Features – On Wisconsin https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Mon, 25 Mar 2019 17:14:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.10 Lost in Space https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/lost-in-space/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/lost-in-space/#respond Tue, 26 Feb 2019 16:46:40 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24973 In September 1962, a 20-pound hunk of a Soviet spacecraft, still hot, landed in the middle of a Manitowoc street, rocketing Wisconsin into the space age. It wasn’t so much a sign of things to come on Earth, but it was a glimpse of what was to come in space: it was going to get crowded up there.

Just 60 years ago, the environment around our planet was pristine. But now there is an eclectic constellation of stuff. The list includes wrenches, toolboxes, and cameras left behind by astronauts, along with abandoned and broken satellites, spent rocket parts, and the cremated remains of celebrities and rich people (including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry). At least 23,000 other objects larger than a baseball, not to mention the millions of bits of debris too small to track, are speeding like shrapnel through space.

Also in orbit, of course, are plenty of working satellites. And their numbers continue to grow at an astonishing pace as the world’s spacefaring nations take advantage of new rocket technologies, miniaturization, and plummeting costs to seed space with more and more satellites.

“Satellites are in the background of just about everything we do in our daily lives. Modern-day America is tied to satellites. They are infrastructure,” explains space debris expert Lisa Ruth Rand, a science historian who was an A. W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in UW–Madison’s Center for the Humanities from 2016 to 2018.

Within the next few years, the number of satellites in orbit may climb by as many as 20,000. This year alone, scores of small satellites have been lifted into Earth’s orbit, and the deployment of thousands more is already in the works. One ambitious proposal from the aerospace company SpaceX calls for placing as many as 12,000 small satellites in low-Earth orbit to create internet service networks.

Sometimes, the orbits of the things we launch into space — such as the bus-sized vacated Chinese space lab that came blazing back to Earth in April 2018 — degrade, and those objects streak through the atmosphere, often disintegrating and burning up. Cosmic debris also crashes into oceans and, occasionally, terra firma. But as the space around Earth gets more congested, the risk of debris crashing into spacecraft or working satellites (used for weather, navigation, communications, science, and defense) becomes significantly greater. In June, the Trump administration announced a space policy directive intended to prevent more collisions in the increasingly crowded orbits around the planet.

The first documented space wreck occurred in 2009, when a collision over Siberia between a defunct Russian military satellite and a commercial communications satellite created some 2,300 pieces of junk large enough to track by radar. The event inspired Rand, who once harbored aspirations to be an astronaut and grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, with a ringside seat for rocket and Space Shuttle launches from America’s “Space Coast.” She began to examine our legacy of space junk as an environmental issue, work she continued during her UW fellowship, cosponsored by the Department of History and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. She is now hip deep in writing a book on the history of galactic garbage.

The saga is riveting: a tale of rocketing technological sophistication, Cold War clashes, cultural iconography, geopolitical maneuvering, and environmental hubris. Take, for example, Project West Ford. Initiated by the U.S. Air Force and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in the early 1960s, the aim was to fill space with millions of needlelike dipoles — magnetized wires — that could serve as emergency reflectors or antennae for radio signals in the event of a nuclear attack. The Air Force launched a test version and successfully used it to transmit cross-country signals, but the full-fledged project never followed. A few clumps of the project’s copper dipoles remain in their polar orbit 2,250 miles above Earth.

“Beginning with Sputnik, there’s been a pretty high awareness of the dangers of polluting space among scientific, government, and lay communities,” notes Rand, who holds research appointments at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the RAND Corporation. (RAND stands for Research and Development. No relation to the historian.)  

In 1962, two Manitowoc police officers found a piece of Sputnik 4 that landed in the middle of a city street. Courtesy of the Rahr-West Art Museum

The first encounter with space junk for many was the world’s first baby step into space. Those who were alive when the first Sputnik was slung into orbit in 1957 remember dark nights in the backyard waiting for the “satellite” to pass overhead. What we were in fact seeing, says Rand, was the second stage of the rocket that carried Sputnik aloft. For the backyard observer, the satellite was too small to see.

Since then, the space around our planet has accumulated a cloud of orbiting debris. One early American satellite, Explorer 7, launched in 1959, carried the flat-plate radiometer, the world’s first space-based climate experiment. Devised by UW weather-satellite pioneer Verner Suomi and engineering professor Robert Parent ’39, MS’49, the radiometer was used to establish the critical role of clouds on climate and showed that Earth absorbed more of the sun’s energy than previously thought. The experiment aboard the 70-pound satellite paved the way for all future studies of weather and climate from space. Six decades later, it’s still in orbit.

