Features – On Wisconsin https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Thu, 20 Sep 2018 14:07:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 The Big Dig https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-big-dig/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-big-dig/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23640 Pulling a soil sample from frozen Wisconsin ground in January is not impossible, but it certainly isn’t easy.

Armed with a steel pick, plant pathology professor Douglas Rouse sent dirt, grass, and ice flying into the sunlight at the UW Arboretum as a small group of introductory biology students noted the location and condition of the frozen soil. Thawed or frozen, wet or dry, the soil remains an essential hunting ground. Within it lies the key to suppressing what the United Nations calls “the greatest and most urgent global risk”: superbugs — strains of bacteria that have grown resistant to traditional antibiotics. Superbugs could kill more people than cancer by 2050 if left unchecked, according to a 2014 report issued by the United Kingdom’s government.

More than two-thirds of new antibiotics come from soil bacteria or fungi. But since a small sample contains thousands of species of bacteria — and most of the antibiotics they produce are toxic to humans — it requires significant time, labor, and persistence to isolate effective antibiotic producers and to test for new compounds. With the prospects of profitability lacking, pharmaceutical companies have shied away from developing new antibiotics to focus on more lucrative drugs.

Enter Tiny Earth, an initiative based at the UW’s Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID). Rouse’s biology students are just a sampling of the nearly 10,000 students across 41 states and 14 countries who are mining soil to solve the superbug problem.

“Antibiotic resistance is one of the main threats to global health and security, and the students have potential to discover new antibiotics to fill the void that currently exists,” says Jo Handelsman PhD’84, director of WID and founder of the initiative.

Each semester, thousands of students around the world dig into the soil in their backyards, farm fields, stream beds, and forest floors. Just like the UW students, they learn the techniques they need to identify new species and compounds. Along with building a database of new antibiotics with medical potential, Tiny Earth is addressing another looming global crisis: a shortage of students pursuing careers in science.

“One of the best ways to learn is to engage in science actively and to do research so that the thrill of discovery drives the learning process,” says Handelsman, who first developed the program in 2012 at Yale University. She saw too many first- and second-year undergraduates dropping out of the sciences and wanted to reverse the trend by offering hands-on research that pulls in techniques and ideas from disciplines such as ecology, genetics, and molecular biology. For students, it’s a galvanizing introduction to laboratory science: they learn new skills while solving real problems.

The UW introductory biology students spent last spring diluting their soil samples, culturing and isolating bacteria, and profiling the genomes of anti- biotic-producing microbes. Along the way, they made hypotheses about what they might find, learned and selected techniques, and synthesized their findings, all in the hope of discovering new antibiotic compounds. While the samples await final analysis, the initiative is betting on the odds that more participation will increase the chances of unique discovery.

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Science Faction https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/science-faction/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/science-faction/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:26 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23583 In his autobiography, Tommy, which is out this September, Tommy Thompson ’63, JD’66 shares stories about his small-town upbringing in Elroy, Wisconsin, his days on campus, and his career in government. Thompson devotes a significant passage to his support for stem cell research, both on campus and worldwide. In May 2017, the university opened the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, which states that it seeks to provide “a multidisciplinary, nonpartisan environment to study, discuss, and improve leadership.” Although some have questioned whether the center will live up to its nonpartisan charge, few would disagree that its namesake is known for reaching across the aisle and for being a tireless promoter of Wisconsin and its state university.

It was at a cabinet meeting that first spring after being named secretary of Health and Human Services when President George W. Bush asked me if I would stay afterward.

“I need to address stem cells,” the president said. “I want to know more about them.”

I nodded.

“I know you are for the research,” the president continued, “and I know Karl Rove [then White House deputy chief of staff] is against it. I am going to schedule a lunch for the three of us. I want you to come in, and I want you and Karl to discuss it.”

I wasn’t surprised. In my 1999 State of the State speech, I introduced James Thomson, a UW–Madison developmental biologist whose lab, in 1998, was the first to isolate stem cells from human embryos. His findings were published in Science magazine in November 1998, and the following month the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) received a patent on the discovery. Even in those early days it was being touted as a breakthrough that could revolutionize modern medicine and health care.

But the research was not without controversy. Though the cells Thomson used were left over from fertility clinics — and the donors had signed off on their use in research — some right-to-life people called it immoral, unethical, or both. They were furious with me for introducing Thomson during my State of the State speech, and it was brought up again by the Bush team prior to my appointment.

“I support stem cells,” I told them. “If that means I can’t get the appointment, so be it.”

My passionate support of Thomson and WARF were part of my larger belief that the University of Wisconsin’s emergence as a leader in biotechnology and biomedical research was great for both our state and humanity in general. Where are lifesaving advances going to come from, if not great institutions like the University of Wisconsin?

As governor, I tried to forge a partnership that would help the UW System grow while at the same time generating new technologies and businesses to pump up the state’s economy. During my time as governor, more than 4,000 building projects at a collective cost of nearly $2 billion were initiated at campuses across the state. It was a mix of public and private money. I helped Donna Shalala, before she left the UW–Madison’s chancellor job to join the Clinton administration, generate private funds to advance the expansion. Later, I called it the New Wisconsin Idea — a collaboration between academia and the private sector that would benefit both and bring good-paying new jobs to Wisconsin.

I can’t understand why any public official wouldn’t see the University of Wisconsin System as an ally, especially in a world that is changing faster than ever.

I remember having a discussion at some point in my last term as governor with John Wiley MS’65, PhD’68, who would later be UW–Madison chancellor but at the time was provost. John said he wanted me to meet Michael Sussman, a biochemist on campus who was doing some interesting work perfecting DNA chips utilized in identifying genetic abnormalities that can eventually lead to new drugs and ways to fight disease.

I said I’d be happy to meet Sussman. During my first term as governor, Chancellor Shalala had approached me about assisting with a new Biotechnology Center on the Madison campus. I agreed to help, and with a mix of federal, state, and private dollars, the center was built on the site of the old Wisconsin High School. By the time Wiley brought Sussman to see me in the late 1990s, the biosciences were exploding on campus, and the center I’d helped fund was already inadequate. Sussman sat in my office in the capitol and for two hours talked about DNA and the potential for all this great science to generate medical advances. I liked Sussman, his enthusiasm and genuineness, though we joked later about how he’s a Democrat from New York and would never have voted for me prior to meeting me. He said that more brilliant students than ever were interested in studying biology at Wisconsin, but because of space limitations, some had to be turned away. He said we weren’t losing them to Michigan State — we were losing them to Harvard and Stanford. We’re a great university, he said, but we need a new building and more lab space.

He impressed me. Within a few days of the meeting, I called Wiley and promised funding for one of the things we had talked about: five new faculty hires in the area of human genomics. I toured the existing facilities, learning more about the science all the time. Then, in my January 2000 State of the State speech, I unveiled the $317 million BioStar Initiative, which included an addition to the Biotechnology Center as well as renovations and additional buildings for biology-related departments.

I’m proud of what I was able to do for the University of Wisconsin. It made sense for all kinds of reasons, including economic development. I was always trying to figure out how to help Wisconsin compete with the technology triangle in North Carolina and Silicon Valley. I wanted Wisconsin to be the third pillar out there.

At some point after I left for Washington and Health and Human Services, word reached me that Mike Sussman was thinking of leaving UW–Madison. He had a very attractive offer from the University of California–Davis, and was considering it to the point he’d already looked at houses.

I telephoned Mike one night from Washington — he later joked that he’d had a couple of drinks by the time I called — and asked if it was true.

“You’re thinking about leaving?”

“Yes,” Mike said.

“You can’t do it,” I said. I talked about all we’d accomplished and all that was still to come. This was when Mike confessed he was a Democrat. “I usually bat for the other team,” was the way he put it.

