New Faculty Q & A: Becky Larson

Get to know Becky Larson, who’s working to make a messy field clean.

Rebecca Larson and Kenny Janisch, UW animal research technician, enjoy the view in front of Arlington Agricultural Research Station’s manure lagoon. Photo credit: Ben Vincent/UW–Madison CALS
Rebecca Larson and Kenny Janisch, UW animal research technician, enjoy the view in front of Arlington Agricultural Research Station’s manure lagoon. Photo credit: Ben Vincent/UW–Madison CALS

It’s a messy business, manure, but it’s one that Becky Larson tromps through with grace. A biological systems engineer by training, Larson’s research focuses on biowaste systems — specifically manure systems and the intersection between environmental and economic cost-benefits.

Larson grew up outside of Detroit and earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD from Michigan State University. She never wanted to be an engineer — in fact, she switched to the major her fourth year in college, resulting in a mad dash to graduation. “I came to that from the environmental perspective, but then found that I knew nothing about agriculture,” Larson says, and so she soaked up as much information as she could through classes and internships. Then she stumbled into manure (metaphorically) and biogas systems, and she saw nothing but potential. “There was such an impact to the environment from it — or the potential for something so terrible to be made into something good,” Larson says. “However many messy years later, I’m still doing it!”

Biological systems engineering is a “strange” subset of engineering, Larson says. “Unlike other engineering fields where it’s the actual study that ties you together, it’s more of the application that ties you together,” she describes. It’s a perfect parallel for the interdisciplinary nature of the Nelson Institute, Larson’s new home after 12 years on campus as an associate professor and extension specialist in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Learn more about Professor Larson’s transition into Nelson, the climate implications of her work, and what she’s most excited about for the new semester. 

What most excites you about becoming a Nelson faculty member?

The Nelson Institute was a good fit because they’re progressive in attitudes about what people are working on. I’m really big into sustainability. Aside from manure, I’m interested in food waste and those kinds of systems. That really fits into Nelson’s stuff. I’ve actually had some PhD students come through Nelson, and a lot of them were working on internationally focused projects. I think Nelson houses a place where I can dig a little bit harder into my international program. I find [the interdisciplinary nature] interesting and scary at the same time. I think it’s scary for a lot of us. You’re trying to work with others and make the process more inclusive to other thought processes. [But] I find it interesting because I think it leads us to better outcomes. The more different thought processes you send into a problem-solving thing, the better your outcomes will be. 

Your expertise is in biogas systems. Can you break down that concept for me? 

[Biogas systems] are anaerobic digesters, and they’re actually pretty old and simple technology. You take a waste product, you contain it without oxygen, and then natural occurring microorganisms produce methane as a byproduct. You capture that methane — we call it biogas — and then you can use it. You can burn it to make heat. You can put it in a generator to make electricity. You can clean it up and inject it into the natural gas pipeline [or] compress it and use it for compressed vehicle fuel. There’s even some work we’re doing now with some teammates who are trying to make it into aviation fuel. There’s a whole lot of cool things you can do with it. That’s part of my job: researching different things that might make the technology more feasible. The other part of my job is to help people understand how to integrate these kinds of systems and what the benefits [and] costs are.

How does the cost benefit weigh against the environmental benefit when it comes to biogas?

I have a tendency with manure systems to run into this environmental and economic intersection. People are trying to run farms. They need to make a profit. How do we find things that may be advantageous economically and environmentally? That’s the jackpot, right? To hit something that’s very clear that you can make money and it’s better for the environment. For me, digesters are a great way to mitigate climate change, which is something that makes me very nervous as someone who has seen projections of what that might mean for us. Although energy systems are the biggest leader for the gasses that contribute to climate change, agriculture is a big 10 percent chunk of that, give or take. In livestock systems, we really need to look at the ways that we can mitigate the contributions to climate change. 

What happens when the solutions that are better for the environment aren’t more cost effective?

We try to look at what price we are giving the cost we’re going to pay later when these emissions cause havoc. With climate change now, I’m hoping that people are realizing that we’re at the point of needing to make decisions. We need to be assigning value and dollars to what the impacts of these decisions are and trying to pick the decisions that can be most cost effective for us to make change.

What are you most excited about for the new semester?

So many things! I like having the students back. We research and we do things in the summer, but the real swing of the university, the energy of it, comes back in the fall. It just provides a positive charge to everything you’re doing. I’m excited to have a new office and a new location; that feels very different than the past 12 years. And of course, a day out at the Terrace is never a bad thing — and I’ll be close to that in my office!

What classes will you be teaching this year?

I am only teaching the Women in Science and Engineering class this fall. I am the codirector of the [program]. I think we have 120 or 130 students. It’s really been a great thing. They’re very bright. It’s amazing to see students these days. In the spring, I will teach Environmental Studies 126: Principles of Environmental Science. That’s one thing that I’m excited about, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’ll be my first year teaching [that class]. I typically used to teach a 400-level course, so I didn’t see a lot of younger students. I’m excited to get that first- and second-year perspective. You’re seeing students at a different stage where they haven’t figured everything out yet. Everyone is trying to figure things out, there’s lots of adventures to be had, and it’s fun to be a part of that.