Another UW contribution to the clutter around Earth is the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory–2 (OAO–2), the first successful space telescope. Launched in December 1968, OAO–2 carried Wisconsin-built telescopes that opened a new astronomical vista by providing access to light waves such as ultraviolet, which are blocked or absorbed by the atmosphere. This led to a raft of discoveries, including the identification of hydrogen halos around comets. Contact with OAO–2 was lost in January 1973, ending the mission and relegating it to the catalog of lifeless objects that circle our planet.

“[OAO–2 is] listed on various websites and apps that keep track of satellites, but I’ve never succeeded in seeing it fly over,” says Jim Lattis MA’87, PhD’89, a UW historian of astronomy and director of the university’s astronomy outreach outpost, Space Place. “It isn’t particularly bright.”

The observatory and its launch of space astronomy was an early milestone in the scientific community’s abiding interest in the environment immediately above our planet. For astronomers, programs such as Project West Ford were a threat, seeding space with objects that would reflect light and radio waves, wreaking havoc with astronomical observations.

Vigorous lobbying to impose some international regulation of Earth’s orbit was the prelude to the first space treaties. The effort spurred one annoyed diplomat to scrawl a hand-written note on a State Department resolution, discovered by Rand during her research, describing astronomers as “a noisy and parochial group.”

But sooner or later, depending on altitude, everything comes back to Earth. Many objects spend only a short time in space, a few years to mere days. Objects in very high geostationary (matching Earth’s rotation) orbits — 22,000 miles and above — would be there for thousands of years, except that international convention requires that maneuverable satellites in those high orbits be brought down when their missions are complete. Although various schemes have been proposed to clean up space — nets, harpoons, robotic arms, space tugs — “we often allow outer space to clean up our mess for us. Earth orbit, like the ocean and the atmosphere, is a waste sink,” Rand says.

Certain orbits, especially geostationary and polar orbits for large maneuverable satellites, are a precious and finite resource. There are “good orbits” to be in, notes UW meteorological satellite guru Steve Ackerman. For example, key weather satellites are lined up in less-cluttered orbits, keeping them safely away from other working satellites to ensure they can avoid collisions and do their jobs. Right outside Manitowoc’s Rahr-West Art Museum, in the middle of one of the Wisconsin city’s busiest thoroughfares, is a brass ring set flush in the pavement. Placed by the International Association of Machinists in 1963, the plate-sized ring marks the spot where, in the early morning hours of September 5, 1962, two city patrol officers making their rounds discovered a piece of steel embedded three inches deep in the pavement of North Eighth Street. It was from an unmanned Soviet spacecraft — dubbed Sputnik 4 in the West — rumored to be carrying a prototype spacesuit as a test for crewed flights. Its flight went awry due to a bug in the guidance system, and instead of a planned, controlled glide to Earth, the ship was boosted to a higher orbit. The seven-ton spacecraft eventually re-entered the atmosphere, where most of it vaporized — except for a few bits that landed in Wisconsin.

Although Rahr-West is dedicated to fine art, the museum has a small display of artifacts — a cast replica of the spacecraft fragment, pictures, and newspaper clippings — to memorialize Manitowoc’s unique place in the history of the space race.

“Being able to recover part of a spaceship was a rare thing,” Rand says. “It is one of the few pieces of space debris — outside of the space shuttle Columbia accident — that has been recovered on American soil.”

The remains of Sputnik 4 became a Cold War prop as the United States sought to return the debris to the Soviets on the floor of the United Nations, demonstrating for all the world that early Russian spaceflight technology didn’t necessarily match the nation’s boasts.

The only other confirmed example of space junk found on American soil is also the only documented case of space debris striking a human. In January 1997, Lottie Williams was hit by a bit of fabric debris from an American Delta II booster rocket while walking in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, park. “Lottie was lucky,” according to one 2014 account: she was hit by the smallest piece of wreckage from the disintegrated rocket. A 66-pound titanium pressure tank was recovered in Texas.

For Rand, a visit to Rahr-West — where museum curator Adam Lovell places a thin file of letters, reports, and yellowed newspapers on a conference room table for her perusal — is another opportunity to research her story of space debris. The museum, for its part, takes full advantage of its proximity to Sputnik 4’s ground zero. Each year in early September, the museum hosts Sputnikfest, a quirky celebration featuring a Ms. Space Debris pageant (a contest open to any “human life-form,” in which Rand has twice placed as runner-up).

The crash of Sputnik 4 into one of Manitowoc’s busiest streets decades ago is a convenient touchstone for Rand, who came to the UW in 2016 after completing her doctorate in history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. The debris that falls from space, she has learned, is almost never recovered, instead burning up or falling in the oceans that cover most of our planet. Exceptions include the U.S. space station Skylab, which re-entered the atmosphere in 1979, pocking the Australian Outback with at least 22 tons of wreckage in 500 pieces — some the size of a loveseat.