“I suspected it but never held it against you,” I said. We laughed. “Now, let’s talk about why you’re going to stay.”

I’m sure all my work on behalf of biomedical research at the University of Wisconsin was somewhere in my mind when I went to the White House in spring 2001 to meet with Bush and Rove to discuss stem cells.

The president had us in to the Oval Office. There’s a little room off to the side of the Oval Office, and that’s where we sat for lunch. I had a hamburger, and the president had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I don’t remember what Rove had to eat, but he spoke first, and he was adamant that Bush keep a hard line against allowing the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. He brought up the ethical concerns, but he stressed — and this was not atypical for Rove — the potential political fallout of softening that stance. I must admit I could relate. As I noted earlier, antiabortion groups in Wisconsin were furious with my support of Thomson’s research. They are passionate, and they are vocal.

But as I have also stated, I believed that in the end, the lifesaving potential of the research should carry the day.

A few weeks before my lunch with Rove and Bush, I’d been visited in Washington by Jere Fluno ’63, a classmate of mine at UW–Madison who went on to a vastly successful career in business. Jere was also a philanthropist. I attended the luncheon in 1997 at the Madison Club when Jere’s gift of $3 million to UW–Madison for an executive education facility — now called the Fluno Center — was announced.

Four years later, he was in my office at HHS in Washington to talk to me about his granddaughter, Lauren, who has juvenile diabetes. Jere told me about getting the phone call from his daughter informing him about Lauren’s diagnosis. She was two years old. He talked about seeing that tiny girl in that big hospital bed. And he talked about the need for research to find a cure.

“Stem cells give us hope,” Jere said.

It was an emotional meeting, and I remembered it at that Oval Office lunch, after Rove had finished and it was my turn to speak. I gave myself a quick, internal pep talk, knowing that the next few minutes might be my only chance to make my case.

“Mr. President,” I said, “your mother and father have been great champions in the fight against cancer. They’ve devoted a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort to that cause.

“And you’ve started out your presidency by increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health. I thank you for that. It’s the right thing to do, a great use of federal dollars.

“But Mr. President,” I continued, “if you come out against embryonic stem cell research, no matter if you double the money for NIH, or anything else, if you turn down embryonic stem cells you’re going to be remembered as the president who was antiscience.” The president kept looking at me but didn’t say anything, so I went on.

“Every person in your administration has either a member of their family or a close friend who is suffering from a debilitating illness. You had a sister who died young of a terrible illness. Your mother and father did everything they could for that child.”

I was referencing the daughter George H. W. and Barbara Bush lost to leukemia before she was four years old. “Every parent,” I told the president, “who has a child with juvenile diabetes, and who has to get up every night, four or five or six times, to check that child’s blood, not knowing if that child is going to live or die, those parents are counting on stem cells to come up with a cure. If you, as president, stand in the way of giving those parents the hope and dream of a cure, you’re going to be viewed as antiscience and stopping the great progress being made on juvenile diabetes, ALS, Parkinson’s — you name it.”

“But we don’t know that it will work,” the president said.

“It’s the hope, Mr. President,” I said. “The belief. And the dream.”

About six weeks later, on August 8, I was called to the White House for an early evening meeting. The president told me he was going to give a prime-time address — the first of his presidency — the following night to state his position on federal funding of research using human embryonic stem cells. The president had decided to allow federal funds to be used for research on existing stem cell lines — cells derived prior to August 9, 2001. Federal dollars would not be used for any cell lines derived after that date. It was, essentially, a compromise, and while it didn’t go as far as I might have hoped, I was pleased that the president at least went halfway. It got the federal funds flowing. I think what I said that day at lunch may have swayed him. The president didn’t tell me so, but that’s what I believe.

That night I called Carl Gulbrandsen, then managing director of WARF, which held the patent on Thomson’s research, to tell him what was coming. Carl was at dinner with his wife, Mary, in Colorado. I asked Carl, “Can you make these cell lines available?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ll do everything we can.”

By the first week of September, we had signed an agreement with the WiCell Research Institute, a nonprofit subsidiary of WARF, granting NIH scientists access to the cell lines, along with academic researchers, while also respecting WARF’s patent and license rights.

There is no question in my mind that my coming from Wisconsin and personally knowing people like Michael Sussman, Jamie Thomson, and Carl Gulbrandsen helped us accomplish more in a shorter time frame than would otherwise have been the case. We respected and trusted each other. Carl came to Washington several times during the implementation process and let me know that someone at NIH told him the agency had never moved so quickly on anything. I brought a group of 20 scientists and administrators from NIH to Madison to see where the research was happening and meet the people responsible for it.

I don’t mean to suggest any of this was easy. Throughout the debate, I was caught in the middle between the strict pro-life contingent and those — like Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter — who wanted all restrictions on embryonic stem cell research removed.

In spring 2016, UW–Madison invited me back and awarded me an honorary doctorate of laws degree for meritorious activity “as a dedicated promoter of the Wisconsin Idea and the use of government to enhance the life of its citizens.”

I spoke at commencement at the Kohl Center in Madison, and I shared the story of Mike Sussman — he stayed — while just generally touting the assets of this great economic diamond, the University of Wisconsin.

I didn’t speak long, 10 minutes or so. Primarily I wanted to thank the university for what it had given me — much more than an honorary degree — and once again make the case for how very valuable our great university is to the entire state of Wisconsin, as an economic engine and more.

I thought it was important to tell the graduating students in the audience a little about myself. How I came from a small city called Elroy, where if you dialed a wrong number on the phone you talked to whoever answered, because of course everyone knew everyone else. I talked about coming down to Madison for school with nothing but some dreams, and I told them how, with a lot of hard work, a lot of help, and a bit of luck, I’d been elected to the Wisconsin assembly and then elected governor. I’d gone to Washington and served a president in his cabinet. It still seemed so improbable, talking about it all these years later.

What I really wanted to convey was that my story, so much a Wisconsin story, could be their story, too, if they dreamt big enough and reached high enough.

Later, Chancellor Blank asked me if it would be possible to get a copy of my speech. I had to tell her there were no copies. I’d written nothing down. It came from the heart.

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Play Time https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/play-time/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/play-time/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:26 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23600 Memorial Union opened its doors for the first time on October 5, 1928, which means that the facility will mark its 90th birthday this fall. The occasion will wrap up 13 months of celebration since the five-year-long Memorial Union Reinvestment — the building’s first major renovation — concluded in September 2017. Come to think of it, the Union has been something of a perpetual celebration: nine decades of fun and games. Here’s how play has and hasn’t changed over the years.

Cards

1928

In the Union’s opening year, men play cards in Der Rathskeller. It was only men in those days — the Rath wouldn’t be open to women until 1941.

Historical black and white photo of students playing cards in the Memorial Union

UW Archives S0386

1965

In the 1960s, campus had grown increasingly political, and the Union evolved along with the students. Union Director Porter Butts ’26 etired in 1968 and was replaced by Ted Crabb ’54, who served until 2001. But in Der Rathskeller, students still passed the time with card games.

Bowling

1944

U.S. Navy sailors mansplain a bowling ball to female students. During World War II, the Union’s dining facilities served more than 2,000 military personnel daily. But the drop in male students meant opportunity for women — the Union’s first female president, Carolyn Hall Sands ’44, was elected in 1943.

2010

Two students experiment with human bowling in Memorial Union’s Tripp Commons. There was no real bowling in Memorial Union when it opened, and there isn’t any today. In 1939, eight lanes were added under the theater wing. They closed in 1970, shortly before Union South opened.

Arcade

1975

Foosball is older than the Union, having been invented in the United Kingdom in 1921. It reached peak popularity in the United States in the 1970s. Shorts were not to be seen in the Union until 1954, however, when a change to the dress code allowed shorts in the cafeteria and Der Rathskeller and on the Terrace.

