it. Jorgenson was also studying Vitamin D metabolism in transition cows. Barton pursued her doctorate in that area of research, adding the study of calcium and phosphorus metabolism in transition cows.

“Dr. Jorgenson was an excellent scientist and encouraged collaboration,” Barton said. “He embraced diversity – working with international students and students with non-farming backgrounds. I took that through my career.”

She became the first woman to earn a doctorate and the second to earn a master’s degree in dairy science at UW-Madison.

“I never thought of being the first,” she said. “I just had a job to do and I did it.”

Not until later in her career did that “first” seem to register with her.

“Young women would talk to me and say I was a role model,” she said.

David Combs is currently a dairy-science professor at UW-Madison. He met Barton when both were graduate students working in the dairy-nutrition laboratories – in the 1970s and 1980s, a time of tremendous changes.

“Ag research was dominated by men and all of the professors were men,” Combs said. “More women have since become interested in dairy research; Barbara helped lead the way.

“I always respected her because of her leadership, and because she is a great scientist.”

After earning her doctorate Barton joined the University of Maine as a professor in animal science, teaching there for 10 years before moving to the dairy-nutrition-research team at Purina Mills. She moved in 2000 to California to work at the J.D. Heiskill & Company and then at Balchem Animal Nutrition and Health. She retired in June 2019.

Steven Ricke earned in 1989 a doctorate in animal science and bacteriology at UW-Madison, presenting his doctoral thesis on ammonia utilization by rumen bacteria.

“Steve was the only student to complete a joint-major doctorate program in animal science and bacteriology,” said Dan Schaefer, UW-Madison animal-science professor and director of meat science and animal-biologics; he nominated Ricke for the award.

Ricke was raised on a dairy farm in south-central Illinois. He earned bachelor and master’s degrees in animal science at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana. He had originally intended to become a veterinarian but during graduate school discovered he enjoyed research.

“I was very honored and humbled,” he said of the award. “I have a soft spot for Wisconsin, and treasure the memories of my friends and studies there. I also learned at UW-Madison how to recreate a research environment in other places. That has had a more-profound effect than I ever realized.”

Ricke followed his passion for research throughout his career. He conducted post-doctorate research at North Carolina State University, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Station. He in 1992 joined Texas A&M University, then moved in 2005 to the University of Arkansas where he is currently the Center for Food Safety director.

He’s known throughout the country for his research into salmonella and campylobacter in both live poultry and in poultry processing. He has studied the gastrointestinal tract of chickens, and screened and identified feed additives to help improve bird health and reduce food-borne pathogens.

“Steve has developed into a leader in the field of infectious diseases of poultry,” wrote Charles Czuprynski in his letter supporting Ricke’s nomination.

Czuprynski is the UW-Food Research Institute director, and a professor in and chairman of the university’s Department of Pathobiological Sciences.

Elzie Higginbottom has applied his experiences in agricultural and applied economics during his career as a real estate entrepreneur. He serves on the University of Wisconsin Foundation board of directors as well as the chancellor’s advisory board. He’s active in the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Chicago chapter.

“Elzie is one of University of Wisconsin-Madison’s most accomplished, dedicated and generous alumni,” said Alisa Robertson, with the foundation and the association. “He’s been incredibly successful in his career. He has supported the college (of agriculture), the broader university and the Chicago community in so many meaningful ways.

“He has supported a number of areas related to diversity and inclusion. He has helped us recruit outstanding students from Chicago and is always willing to talk about his experience (at UW-Madison) and the value of his degree.”

Higginbottom has provided funding to launch an initiative to help recruit underrepresented students from the Chicago area.

Thomas Browne, senior assistant dean of academic affairs at UW-College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, met Higginbottom through alumni activities.

“He’s very humble and behind the scenes,” Browne said. “But he’s always willing to speak one-on-one with high school students and meet them where they are. He’s a great role model and an example of what’s possible.”

Visit cals.wisc.edu for more information.

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