And then there’s the example of Kosmos 954, a nuclear-powered Soviet reconnaissance satellite launched in 1977. A malfunction prevented the satellite from safely shedding its uranium-powered reactor core, and when it re-entered the atmosphere in 1978, it scattered radioactive debris over 48,000 square miles of Northwest Canada.

The incident prompted an exhaustive international air and land sweep to find and scoop up large pieces of radioactive debris — one reportedly so hot that a few hours of exposure would have been fatal.

International incidents created by stuff that falls randomly from the sky date almost to the beginning of the Space Age. In 1960, Rand notes, a failed rocket launch from Cape Canaveral resulted in debris raining down on newly Communist Cuba. A piece of debris supposedly struck and killed a cow, inspiring the first student-led anti-American demonstration there. The United States reportedly paid $2 million in compensation for the beaned bovine. It was a gift, too, for headline writers: the “Herd Shot Around the World.”

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The Golden Age of TV is Now https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-golden-age-of-tv-is-now/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-golden-age-of-tv-is-now/#respond Tue, 26 Feb 2019 16:46:39 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24964 Badgers who work behind the scenes to create and produce must-see content reflect on how they got their start, what it’s like to work in the business, and what they’re binge-watching.

In the age of peak TV, more is more.

We can watch our favorite shows anywhere, anytime, and on any number of devices. And that’s a boon for the people full of ideas who are always aiming to give us new material, from YouTube videos to prestige dramas.

“There are all these incredible writers to tell their stories and so many more places to tell them,” says Jenny Fritz ’95, comedy development executive for ABC Studios and part of the teams behind shows including Black-ish, American Housewife, and Speechless.

UW–Madison alumni are plentiful among the creative forces at broadcast networks, cable channels, and streaming services. We caught up with some of them to find out more about the past, present, and future of TV.

Josh Sapan ’75

President and CEO, AMC Networks Inc. (AMC, SundanceTV, IFC, WeTV, and BBC America)
Known for: Killing Eve, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead

Appointment TV when you were a student?

Laugh-In

College lesson that still resonates?

Running the New Utrecht Film Society, where we showed American classics and foreign films; acting in the Broom Street Theater; and writing for a literary publication called El Quixote, edited by the Late Morris Edelstein.

First job in TV?

Working a teleprompter machine on a soap opera.

What are you binge-watching right now?

Killing Eve on BBC America.

Go-to device to watch shows?

In order of priority: TV, iPad, phone.

What do audiences want most?

Storytelling with great narrative qualities.

Most important element of a good show?

Characters and story that capture what is essential about human beings.

Libby Geist ’02

Vice president and executive producer, ESPN Films and Original Content
Known for: ESPN Films 30 for 30 (including O.J.: Made in America)

Appointment TV when you were a student?

I remember in the early years watching Jackass, which really shows how sophisticated my taste was back then. Later in college I watched The Sopranos and Friends. I remember thinking that I had to get to a friend’s house by 8 p.m. or whatever time it was so I could see those shows.

College lesson that still resonates?

I was a political science major, and what I learned from that was that I did not want to be a lawyer and I did not want to be a politician. My dad [Bill Geist]was working for CBS Sunday Morning when I was in college. I knew that he had a really fun career and that he loved what he did. He met interesting people. I always took my communications classes really seriously because, in the back of my mind, I knew that [television] was somewhere that I might end up, and now here we are.

First job in TV?

I spent summer 2001 and a holiday month interning at Late Night with Conan O’Brien in Manhattan. There were a lot of McDonald’s and Starbucks runs, but I would also sneak into the writers’ room and listen to them work. I looked at those writers and could not believe that the fun that they were having was a real career.

Go-to device to watch shows?

My television. I still watch plenty of DVR, and my kids, husband, and I watch a lot of Netflix.

Currently binge-watching?

The last thing I binged was Netflix’s Wild Wild Country. My husband teases me and says, “Oh, are you going to watch another dark documentary tonight?” People really love true crime right now, and I also do, but when there’s just no relief from it, I have to walk away. So I like something that’s entertaining and has great characters. I loved Big Little Lies.

What do ESPN audiences want?

I think in order to attract people initially, you need a big name or a big topic that will really reel people in — and then you show them that it’s really high quality or that there are contextual layers to the story. I love that element of surprise. People think they know a story, and then we can completely tell it in a different way or give details that audiences never knew about.

What will TV look like in 10 years?

I think the unscripted bubble will burst. There’s so much content out there that it’s really hard for anything to break through anymore. Eventually the “Let’s just do a ton of stuff and hope something sticks” model won’t be sustainable. So on the unscripted side of things, hopefully it will be fewer but bigger, which is certainly the direction we’re going in at ESPN. That, I believe, will ultimately be a more sustainable model.

Adam Horowitz ’94 and Edward Kitsis ’93

Writing partners and showrunners
Known for: Once Upon a Time (ABC)

Appointment TV when you were a student?