2009

Students play video games (Super Smash Bros. Brawl) in Der Rathskeller. Video games are a rarity in Memorial Union today. Arcade revenue declined from the 1980s into the 2000s, and the games room closed in 2008.

Billiards

1936

Pool tournaments were held in the old Billiards Room, which was part of the original Union. A remodel in 1962 turned the Billiards Room into Der Stiftskeller, and the pool tables were moved to the basement. They later came back.

2014

Students play pool in Der Stiftskeller, which was named for a thousand-year-old restaurant in Salzburg, Austria. The murals were added to its walls in 1978.

Chess

1980s

Students play chess on the Terrace. The Union first made Terrace chairs available for purchase in 1982, though you can only buy red or white, not the traditional green, yellow, and orange.

2014

A chess game enlivens an August evening on the Terrace. Some things change very little.

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LOL https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/lol/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/lol/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:10 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23632 The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.]]> As the chipper CEO of a charity called 1-877-CARS-4-SHARKS, writer and actor Brian Stack MA’88 speaks directly to viewers.

Like many sketches on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it plays off news from the White House — in this case, recent stories about adult film actress Stormy Daniels’s tryst with Donald Trump before he was president. After Daniels had revealed how Trump had expressed hatred for sharks, increased donations flowed to shark conservation groups.

That led to the mock infomercial that opened the show that night. Accompanied by a guitar-playing shark, Stack, as the straight-laced CEO Burt Ridgewood, explains the benefits of putting live sharks into used cars, despite the high probability that drivers would be eaten in traffic.

The punchline features a picture of Stack, smiling, dressed as a double cheeseburger.

“It was so ridiculous,” Stack says. “One of my favorite compliments is when someone tells me: ‘That’s so stupid.’ That’s often my most favorite stuff — when it’s wonderfully dumb.”

Since the late 1990s, Stack has thrived by writing and performing wonderfully dumb sketches with some of late-night television’s biggest stars. After writing for Conan O’Brien’s show for 17 years, he joined the Colbert production team on CBS in 2015.

On O’Brien’s show, Stack had indulged his inner clown, writing for one of television’s funniest comics. But with Colbert, whom he’d known from their days in Chicago with the Second City improv troupe, Stack had to recalibrate his approach. Colbert’s forte is comic commentary on the day’s news. In a media landscape where satire has found a strong footing on television, Stack moved his antic, wacky humor into the political arena.

“It’s a challenge to funnel my natural … non-topical brain into the world of politics,” Stack says. “With Conan, we would address the news in a glancing, silly way. It was like fun cartoons. It never felt as driven by the news as our show feels at Colbert these days.”

That focus has added a certain immediacy to the joke-making process, especially with a president whose Twitter blasts provide ample fodder.

“There’s such a fast turnaround,” Stack says. “Sometimes we’re doing rewrite until showtime, but when it’s 5:30 p.m., that’s the script. You want it to be as good as it can be, and you also have to let it go. There’s always a show tomorrow.”

Get Me Rewrite

Making jokes for the Late Show starts early each morning after Stack’s commute into Manhattan from his home in Sleepy Hollow, about 25 miles north of New York City, to his office at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway. He and members of the writing staff toss around possible bits for Colbert’s monologue or “cold open” skits like the zany shark piece.

Stack’s improv skills come in handy during the collaborative writing sessions, where he and his colleagues build on each other’s ideas, even if what’s suggested doesn’t turn out to be all that funny.

“A bad idea can lead to a good one,” says Stack. “You need to feel free to toss out one that might be bad. That’s healthy brainstorming.”

Colbert is very much involved in the process. “He’s as much a writer as a host,” says Stack. “He’ll riff around in the rehearsal, tweak the language, or flat-out write new jokes on the fly.”

Those riffs can also occur when Colbert and Stack converse on camera, as when Colbert looks heavenward to speak with God, the animated character whose mouth moves to Stack’s voice-over. In one February sketch, Colbert asks God about the NRA president’s contention that gun ownership was a right granted from on high.

Colbert wonders if God is pro-gun.

“You created the Second Amendment,” God retorts. “I said a ‘well-regulated militia.’ That doesn’t sound like buying an AR–15 should be easier than buying Sudafed.”

Even on camera, Stack thrives on such nail-biting spontaneity. “I like it when we go off on riffs — when you go off the rails and know you won’t be left hanging,” he says. “That can be the most fun.”

Chunkable Comedy

At 53, Stack is tall and lanky, with a full head of red hair that can be slicked back and neatly combed on air. It’s somewhat untamed when he shows up to speak in late October at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, not far from his home. He’s around the same age as O’Brien and Colbert, part of the late 1980s and early 1990s generation that found inspiration in Chicago during what Stack likes to call the golden age for improv comedy, when he found his comedic voice alongside future stars Colbert, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey. Dressed in a gray button-down shirt with gray slacks and black suit jacket, he talks about how Americans may not stay up until midnight to watch his latest sketches. But many of his fans watch regularly on short clips that run a minute or two and get shared on Facebook or Twitter.

“People watch TV today in chunks,” he says. “You hope that you make something that’s chunkable, something that’s shareable.”

Colbert’s writing staff includes a slew of young writers, whom Stack says he relies on at times to keep himself up to date.

“I’ve been married since 1996, so certain areas of social media, like Snapchat and Tinder, which enter into scripts at times, are alien to me,” he says. “I sometimes worry about my references. But I’m pleasantly made aware every day that we are almost always on the same page. I relate so much to their sense of humor and what they find funny.”

That’s not to say that Stack shuns social media. He has more than 33,000 Twitter followers at @BrianStack153. A recent header photo depicted him in a goatee, mustache, and glasses, intently reading a volume titled Things Only Weenies Care About.

His feed is, as befits a comedian, hilarious — and sometimes moving. In a tribute to the late Anthony Bourdain, who tragically took his own life, Stack reveals that he has also had a brush with depression. He comments on movies, politics, and musicians ranging from Prince to John Prine. And he retweets other comedians and hysterical dog videos — including his own. There’s his dog, Darby, tailgating in a Badgers hat before the Orange Bowl, resting his head on a pillow while his master shovels snow, and lying inside the front door covered with mail because he was “too lazy to get up when the mail was dropped on him through the door slot.”

The Ark of His Career

Stack’s comedic journey began at the Ark Theatre in Madison, located in a converted garage on Bassett Street. A graduate of Indiana University, Stack had taken a comedy improvisation workshop in Chicago in the summer of 1986. He arrived in Madison that fall to pursue a master’s in communication arts, delving into the psychology of media and contemplating a career in academia or advertising.

In Madison, he mustered up the courage to audition at the Ark to give comedy a shot while hitting the books for his graduate studies.

“I was so scared to try,” says Stack. “Once I did it, I wished I’d done it earlier.”

Among those in the company were up-and-coming comic Chris Farley and longtime Onion writer Todd Hanson x’90.

“I connected right away with Chris, even though we didn’t seem to have anything in common,” recalls Stack. “He was a big guy from Madison. I was a skinny, unathletic kid. We bonded through comedy. Chris couldn’t wait to get to Chicago, and by 1990, he was in New York on Saturday Night Live. I went to see his first show. I didn’t expect to know someone on television.”

At the time, Stack couldn’t imagine a way to make money making people laugh. After graduation, he moved back home to Chicago to work for four years in an ad agency. But comedy still beckoned, so he performed improv for fun on weekends.

He was really funny. Maybe he could follow Farley’s path to the big stage, he thought. “While I always dreamed of having some kind of career in comedy, I never thought that seemed realistic at all, since [I thought that] show biz people came from another planet,” he says. “I really didn’t have any idea what ‘realistic’ career to pursue while doing improv for fun early on.”

That became a moot point after he landed a job with the touring company of Second City. Comedy led to romance, too. He met his wife, Miriam Tolan, in a Chicago improv ensemble called Jazz Freddy. They worked together at Second City, got married, and have two daughters, Nora, 20, and Colette, 16.

“The friendships and relationships formed through improv become so strong,” he says. “You are in the trenches together, relying on each other. It feels like you are going into battle together. You have each other’s backs. And back then, after the shows, there was socializing — way too much partying during those Chicago days.”

After four years at Second City, Stack had his big break, joining the writing staff at Late Night with Conan O’Brien for what was to be a 13-week stint. A sketch he wrote for Amy Poehler, with her playing a 13-year-old, helped convince the powers at NBC to extend his contract. His fill-in gig turned into 12 years with O’Brien’s show on NBC, and another five years after O’Brien moved to TBS.

It was a run that led to five Writers Guild Awards for Writing in a Comedy/Variety Series and an Emmy award in 2007.

That first year on Late Night wasn’t easy. Stack recalls the December day that O’Brien walked grim-faced into the writers’ room. He told them that Chris Farley was dead, at age 33.

“It was really hard,” says Stack. “I’d been so excited for Chris when he made it to Saturday Night Live, but also worried for him. He was childlike in his vulnerability. He was fragile and easily wounded. He had so much life in him. I couldn’t believe you could snuff that out.”

Although Stack’s sense of loss has lingered to this day, he continued to hone the sense of comedy that has landed him on late-night’s most highly rated talk show.

Late-Night Badgers

Stack isn’t the only Badger contributing to Colbert’s signature brand of laughs. Gabe Gronli ’04 and Aaron Cohen ’03, who had worked as interns with Stack at Late Night with Conan O’Brien, moved to CBS to join the writing staff with Stack when The Late Show with Stephen Colbert debuted in 2015. Cohen, now a writer and supervising producer for Colbert’s show, marvels at Stack’s range.

“There are very few people who can play both God and the devil,” he says. “When Stack plays God, he’s a bumbling, lovable God, and his full, red-body-painted devil is just as likable.”

Gronli, one of the Late Show’s writers, grew up on Madison’s west side. He remembers the first day of his Conan internship, when he met Stack, whom he calls the friendliest person he’s met during his television career.

“I was an avid Conan fan, and Stack was an idol of mine,” says Gronli, a founding member of Madison’s Atlas Improv Company. “He’d heard about me and greeted me by name when I came out of the elevator. I was so happy. Brian Stack knew my name!”

Gronli says Stack has an uncanny ability to create characters, each with a distinct point of view and mannerisms to match. This all comes out in the collaborative writing process, which Gronli says occasionally circles back to Madison.

“When working with him, he’ll go from something incredibly funny, to coming up with a great character, to shouting about old restaurants in Madison he’s eaten at, to his favorite rock band,” Gronli says. “He has a unique brain for characters. He inhabits them very easily.”

Stack believes that his knack for writing emanates from his training in improv, which he still performs monthly in Manhattan at the Upright Citizens Brigade show Gravid Water. The show features experienced stage actors who recite lines from a play, with the improvisor, who hasn’t read the script, responding to lines they’ve heard for the first time. In late February, Stack adopts a deadpan British accent in a scene from the play Mary Page Marlowe. It’s a scene in which a husband faces allegations of infidelity from his wife.

Stack’s character brushes off the allegations, but his disinterest in the marriage is revealed. The audience erupts in laughter after Stack tells his estranged wife that he’ll watch over their baby — whose name he can’t remember.

“It’s a way to keep my chops up,” says Stack. “Improv is my first love. It keeps your synapses firing.”

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Bridge Builder https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/bridge-builder/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/bridge-builder/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:08 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23619 After fetching ketchup for fries and plastic utensils, the group settles in for lunch around a table at Union South near the College of Engineering campus. Conversation flows easily as students share updates about how fall semester — now just a few weeks old — is going, which classes are favorites, and how summer internships influenced longer-term plans. The chatter is frequently punctuated by laughter.

You’d never guess that the meal’s host attended college several decades earlier than these students, or that he did so under significantly different circumstances. He has an admirable way of setting aside differences and coaxing out similarities.

• • •

Rod Hassett ’62 excels at making connections. It’s a skill he has brought to lunch tables and conference room tables since deciding — after a nudge from his father early in his college pursuits — that engineering would be a good fit. Engineers analyze problems and suggest solutions within parameters that include affordability and safety, enthusiastically completing complex puzzles while the rest of us may only see the pieces. These specialized skills came naturally to Hassett throughout his lengthy career at Strand Associates, a Madison engineering firm.

After retiring from Strand in 2002, he called upon his knack for mentorship, joining the UW faculty as an adjunct professor and, for 13 years, teaching the capstone design course, which challenges engineering students to tackle real-life projects.

Along the way, Hassett had been nagged by an industry dilemma that couldn’t be solved with carefully designed bridges constructed of steel and concrete. How could a profession heavily represented by white men adequately address the problems found in a broad range of communities and demographics?

“We have huge engineering problems to solve over the next 50 years,” he says, adding that it’s essential to include a diverse societal representation to solve them.

“Diverse groups are going to make smarter decisions than like-minded groups,” Hassett continues. “Those voices needed to be at the table. And many of the problems that we need solved are in the inner cities. There’s no one better to work with the people in the inner cities than the people who grew up there.”

• • •

Hassett knew exactly where to find young people who could be encouraged to follow in his footsteps from the inner city to UW–Madison’s College of Engineering. He graduated from Rufus King High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1958, just prior to the city’s dramatic shift in demographics. From 1960 to 1970, Milwaukee’s African American population increased by 68 percent, due in part to migration from Chicago and the South. At Rufus King, minority enrollment slowly grew, reaching one-third by 1964; today, minorities represent 79 percent of the school’s student body.

Now called Rufus King International, the high school’s nearly 1,500 students take challenging precollege coursework. U.S. News & World Report includes it in the magazine’s rankings of nationally recognized high schools. Eighty-five percent of the 2015 graduating class planned to attend college, with another 10 percent intending to enroll in two-year institutions — a significant change from Hassett’s student days.

“My dad was really pro-education, but he came out of the Depression and World War II, and he didn’t have a lot of formal education,” Hassett says. “I grew up in an area where probably less than half of the kids went to college when they got out of high school, but there was no question I was going to college. Education has always been part of my life.”

As Hassett pondered how to bring more diversity into his field, he talked with Jeff Russell, then chair of civil and environmental engineering and today dean of the Division of Continuing Studies. Together they decided to recruit students to be engineers “like Barry Alvarez recruits football players,” Hassett recalls. He worked with the UW Foundation in 2006 to establish a scholarship program specifically designed to support Rufus King students who had an interest in becoming engineers. He provides scholarships for a student’s first two years, and the College of Engineering supports additional years. So far, 15 Rufus King graduates have been named Hassett Scholars. Nine have graduated from the UW — a track record that makes Hassett especially proud — and are now pursuing careers ranging from jet pilot training with the U.S. Air Force to working as a computer programmer at Google. The other six scholars are currently enrolled.

“The scholarship is a means to solving a problem,” Hassett says. “Now there’s a steady stream of kids coming from King. We’re solving a problem one person at a time.”

• • • Coty Weathersby x’19 was among the students having lunch with Hassett at The Sett in Union South last fall. Now a fifth-year senior majoring in chemical engineering, Weathersby supplements her course work with time in a campus research lab. Her current research centers on analyzing bacteria in wastewater; during a stint in a UC–Berkeley lab in summer 2017, she explored harmful contaminants in groundwater.

Although she’d been juggling honor societies and athletics at Rufus King and leaning toward majoring in chemistry, Weathersby says her selection as a Hassett Scholar spurred her to change plans. And she marvels at the interest Hassett shows in the students. “I never thought I’d actually get to see the face behind the scholarship,” she says. “When I first received the award, Rod came to the ceremony [at Rufus King]. That in itself was exciting because he got to meet my sisters and my mom.”