Kitsis: For me, Northern Exposure, Beverly Hills 90210, and Seinfeld

Horowitz: L.A. Law and Star Trek: The Next Generation

College lesson that still resonates?

Horowitz: David Bordwell’s class that we took together [Communication Arts 354: Film Genres]. He opened us up to so many different kinds of film.

Kitsis: That basis in film history really gave us a context for everything we’ve done since.

First job in TV?

Kitsis: I was an assistant to movie producer Joel Silver, who produced Lethal Weapon and The Matrix. And Adam was —

Horowitz: A post-production assistant. I helped the people who edited the film on a television series called Tales from the Crypt.

Go-to device to watch shows?

Kitsis: If we’re traveling or on location, iPad is definitely a go-to. But I think we’re so old-fashioned in how we watch TV. Maybe through Apple TV or an app, but we definitely both still like to sit on the couch and stare up at the TV.

Horowitz: On location, iPad. At home, Apple TV — on the TV on the wall, just like has been done for 90 years. Except for the Apple TV part.

Currently binge-watching?

Horowitz: Right now, we’re in preproduction on our show Amazing Stories, for Apple and Steven Spielberg. When we’re in this kind of intensity, I am mostly watching sports. But the last show I binged, my wife and I just finished Billions.

Kitsis: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Killing Eve. I couldn’t get enough of both of them.

Best part about being a showrunner?

Kitsis: The greatest thing is getting to wake up every day and ask the question, “Wouldn’t it be cool if … ?” To have an idea and then bring it to life … being a showrunner really allows us to guide that process.

What inspires your work in fantasy, horror, and science fiction?

Horowitz: The commonality is character-based storytelling. With inter-genre storytelling, in our experience, it really only works if you are telling grounded, human-emotional stories.

Justine Nagan ’00

Executive director, American Documentary; executive producer, POV and America ReFramed
Known for: Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap

College lesson that still resonates?

My filmmaking production class, which J. J. Murphy taught, is one. We were still shooting and editing on 16 millimeter, which I learned a lot from. The thing that I still think about from that class is the importance of critique and having an environment where people can hear constructive criticism and make their films better.

First job in TV?

I did every media internship possible. I worked for the Badger Herald. I interned for Michael Feldman [’70]’s public radio show, Whad’Ya Know? I did morning camera for the ABC News affiliate, but only lasted about three months. Getting up at 3:30 in the morning and moving one of the giant studio cameras around was a trip. Eventually I got the internship at Wisconsin Public Television, which taught me how to produce.

Go-to device to watch shows?

I use a Roku at home.

Currently binge-watching?

HBO’s Insecure, PBS’s Victoria, and, with my kids, MasterChef Junior.

How do you select projects?

We try to really program films that immerse the audience in a story and bring them in through characters who move you and pique your interest. We try not to tell people how to feel about things.

Why are documentary series so popular?

I think it’s because of what’s happening with scripted series. It’s been this monumental evolution in content storytelling. So I think it’s a natural evolution both creatively and financially for docs to go into multipart series.

Your approach to storytelling?

POV is 31 years old this year. For many years of POV’ s existence, the broadcast was the highlight of a film’s release and now it’s a highlight. We are really focused on broadcast, streaming, and community engagement.

Why are we seeing so many reboots?

Part of me wonders if it’s because it has been a crazy couple of years, and our country is so divided and fragmented — people want what’s safe, known, and comfortable.

Amy Zvi ’98

Executive producer and manager, Thruline Entertainment
Known for: I Love You, America, with Sarah Silverman

Appointment TV when you were a student?

In our sorority house, we always watched Friends on Thursday nights. One of my roommates had the entire My So-Called Life on VHS. I fell in love with that show.

College lesson that still resonates?

One of my favorite [classes] was Scandinavian Literature: The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen. These are children’s stories that had very strong political undertones. I guess we do see that in television now.

First job in TV?

I got my start at Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, a PR firm. I was an assistant for two publicists, and I straddled the talent side and the television side. I ended up becoming vice president, and I stayed there for 11 years.

Go-to device to watch shows?

At home, usually a smart TV. When I’m traveling, I’ll watch on my iPad.

Currently binge-watching?

Season two of Ozark — loved season one. I love The Handmaid’s Tale, The Americans, Game of Thrones. Killing Eve is next. I’m a huge Big Brother fan.

How did you react to being nominated for an Emmy?

It’s a really exhilarating feeling, especially when it’s a show you’ve poured your soul into. I cried, and I called Sarah [Silverman] first, and told her, and screamed. At this time in history, both television-wise and political-wise, I think it’s a really important show, and I’m so proud of it.

Mary Rohlich ’03

Independent producer
Known for: Netflix’s Atypical

Appointment TV when you were a student?

24. I lived in Orchard Court with five other roommates, and other friends within the courtyard. We would always order Pokey Stix. I would make everybody be totally quiet and turn off the lights and not talk because you couldn’t pause the TV back then.

College lesson that still resonates?

I took a film production class — you had to shoot everything and edit it, and wear many hats. I was not someone who thought of myself as a director or a writer. I ended up making documentaries. My fears about not being able to do something led to what I really love doing and finding my path as a producer out here.

First job in TV?

I was a temp receptionist at MGM [Studios]. That led to an assistant position in development at MGM.

Go-to device to watch shows?

For my personal time, I still watch on TV. We use various forms of streaming: Amazon Fire, Apple TV.

Currently binge-watching?

Season two of Ozark. A Netflix show called Terrace House. It’s a Japanese reality show that has a small cult following out here. Just recently, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — I was a little behind on that.

Universal lesson of producing?

Working with the writers and directors and doing everything you can to help make their vision come to life in a way that is safe and responsible — creating a good environment for them to be able to do their job.

Ben Relles ’97

Head of unscripted programming, YouTube Originals

Appointment TV when you were a student?

A lot of comedy. Thursday night lineup of Seinfeld and Friends. Staying up to watch Mr. Show at 12 a.m. on HBO. I remember thinking, “Simpsons is funny.” And Beavis and Butt-Head.

College lesson that still resonates?

In a journalism class, the creators of The Onion came in and gave us an hour of their time. They had so much passion for creating comedy that pushed the boundaries. They were so fearless in their comedy.

First job in TV?

In 2007, I made a video about Barack Obama called “I Got a Crush on Obama.” At the time, I was working at a marketing agency. That video got over 50 million views in the first couple of weeks, so I quit my job to start making YouTube videos full time.

Go-to device to watch shows?

I am watching a lot of television on my phone and a lot of YouTube on my TV. I have gotten in the habit of saving my YouTube videos in “watch later” playlists, and then watching them on TV when I get home.

Currently binge-watching?

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Big fan of that show. I binge-watch some of my own YouTube originals — Cobra Kai and a new series called Origin. Older shows, too, like The Leftovers. I ended up watching all three seasons with my wife in a weekend.

What are YouTube’s advantages in the market?

When a show idea comes in, we can get a quick sense of how much the topic or the talent resonates on YouTube. But more important than the data is understanding whether the idea itself feels like it’s something that’s original and can break through an environment where there’s thousands of original shows a year.

Carol Kolb ’95

Writer and producer
Known for: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Community

Appointment TV when you were a student?

We would watch Mr. Show, the sketch show. Before that, in high school, Late Night with David Letterman was my favorite show ever.

College lesson that still resonates?

I just loved going to college. I extended it out; I kept changing my major. I had an English degree, and I liked creative-writing classes. I got a Latin minor for absolutely no reason. I loved digging hard into a subject.

First job in TV?

I was a freelance writer with The Onion, which was in Madison at that time. I worked there for over 10 years. I was editor-in-chief, then I went over to the video department, and we had a TV show.

Go-to device to watch shows?

Apple TV, always. I watch Netflix and Hulu. I buy shows because I don’t have cable. I also get subscriptions, like HBO.

Currently binge-watching?

Ozark. For some reason, we’re on a Love Boat kick. I love BoJack Horseman — that’s my favorite comedy. Baskets — it’s so weird and so funny.

What is it like being a part of shows with devoted followings?

These aren’t the shows that win Emmys, but I don’t care about that as much as I care about people really caring about the show. I think it does provide some energy because you know that people love it.

Kelly Kahl ’89

President, CBS Entertainment

Appointment TV when you were a student?

We would head out to bars on Thursday nights, but it had to wait until L.A. Law was over.

College lesson that still resonates?

The introduction to the history of broadcast law and the early days of the broadcasting industry. The industry is changing before our eyes, and knowing what these laws are, and what they mean, can really help somebody navigate and understand what’s going on today.

First job in TV?

I was an intern at Lorimar Television. At that time, they made shows like Dallas, Knots Landing, Full House, and Family Matters.

Go-to device to watch shows?

Everything. I still think there’s nothing better than watching on a big TV, but I’ll watch on my computer, my iPad, and sometimes on my iPhone. It depends, really, where you are and what the circumstances are.

Currently binge-watching?

I’m watching a lot of CBS shows, Young Sheldon being one of my personal favorites. Also, a show on YouTube called Cobra Kai, a reboot of The Karate Kid that is also really, really good.

What will TV look like in 10 years?

I think we’re reaching the point where there are so many shows that curation is going to be important. Nobody can really watch all these shows. We’re probably going to plateau in terms of the number of shows — at some point, the economics get a little weird. The networks are still going to be around and will still command the lion’s share of the audience, because they’re going to do shows with big appeal. But there will certainly be pockets of personal shows.

Why is CBS doing reboots (such as Hawaii Five-0 and Magnum P.I.)?