She adds, “I remember getting an email from him at the end of my freshman year that said, ‘Congratulations. I’m proud of you!’ ”

“That individual touch is just very, very rare,” says Mary Fitzpatrick, director of the College of Engineering’s Diversity Affairs Office. “Rod offers mentoring as a seasoned professional. I would even say Rod has mentored us. He continues to make sure that we understand the intent and the goals [of his scholarship].”

Hassett Scholars are part of the college’s larger Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity program, which is designed to support populations that are historically underrepresented in the field, including low-income or first-generation students, women, and students of color. The college takes steps to make sure incoming students are aware of scholarships for which they can apply.

“Engineering is very competitive, and the climate of engineering can be harsh at times,” Fitzpatrick says. “Our message is that you all can succeed, and we’re going to help you succeed. Yes, you have to do the work yourself, but you’ve got a net that’s going to work with you.” The diversity office provides a comfortable space where students can come to hang out and talk between classes, hold math study sessions, and gather over a meal.

Brian Núñez, former director of the Engineering Summer Program and now the director of career advising and wellness at the UW’s medical school, remembers the first time he met Weathersby. “She gave me her résumé and said she was going to run a company one day,” he says with a smile.

That company may well be in Weathersby’s future, but in the meantime, she is honing her leadership skills. She serves as the academic excellence chair for the campus chapter of the National Society for Black Engineers, and she attended the organization’s conference during her sophomore year. “I remember walking into the convention hall, and it was filled with so many black engineers and engineers of color, and I thought, ‘Wow.’ I just don’t see that on TV. I don’t see that in the media, so it was great. It’s a reminder in times when I’m struggling … that there are a lot of other engineers who felt the same thing, but they’ve made it.”

She was one of three students who helped start the UW chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. The chapter’s members — numbering about 15 undergraduate and graduate students — do volunteer work and sponsor professional development events.

Weathersby’s motivation for involvement in the organizations, she says, is “making sure future Hassett Scholars have these resources.” She attributes “caffeine and time management” — and learning to say no — to her ability to juggle classes, research, student organizations, and tutoring.

“I don’t want to do something and not do it well,” she says.

Weathersby, who is eyeing graduate school to earn a master’s degree and, possibly, a doctorate, expresses admiration for UW faculty members who both teach and conduct research.

But for now, she emphasizes the powerful force of community. That, she believes, has been the greatest gift of all, in some ways eclipsing the financial support. She keeps in close contact with other Hassett Scholars, including those who have graduated.

Hassett makes sure that current students have ongoing support from each other by scheduling lunch sessions twice a year. “I really want to make sure that the older kids, the more senior people, are sharing their experiences with the younger students,” he says. “They can help each other so much.”

• • •

During last October’s lunch conversation, Hassett encourages each student to tell him what’s new. Weathersby describes her summer at UC–Berkeley. Devin Lafford x’19, a computer engineering student, details an internship at a company that designs medical devices. George Akpan x’19 tells the group that he wants to focus on wind power in his career, plans that earn an enthusiastic “Good for you!” from Hassett. Alexus Edwards x’21 says she’s leaning toward the biomedical field and recounts her summer as an intern with the Milwaukee fire department unit based at the airport.

Hassett nods, smiles, and asks more questions, easily sliding into the mentorship role he enjoys. The topic shifts to Park Street, one of the main thoroughfares to the UW campus, and he tells the students, “Here you had this gorgeous campus, but everyone coming there had to go down this ugly street.” He notes that his firm worked on a plan to give the location new life.

“When you do something like this as an engineer, you have a vision,” he says. “I could see that this was going to be the gateway to the campus.

“That’s one thing that’s nice about being an engineer,” he continues. “You get involved in things like that and you put your footprints in the sand. Early on you can see something, you have a vision for something, and you get it done. And then the rest of the world catches up. You just smile and walk on.”

As the scholars grab their backpacks and head off to their next classes or study groups, Hassett calls out, “Good seeing you guys!” With a smile, he adds, “See you in May — you’ll be a lot smarter by then.”

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When Crazylegs Went Hollywood https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/when-crazylegs-went-hollywood/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/when-crazylegs-went-hollywood/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 13:50:16 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23649 UW alumni know Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch x’45 as a football star who made his name — and earned his nickname — in just one season with the Badgers. Hirsch had a Hall of Fame pro career in Los Angeles, where he played nine seasons for the Rams and led the team to the NFL title. But he also made a name for himself in neighboring Hollywood, scoring credits long before former football players such as Alex Karras, Howie Long, and Michael Strahan made the move to the silver screen. Hirsch starred in three films, the last of which inspired a trio of UW alumni to make a classic considered among the best comedy films of all time.

Hirsch had good looks and a faint resemblance to Kirk Douglas, so it wasn’t surprising that movie producers came calling for him. There was already a tradition in Hollywood of casting college All-Americans and Heisman Trophy winners in their own biographical flicks, including Tom Harmon (Harmon of Michigan, 1941), Frankie Albert (The Spirit of Stanford, 1942), and Bruce Smith (Smith of Minnesota, 1942).

Naturally, Hirsch’s first film was a biopic, named simply Crazylegs for its star and the life story it told. The 1953 movie depicted Hirsch’s close relationship with his high school football coach from Wausau, Wisconsin, Win Brockmeyer (played by Lloyd Nolan), and his hometown sweetheart (and eventual wife), Ruth Stahmer (played by Joan Vohs). A must-see film only for diehard Wisconsin and LA Rams fans, Crazylegs was Hirsch’s favorite of his movies, because it featured actual footage from his college and pro playing days.

Illustrated poster for movie, "Crazylegs"

Hirsch played himself in the 1953 film based on his life story. Everett Collection, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

Crazylegs contains rare film of Hirsch’s 1942 season with the Badgers, including his nickname-earning touchdown run at Soldier Field, which prompted a Chicago Daily News journalist to write, “Hirsch ran like a demented duck. His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions all at the same time in the 61-yard touchdown run that cemented the win.” In that year, Hirsch took a squad that had a solid base of talent and led them to an 8–1–1 record, a level of excellence that Madison hadn’t seen in football since 1912.

“Hirsch as an actor is both likable and believable,” Los Angeles Times reviewer John L. Scott wrote. “He does very well in his first film assignment.” The Capital Times called the film “congenial.”

Crazylegs did fairly well at the box office, outperforming a new Marilyn Monroe flick, How to Marry a Millionaire, when it premiered in Milwaukee in time for the 1953 football season. Hirsch returned to Wausau for a screening in early November, and a big crowd came out to see the hometown hero in the flesh along with his wife and former coach.

Hirsch’s acting, while hardly Shakespearean, showed enough promise to win him the leading role in Unchained, a 1955 prison drama set in Chino, California. Hirsch, often shirtless, got some surprisingly decent reviews for his role as an angst-ridden convict torn between serving his time and busting out of the minimum-security prison that gives prisoners so much latitude that escape is a constant temptation.

His final movie role came in 1957 at the end of his playing career. Zero Hour! was a forerunner to 1970s disaster films such as Airport and The Towering Inferno. Hirsch played the pilot of an airliner already in the sky when an outbreak of virulent food poisoning strikes him, the copilot, and dozens of passengers. Who on the plane could possibly fly the commercial flight to safety? Fate points toward Ted Striker (Dana Andrews), a World War II pilot who has followed his estranged wife onto the plane in the hopes of reconciling. Unfortunately, Ted is haunted by a war tragedy in which much of his crew was killed due to his error at the stick. Not only are his nerves shot, but he hasn’t set foot in a plane, let alone a cockpit, for years.