CBS has a very rich history of shows, many of which people consider all-time TV classics. There’s material to be mined there, and there are shows that people kind of look fondly back at. With maybe 500 scripted shows coming out in any given year, anything you can do to get people to sit up and notice, or have some recognition of a show, is important. We feel like there are new stories to tell and contemporary themes that we can add to an older, beloved show.

Jennifer Carreras ’04

Vice president of comedy development, ABC
Known for: Single Parents

Appointment TV when you were a student?

Friends was still on the air. That was the show that we would watch religiously, as a group, all together, always.

College lesson that still resonates?

I took a class [on poet Emily Dickinson] that stood out to me in terms of storytelling. It wasn’t new media, and it wasn’t television or film — I was an English major. But that sense of discovering character and getting to know the details of beautiful storytelling stuck with me.

First job in TV?

Between my junior and senior year in college, I interned at Michael Douglas’s production company, Further Films. My first paying job when I came out to Los Angeles was as the receptionist at a literary agency.

Go-to device to watch shows?

There is a big part of me that still loves to come home and just put on the television. I watch big-screen TV as much as possible.

Currently binge-watching?

Honestly, oddly, a lot of cable dramas. We watched Killing Eve. We just finished The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which I thought was excellent.

What stands out in a successful pitch for a new show?

It has to have compelling characters. Funny is really helpful. I know that sounds like the obvious, but you do — you want a laugh, and for ABC specifically, it really needs to have some heart. The combination of comedy and heart is really important for us. That’s the television I like to watch, and I think that’s what we’ve had success doing.

How do you know whether a show is successful?

Ratings are still a discussion, but not nearly as important as they were before. Part of it is what the ratings are, but also viewer engagement across social media. There are a lot of different ways to look at things, to see how the audience is responding.

Jenny Fritz ’95

Comedy development executive, ABC Studios

Appointment TV when you were a student?

My senior year, the O. J. Simpson trial began. Television capitalized on this gruesome, sordid story — every channel was showing it. We watched Friends, we watched Seinfeld. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention ER.

College lesson that still resonates?

Professor Julie D’Acci [MA’71, PhD’88] — she talked a lot about character. That has always been my North Star. You start with good characters, you define them sharply, you give them unique characteristics, and people will want to invest in whatever it is they are experiencing.

First job in TV?

I was a summer intern at Creative Artists Agency. I pushed a cart and delivered mail, I listened a lot, and I asked a lot of questions that you can get away with asking when you’re in high school.

Go-to device to watch shows?

I sometimes watch cuts on my iPad and my phone, because that’s part of my job, and there’s an immediacy. But in terms of enjoying a show as a viewer, for me, it’s still television and in my home.

Currently binge-watching?

Ozark. I don’t watch more than two episodes at a time. I like to contemplate things, specifically if it’s drama or thriller. I watch a lot of the ABC lineup. Off network, it’s a tie between Amazon and Netflix, with HBO thrown in for whenever they actually do bring back Game of Thrones.

What do you love about your work?

I’m in television to tell great stories. The best of television should reflect what’s going on in our world, socially, culturally, even sometimes politically. To see yourself, or your neighbor, or your family reflected on television is very, very comforting and important right now.

Mark Banker ’95

Head writer, DreamWorks Animation
Known for: Netflix’s The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants

Appointment TV when you were a student?

I remember living in a seven-bedroom house with seven or eight guys. As a group, we never missed Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place.

College lesson that still resonates?

[Professor] Tim Allen, Integrated Liberal Studies. In the first class, I walked in, and he had Horton Hears a Who? on four screens. He gave an hour-long lecture on the biological impact of Horton Hears a Who?.

First job in TV?

While I was at Wisconsin, I started working for The Onion as an ad rep. Then Scott Dikkers [x’87], one of the owners, pulled me aside and said, “I hear you telling jokes around here. You should be writing for us.”

Go-to device to watch shows?

TV should be watched on a TV, in my opinion. I have a 65-inch, so it’s hard to beat that.

Currently binge-watching?

Ozark is one of my favorites. Better Call Saul. We just started Maniac. Just finished the first season of Fargo — little late to the party. Forever on Amazon — my wife was the flight attendant at the end of the pilot. The Handmaid’s Tale made me subscribe to Hulu.

What’s changed about developing animation for TV?

Streaming has become such a significant venue. DreamWorks Animation made over a billion-dollar deal with Netflix to provide 12 or more series. If you look back five years ago, Netflix wasn’t really even much of a factor. You had Cartoon Network, Disney, and Nickelodeon all slugging it out.

How does streaming influence your writing?

One of the mandates we had was to make our show mildly serialized. What happens on Netflix is you’re watching, it ends, and then five seconds later, a new show will start. They want to create a seamless viewing experience from episode to episode. We do try to write to reward people that are watching episodes back-to-back.

Lisa Heller ’90

Executive vice president of HBO documentary and family programming
Known for: The Jinx (2015 Emmy for best documentary or nonfiction series), The Sentence (2018)

College lesson that still resonates?

I took a TV production class that I remember vividly. For the whole semester we had to write, produce, direct, and star in a mashup episode of a show, and we did The Wonder Years. I remember it being shockingly hard to get a 10-minute piece of fake Wonder Years done. It was an amazing window into what it takes to make TV. I would also say that I took my first women’s studies class in Madison. Once I took that class, I found that I never looked at the world the same way again.

First job in TV?

I worked at Wisconsin Public Television. I was a grunt. I tried a little bit of everything. I did the teleprompter and ran it backwards once, during a live [show]. I powdered Dave Iverson’s nose. The job really made me realize what I was not good at.

Currently binge-watching?

Recently I watched five episodes of Succession in succession until four in the morning. The other thing my family is binge-watching is Veep, because my kid just discovered it. My son also just discovered The Office. So we’ve gone through every single season of that show. The other thing I really like is Better Things. It’s a working moms’ kind of show.

Go-to device to watch shows?

The binging on the older shows is done on a good old-fashioned television. Succession and Better Things I watch up close and personal via either a computer or an iPad on my belly.

Why are documentary series so popular?

I guess truth is having a moment, right? You just can’t write some of this stuff. It’s as dramatic, as exciting, as engaging and compelling as fiction. Real people are amazing.

What do you look for in a documentary?

It’s not a science. Curating excellence is not something that you can learn in the class. It’s something you feel. If I’m doing my job right, the films on our slate make you feel something and move you.

What will TV look like in 10 years?

Oh, I have no idea, but I can’t wait to see.

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A Good Sport https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/a-good-sport/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/a-good-sport/#respond Tue, 26 Feb 2019 16:46:39 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24984 Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay ’92 makes no apologies for being a rabid Badger fan — even in a newsroom populated with Michigan alumni.]]> Even though his words show up in black and white, it’s clear through his columns that Wall Street Journal sports writer Jason Gay ’92 bleeds cardinal red. You may have caught one of his typically hilarious columns this past October titled “Wisconsin Must Beat Michigan to Save the World,” which reiterates his faith in the football Badgers and disses their opponents.

Gay was involved in theater at UW–Madison, and his passion for the dramatic is evident in his coverage, whether he’s writing about the Badgers, the Olympics, or the Tour de France. He authored the best-selling book Little Victories in 2015 and the following year was named Sports Columnist of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists. Through it all, he still finds time to revere Barry Alvarez and despise the Michigan Wolverines — two themes that consistently appear in his writing.

How did your experience at the UW prepare you for a career in writing?

Oh, gosh. I wish I had some great story. Truth is, I wasn’t such a great student at Madison. I did enjoy the beer! My career is an accident. The Journal should fire me, honestly.

Where was your favorite place to write on campus?

In my room, at 4:30 a.m., with a morning deadline approaching. I had a big, square Mac with a disk drive. I sound like I am 97 years old.

You’re an avid cycler and often write about it. Did Madison’s prominent biking community influence that passion?

I bought a Trek Antelope mountain bike — white with radioactive green — at Yellow Jersey on State Street. I loved that bike with all my heart, even when someone stole the rear wheel outside class. I am still trying to find that wheel.

Your column tends to be a torchbearer for Badger athletics on a national stage. When you were a student, UW football and men’s basketball were in poor shape. How exciting has it been to cover the Badgers’ continued rise?

It feels like I am getting away with something. I’m grateful to all the Badger fans out there who read it and share it with their friends. I’m also grateful to the millions of [readers] who despise the University of Michigan. Are there any interoffice tensions between Badgers and Wolverines in the Wall Street Journal newsroom?

Well, to them, there’s no rivalry. They believe they are better than me.

Give me your guess on which Badger team will be next to win a national title.

I think we are going to win every title for the next 10 years. Barry told me to say this.

On to something more serious: with the current polarizing influence of politics and social media, do you feel like your role and responsibility as a journalist has changed?

There are plenty of people out there being terrible to each other. I just want to make you snort milk out of your nose at breakfast.

What advice would you give to young writers and reporters looking to break into the increasingly volatile media market?

Stay away from people who went to Michigan.

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Free to be Allee https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/free-to-be-allee/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/free-to-be-allee/#respond Tue, 26 Feb 2019 16:45:59 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24988 Friends theme: she also collects kitsch, throws legendary parties, and supports her hometown of Detroit.]]> When the UW Marching Band asked her to conduct the 2010 Homecoming halftime show, Allee Willis ’69 — the musical mastermind behind the lasting hit song “September” — confesses she had no idea what she was doing.