Illustrated poster for movie, "Unchained"

Hirsch starred as a prison inmate in Unchained. Everett Collection, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

If that plot sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it was stolen, right down to the exclamation point in the movie’s title, by Jim Abrahams x’66 and the Zucker Brothers, David ’70 and Jerry ’72, for Airplane! — surely, one of the funniest movies ever written. (We are serious. And don’t call us Shirley.)

The three founding members of the comedy troupe Kentucky Fried Theater arrived in Los Angeles in 1972, after a year of performing in a space in the back of a Madison bookstore. They set up shop at a small theater on Pico Boulevard and began performing sketch comedy, just as they had in Madison, largely based on late-night television. They used an old-fashioned reel-to-reel machine to record the odd commercials and otherwise unseen movies that filled air time between Johnny Carson and the television test pattern. They would riff on the recording as it was shown on stage that night, inserting dialogue, spoofing circumstances, and cracking wise.

One morning, they arrived at the theater to find Zero Hour! on the tape. “It was a jewel,” Abrahams says. “Overblown. Incredibly melodramatic. But a perfect three-act story. We were comic writers. We didn’t know how to write a narrative.”

The three were interested in parodying a full movie. On the morning that they discovered Zero Hour!, they thought, “This is it,” David Zucker says.

As Wisconsin natives, they knew about Hirsch and his legendary athletic career. But his presence in the movie was merely a bonus bit of trivia; they knew the movie’s structure and canned melodrama were ripe for parody.

They fashioned a script that hewed so closely to the original that ultimately, they wound up stealing not just the plot and premise, but also whole scenes of dialogue. To obviate copyright issues, they bought the remake rights to Zero Hour!

“Basically, we just recast the movie,” Zucker says. “Elroy Hirsch became Peter Graves. Dana Andrews’s Ted Striker became our Robert Hays’s Ted Striker.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Leave It to Beaver’s Barbara Billingsley rounded out the cast. Made on a shoestring budget, Airplane! became the third-highest-grossing comedy in box office history after it came out in 1980.

For Hirsch, Zero Hour! was the end of his film career, but his connection to Hollywood briefly lingered. After his retirement from football, the Rams hired him as general manager in 1960, and he went on to make brief guest appearances on two network television sitcoms: The Bob Cummings Show and The Munsters. For the latter, he played himself in a storyline that had him considering using the big-footed Herman Munster as a punter for the Rams. In 1969, Hirsch returned to Madison to become the UW’s athletic director and spent almost 20 years in the role. During that time, he hosted a radio show and a how-to sports television program sponsored by the Union Oil Company, for whom he worked as a spokesman.

Poster for movie, "Zero Hour!"

Crazylegs ended his film career as a pilot under duress in Zero Hour! Everett Collection, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

He died in 2004 at the age of 80, but he remains a legendary figure in Madison, known to many because of the Crazylegs Classic, the 8K annual race launched in 1982 to benefit university athletic programs.

What he thought of Airplane! or if he ever saw it is unknown, at least by the Zucker brothers and Abrahams. They never had a chance to meet Hirsch to ask.

For his part, Hirsch reminisced a bit about his Hollywood career following his UW retirement, noting it “was a heckuva break,” but not something he ever seriously considered pursuing as a profession.

“You really have no control over what you do. You sit at home and wait for the phone to ring,” he said in a 1987 interview. “I guess I was just never one for that kind of job insecurity.’’

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Photo Gallery: Hirsch on Film https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/photo-gallery-hirsch-on-film/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/photo-gallery-hirsch-on-film/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 13:49:23 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23765 Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch x’42 almost turned down the role of playing himself in a biographical film. “I received this letter from (producer) Hall Bartlett asking whether I’d be interested in doing this movie,” Hirsch said in a 1987 interview. “I threw it away, and a couple of months later I received another one.” His starring role in Crazylegs launched a second career for the former Badger football star and future NFL Hall of Famer, including roles in two more full-length films and a handful of TV appearances. It all ended with a comical cameo in a 1965 episode of The Munsters.

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The Pregnancy Puzzle https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-pregnancy-puzzle/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-pregnancy-puzzle/#respond Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:42 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23011 In the maritime city of Rostock, Germany — thousands of miles from their families — Dan and Iris Levitis processed their loss in isolation. Though her ultrasound had been normal just a few weeks earlier, a doctor shared the heartbreaking news: a miscarriage, 12 weeks into Iris’s first pregnancy. The fetus had stopped developing.

Frustrated, Dan wanted answers. As a demographer, he researched the patterns of all manner of populations: their births, survival, and deaths. His dissertation had focused on why people tend to live so long past their childbearing years. But the crushing loss prompted him to turn his attention to the beginning of life. Why was miscarriage so common, he wondered, and were humans uniquely burdened by pregnancy loss, as he’d always been taught?

In the eight years since launching his research, Dan, now a scientist in UW–Madison’s botany department, has discovered that he and Iris were far from alone in their struggle to bring life into the world. Humans have plenty of company: living things from geckos to garlic and cactuses to cockroaches routinely lose their offspring when they reproduce sexually.

Dan’s discovery didn’t provide a fix — if anything, he found that losses like his family experienced are an unavoidable part of reproducing. But this kinship with the natural world gave the couple some comfort.

• • •

Dan has spent a lifetime puzzling over the structure of the natural world, and he has a knack for questioning the obvious.

“When I was six and people asked me what I was going to do when I grew up, I would say, ‘I’m going to be a zoologist,’ ” says Dan, whose earliest romps through nature centered on the wild animals that popped up in his suburban Maryland backyard. He spent summers exploring his grandparents’ 46-acre property in Mahopac, New York.

An influential ecology class at Bennington College in Vermont showed him that science was more than a collection of facts in a textbook — it was a way of thinking.

“Science as a list of facts can be exciting for a little while. But science as a way of asking better questions, and getting better answers to them, is much more useful and much more interesting,” he says.

After graduation, Dan joined short-term research projects studying birds in Florida, New York, Ontario, and then California before accepting a graduate position to study ornithology at the University of California–Berkeley.

While there, Dan applied his analytical approach to finding a partner. Inspired by a headhunter he heard interviewed on NPR, he realized the ideal ad gets one response from the most qualified applicant.

“I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to write a dating ad, and I’m going to try and write in a way that I get only one response,’ ” says Dan, who posted his deliberately polarizing ad on Craigslist. “And Iris responded to it. And she was the only one.”

Back from the Peace Corps in Niger, Iris was studying for her master’s in applied linguistics at Berkeley. The two connected over their bewilderment with much of modern American culture, with both generally eschewing drinking, television, and movies. Iris transferred to the University of California–Davis as the two continued dating.

For his graduate work, Dan partnered with a professor of human demographics, Ron Lee, to develop new methods of comparing humans with other primates on their ability to live past their reproductive years. He found evidence that humans are unique in living so long after we stop having children. But in many ways, Dan’s time researching what makes humans special only reinforced his belief that we’re better off remembering that we’re not so separate from the rest of the natural world.

As they both completed their degrees, Dan and Iris married. Dan landed a position at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, and the newlyweds packed their bags for Germany. • • •

After Iris’s first miscarriage, Dan buried himself in scientific literature about infant and prebirth mortality for humans and every other species he could get good numbers on.

The crux of his research came down to a U-shaped curve well known to him and other demographers. It charts the risk of death for any given organism, starting high for the young, dipping down low at maturity, and rising again as age sets in. The pattern is ubiquitous across nature.

A half-century of research has focused on the second half of the curve: aging. While scientists had chipped away at explaining the evolution of age- related deaths, they had largely disregarded the half of the curve that shows high rates of mortality for the very young. Young organisms are weak and vulnerable, researchers figured, nothing more. Unsatisfied, Dan sought reasons for why seemingly every species faced the same precariousness with its young, both before and after birth, and why natural selection hadn’t fixed this problem.

While Dan trawled through hundreds of scientific papers on lost offspring, he and Iris got pregnant again. As they neared and then passed the 12th week, the couple felt relief. They told their friends and family the happy news.

But then Iris developed a leaking amniotic sac, threatening her fetus. Bedrest didn’t resolve the complication, and the chances of carrying the pregnancy safely to term dropped steeply.

At her doctor’s recommendation, she aborted the pregnancy at 16 weeks.

Navigating the German medical system twice in one year while grieving their losses was bewildering and isolating.

“I think most of the girls and women that I knew, we spent a lot of time thinking about how not to get pregnant. And then finding out that actually it’s hard to become pregnant, or to have a successful pregnancy, was really a shock,” Iris says. “You’re supposed to worry about unwanted pregnancies, not whether you can [get pregnant].”

At the end of 2010, Iris got pregnant again, and Dan published his research on early mortality. In his paper, he argued for a new field focused on the inherent difficulty of developing a healthy, complex organism, where any one of a million steps can go wrong. His next step was to test his theories by comparing the success of different types of reproduction across nature.

The next summer Iris gave birth to their first child, a girl.

• • •

Researchers know that miscarriages are extremely common but can’t pinpoint just how frequently they occur.

Kristen Sharp, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, researches pregnancy loss and its consequences. She says that up to 20 percent of pregnancies that are confirmed by a physician end in miscarriage. But the true rate is likely quite a bit higher because many women don’t realize they are pregnant before an early loss occurs.

Tracking rates of pregnancy loss is extremely difficult. Differences in record keeping and follow-up procedures at emergency rooms and hospitals make a reliable search of records nearly impossible. And any woman who is not receiving medical care will be invisible to researchers studying miscarriage.

Cultural norms — such as concealing a pregnancy until after the first trimester — keep people from having open conversations about their experiences, says Sharp, who also counsels patients who have lost pregnancies. And feelings of guilt stop some women from discussing it, even though most miscarriages are the result of “genetic accidents.”

“It’s amazing, really, that any of us are alive and breathing, because there’s about a million pieces of this intricate problem that need to go right to lead to a pregnancy,” she says.

• • •

Among those million pieces that must fall perfectly into place is meiosis — perhaps the most complicated thing that cells do.

Organisms use meiosis (pronounced my-OH-sis) to produce sperm and eggs for sexual reproduction. Dan describes it as a kind of cellular line dance, one that mixes up chromosomes to reshuffle genes. This rearrangement helps produce offspring that are different from their parents, offspring that might be better equipped to survive in a changing world.

Meiosis takes place in the cells that give rise to sperm or eggs. To reshuffle genes, the chromosomes you inherited from your mother pair up with the chromosomes you inherited from your father. They sidle up to one another, attach, and then trade pieces of genetic information, sometimes physically swapping chunks of DNA. Then the chromosomes separate to be dealt into individual sex cells.

The upshot is that each sperm or egg a person produces inherits a set of mixed-up chromosomes with new variations. Because the swapping occurs essentially randomly during each round of meiosis, every sperm or egg created in your lifetime is bound to be as unique as the offspring created when sperm and egg ultimately meet.

This sidling, attaching, swapping, separating, and dealing is a mind-numbingly complex process. A lot of things can go wrong along the way — and they often do. The sex cells can end up with missing or extra chromosomes, almost always a fatal error leading to miscarriage if they create an embryo. Other, less obvious genetic mishaps can also occur, and often prove lethal.

The common wisdom for explaining high rates of miscarriage and fertility problems in humans has been that we have a rougher go with meiosis than other organisms. A woman’s eggs start meiosis while she is still in her mother’s womb, go on hiatus for years, and then finish the process to form a mature egg prior to ovulation. Perhaps this long pause leads to more errors, the thinking went. • • •

Dan isn’t one to accept common wisdom. After all, he reasoned, all female mammals pause meiosis, and many wait just as long to reproduce as people do. Plus sperm inherit more genetic problems than eggs, and they don’t wait decades to finish the process. What if humans aren’t unique — what if meiosis is just so complicated that it is bound to go awry?

Sexual reproduction always uses meiosis. But many plants and animals — palm trees and brambles, fruit flies and grasshoppers — also reproduce asexually, meaning they produce clones of themselves. Asexual reproduction typically uses the simpler process of mitosis, which doesn’t reshuffle genes. But certain species still use meiosis to reproduce asexually, a vestige of sexual reproduction. Because meiosis didn’t evolve to work for asexual reproduction, asexual meiosis is even more complicated and error prone than sexual meiosis.

Dan figured that the more complicated the cellular process underlying reproduction, the more likely it was to go wrong and lead to lost offspring. If he was right, then organisms using the most complicated process — asexual meiosis — should lose the most offspring, followed by species using sexual meiosis, and then asexual mitosis.

He wanted to compare as many animals as possible that use these three different reproductive strategies. And he believed his assumption should be just as true for plants, which reproduce using the same cellular machinery as animals.

Unable to do experiments on dozens of plants and animals himself, Dan worked with UW botany professor Anne Pringle and Harvard graduate student Kolea Zimmerman to comb through thousands of scientific articles in search of data collected by experts in each organism.

The study tracked how each species reproduced and its rates of loss during reproduction, ordering them by the complexity of their reproduction. Dan was initially skeptical when he first saw the result: 42 of the 44 plants and animals they studied supported his original idea linking complexity to reproductive loss. A menagerie of creatures and plants fit the pattern: lizards and magnolias; meadow grass and shrimp; stick insects, and dandelions. Each paid a price for reproducing sexually.

“That was the biggest surprise — how strong the pattern was,” he says.

His findings are evidence of an inherent tradeoff: there is no sexual reproduction without meiosis. And there is no meiosis without mistakes, and loss.

• • •

Dan wanted to share his results as widely as possible so that more people could understand how fundamentally difficult it was to bring offspring into the world. He and Iris found some solace knowing that their struggles were universal, and they figured other people would, too.

Individual portrait photographs of Dan and Iris Levitis and each of their three children

After the heartbreak of two lost pregnancies, Dan and Iris Levitis welcomed three children (left to right): Tigerlily, 6; Kestrel, 3; and Peregrine, 18 months.

With botany department illustrator Sarah Friedrich ’98, Dan created a short video explaining his family’s story of loss, his search for answers, and the barrier that meiosis poses to healthy reproduction. He shared the video widely, including on a Facebook page for the March for Science.

Some people commented that the research made them feel better about their own miscarriages by making it clear it wasn’t their fault. Another coined the phrase “meiosis mishaps” to describe her own pregnancy losses.

“Every time I’ve talked about this in any sort of public setting, whether it’s online or in person, somebody ends up sharing their story of pregnancy loss and saying that they’re so glad that people are talking about it,” Dan says.

The Levitises now live on a quiet street on the east side of Madison with their three children, each born in a different country: Tigerlily in Germany; Kestrel in Denmark; and Peregrine in the United States, after they moved to Madison. (Each was also given a conventional middle name to turn to should their parents’ natural-world choices ever fail to suit them.)

And years after losing their first two pregnancies in Germany, Dan’s findings have given the couple a springboard to talk about their losses and work through them together.

“I thought it was kind of cathartic research,” Iris says. “It makes you feel less alone. More than just having somebody say, ‘Oh, I lost a pregnancy, too.’ More than just anecdotal evidence from other humans. It’s more widespread than that.”

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Dream Maker https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/dream-maker/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/dream-maker/#respond Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:41 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=22999 Star Wars universe to the big screen.]]> The Star Wars films transport us to adventures in a galaxy far, far away, and computer sciences alum Rachel Rose MS’03, PhD’07 helps bring them to life. She joined Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the visual effects company in San Francisco founded by George Lucas, right after leaving UW–Madison. One of her duties as a research and development supervisor is leading a group in the burgeoning area of virtual production, which makes virtual reality tools for filmmakers so they can make everything from dinosaurs to rebel starfighters. While she helped create a virtual camera for production of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, her love for the saga began a long time ago …

When did your interest in technology start?
It started really, really early, even though we didn’t have a computer until I was a junior in high school. When I was seven or eight, I became interested in computers and would read the ads in the back of magazines. Just the whole idea of computers being able to execute ideas fascinated me.

What’s the best part of your job?
One of the most awesome and one of the most challenging parts of my job is this place is full of extraordinarily talented people — the best artists you can find, the best technologists you can find. We don’t always agree on everything, but ideally we come up with something that’s better than we’d do on our own.

Have you always been a Star Wars fan?
I had Star Wars sheets on my bed as a kid. I wore what were probably boy clothes with C–3PO — he was my favorite — on them. It was a part of my childhood. So many of us are here at ILM in part because of that love.

What’s it like to work at a place known for employing a high number of women, especially in leadership positions?
I feel really lucky to be able to work with a bunch of women at the top. But there are still times when I’m the only woman in a meeting. I try to do a lot of outreach, a lot of presentations, a lot of standing in front of people to let them see I’m out there.

What from your time at UW–Madison has been the most helpful?
The [computer sciences] program is full of fantastic professors who were really motivating. They helped me make connections, so by the time I was out of grad school, I already knew a lot of people.

Is it hard to escape into movies, knowing as much as you do about what goes into making them?
If you’ve watched a shot many times, it’s hard to divorce yourself from it. But with work that others have done, most of the time I’m able to separate myself and enjoy the story. I do notice things, though. There’s always that kind of balance.

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From Wisconsin, With Humor https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/from-wisconsin-with-humor/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/from-wisconsin-with-humor/#respond Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:41 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23020 Manitowoc Minute, a comedic take on the news.]]> Fresh out of UW–Madison with degrees in journalism and geography, Charlie Berens ’09 was ready to break into broadcasting. But whether he was working in Texas, California, or Washington, DC, he received essentially the same feedback: you talk funny.

He stressed the o in opinion too much. He drew out the a in bag. He used strange words like bubbler when he was thirsty.

What was a Wisconsin guy — let alone one raised in a big family with a passion for fishing and the Green Bay Packers — to do? Ditch the accent to become more marketable?

Let’s just say Berens did the opposite, and the internet is grateful.

• • •

In June 2017, Berens posted a short video online that he called the “Manitowoc Minute.” Wearing a camouflage jacket that he stole from his dad and sitting at a bare-bones “news” desk, he gave a shout-out to a bait shop in Plover and poked fun at Stevens Point before getting into the headlines: the misconception held by some Americans that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, President Trump’s latest approval rating, and Bill Cosby’s mistrial. Each bit of news served as a setup for a joke, and Berens delivered it all in his thickest Wisconsin accent.

Peppered with comments that would soon become his catchphrases — “Ohmygosh,” “Holy smokes,” and “Keep ’er movin’ ” — he ended with a heartfelt wish — “I hope this was the best minute of your life” — and a none-too-subtle plug for the Packers and a dig at the Chicago Bears.

To date, that first episode has racked up more than a half million views on Facebook, but it almost didn’t happen.

“I was almost hesitant to release it, like, I don’t know that people want to see this,” Berens says. “And then I put it out, and it did well, and then I thought, well, I guess I’m going to do a second episode.”

And he did. And a third and a fourth and another and another each Monday, serving up a mix of headlines from his home state and beyond with a hearty dose of Wisconsin charm. The show, with Berens a constant as the affable host, has garnered fans around the world, inspired a collection of Manitowoc Minute merchandise, and even sparked a tour of sold-out live shows across Wisconsin. • • •

Before Wisconsin culture became the bread and butter of his comedy career, Berens lived it as a kid. The second oldest of 12 siblings, he grew up in New Berlin and Elm Grove, with frequent trips up to Fond du Lac to visit his grandparents. He loved the Packers, waterskiing, hunting, and public-access fishing shows.

At the UW he dabbled in music — “guitar, mandolin, kind of folk stuff,” he says — playing covers and original songs at coffee shop open mics and the Memorial Union Terrace.

During the 2008 presidential election, Berens got a gig with MTV’s Choose or Lose campaign, which deployed “citizen journalists” across the country to serve as correspondents. It opened his eyes to less formal, more entertainment-focused modes of reporting.

After graduating, Berens embarked on a career that took him around the country and had him working as a correspondent for a millennial-focused news website; a reporter and host for a Dallas television station, where he won an Emmy; and a host for entertainment and sports outlets in Los Angeles.

All the while, comedy brewed in the background. Berens had been doing stand-up and writing when he posted a video online in 2016 called “If Jack Dawson Really Was from Wisconsin,” dubbing in his own voice for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Titanic character, said to be from Chippewa Falls, to give him a more “accurate” way of speaking. It’s been viewed more than 13 million times.

The success of the video, as well as how audiences responded when he revealed his exaggerated accent in stand-up, reassured him that the world was ready for more Wisconsin. • • •

To create each episode of the Manitowoc Minute, Berens culls headlines from politics to sports to pop culture. “And that really actually helps with joke writing,” he says. “The news is basically your setup. Every day you have new setups. So it does help to be a little bit of a sponge for pop culture.”

Occasionally he goes out into the field for a segment. He’s gone fishing with his unamused father, water-skied in the summer, downhill skied in the winter, and taken a yoga class with a bottle of beer perched next to his mat. And while in Madison for a performance at the Wisconsin Union Theater in January, he stopped by the state capitol.

“I went to the capitol expecting to hop on a tour or something,” he says, “and ended up really lobbying to get a bipartisan deal done to just change the Wisconsin flag a little bit.”

His proposal: replace the rope and pickax that the flag’s sailor and miner have been holding since 1848 with bottles of Miller Lite and Spotted Cow, swap out one of the guys for a woman, and change the “Forward” motto to “Keep ’Er Movin’.” The state legislature may not have adopted his changes, but a revised flag is now available for purchase on his website.

In addition to the supper clubs, taverns, and other Wisconsin locales that Berens namechecks in his show, he brings his geography background to bear in his favorite segment: the Craigslist Kicker.

“I feel like you can tell a lot about a place just by looking [at] the classifieds,” he says. “For example, there are so many silos for sale. … Coming from the perspective of a geography alum, what does that say about where we live? It’s almost symbolic of the larger farming community — you’re selling your silo? It’s interesting.”

Ultimately, Berens’s goal with the show is bringing folks together.

“When everyone is laughing, we’re all on the same page, even if it’s just for a joke,” he says, adding that the show has become a platform for his audience to donate to causes like Wounded Warriors, the Boys and Girls Club, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. “Fans always seem to jump at the opportunity to support a variety of causes. It’s a great reminder that there’s a lot of common ground we share.”

• • •

These days, Berens and his wife, Alex Wehrley ’09, a communication arts grad and former Miss Wisconsin, split their time between Los Angeles and the Badger State to make the most of this Manitowoc moment.

As he continues to do stand-up, as well as write and produce comedy sketches and pilots, Berens is thinking about what comes next for the web series.

“I think there’s a way to bring the show to outside of Wisconsin, of finding a way to engage and potentially create a network of other people doing similar things around the country,” he says. “So maybe there can be a full-on newsroom. I think it would be fun to have other people who represent where they’re from and do it in the same way the news networks do it.”

What will never change, though, is his love for Wisconsin, and the way he shares it with the world.

“This is who I am,” he says. “I like to laugh at myself, I’m self-deprecating, and I think Wisconsin culturally has that sense of humor. I think people get it. It’s all in good fun.”

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