Though she loves music, she’s had no formal training. And it wasn’t until she walked through the tunnel and onto the field at Camp Randall Stadium, sporting her signature sunglasses and inimitable fashion style, that she realized things had changed — dramatically — since she attended games with her sorority sisters in the late ’60s.

“I’m thinking there will be 12,000 people, which is still pretty overwhelming,” she laughs. “There were 80,000 fans!”

But with the same can-do, devil-may-care spirit that’s marked her professional success and survival for five decades, Willis embraced the moment.

“It was an absolute blast! I have no idea how to read sheet music, so I started flailing my arms,” she says. “And it turned out pretty amazing.”

Willis is a two-time Grammy award winner (for the music and lyrics to Broadway’s The Color Purple and the Beverly Hills Cop motion picture soundtrack) who scored a spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018. She’s been nominated for a Tony (The Color Purple) and an Emmy (the Friends theme song); sold more than 60 million records; collaborated with everyone from Bob Dylan to James Brown and Cyndi Lauper; and also pursued her passions in painting, sculpture, multimedia design, furniture making, set design, digital video, and social-networking technology.

“I change careers a lot,” she says.

Quirky and candid, Willis has a keen sense about the creative projects that will make her happy — and the courage to say no and move on to something new if they won’t. Just recently, she wrapped a string of one-woman shows and was busy collaborating with pioneering musician Beatie Wolfe and preparing to host another of her legendary parties.

“My parties are performances. They take months of planning, gathering, building, and working on how music fits in,” she explains. “I absolutely love what I do.”

Party, Protest, Participate

Willis’s first step on her winding career path was in advertising, writing copy for record labels after graduating from the UW. The School of Journalism’s academic reputation and the university’s active social life made Wisconsin a clear choice for the Detroit native and pop-culture junkie.

Studying, parties, protests — Willis participated in everything she could during her four years in Madison. She joined Sigma Delta Tau, whose national office named her its Outstanding Alumna last year, and socialized with fellow Carroll Hall residents.

“I started off a sorority girl … and ended up marching and demonstrating,” Willis says. “I knew I was going to a great school at a time of revolution. I got the best of all worlds.”

Although she preferred record shops to live shows, Willis was tuned in to Madison’s music scene and knew of the influential artists on campus just a few years before her, including Boz Scaggs x’66, Ben Sidran ’67, and Steve Miller x’67.

For a music fan from Motown, the next step was obvious: New York City. Within a month of beginning work as a secretary at Columbia Records and its Epic label, she landed a promotion to the advertising department and a chance to work with artists she idolized — Barbra Streisand, Laura Nyro, and Janis Joplin (who passed away shortly after Willis began working there). It was “an incredibly exciting job to have landed directly out of school,” she says.

After a few years, Willis turned her attention from writing liner notes to writing songs, a major leap of faith for someone with a deep devotion to music — and absolutely no experience.

“I jumped in,” she says of her first — and only — album, 1974’s Childstar. “I had never, ever performed before. I had been in one school play, and I literally played a tree. No lines, no nothing.”

Although she didn’t plan on a career in music when she was growing up, Willis says it’s easy now to see how her Detroit childhood helped shape her journey. Her informal musical education consisted of sitting on the front lawn of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, soaking up the sounds that would become groundbreaking hits as they seeped through the walls.

Some of Columbia’s other releases overshadowed Childstar, notably Billy Joel’s Piano Man and Bruce Springsteen’s first two albums. Willis calls it a blessing in disguise. It took only four live shows for her to realize performing held no joy for her. In fact, she describes her first show, playing for a crowd of 10,000, as “horrifying.” The record label dropped her a few months later.

Hoping to cheer her up, a friend dragged Willis to a recording session — “the last place you want to be when you lose your own deal,” she says — and unknowingly reignited her career. The singer was Bonnie Raitt, a rare fan of Childstar, who sent Willis home to write her a song. “Got You on My Mind” appeared on Raitt’s 1974 album Streetlights, and Willis hit the road as a backup singer.

Success didn’t come overnight, however. For nearly four years, Willis checked hats at a comedy club and hung posters for a cabaret. Her social circle included singers Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, and Bette Midler, whose career was the first to take off. There were days when her only meal came from the backstage green room at Midler’s shows.

“You’re young. You’re excited. You all believe you’re gonna be stars, and you don’t even consider the possibility it won’t happen,” she says. At the beginning of 1978, Willis was living on food stamps. By the end of the year, she had sold 10 million records.

September to Remember

Her big break occurred when a mutual friend introduced Willis to her all-time favorite singer, Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, who called on her to help the band flesh out the lyrics to a new song. “September” reached number one in the Billboard R&B singles chart, and the band asked her to cowrite music and lyrics for their next album. I Am went double platinum and included “Boogie Wonderland,” a hit Willis loves because of its unique arrangement and complex lyrics. “That was just an incredible gift,” she says.

Once Willis broke through with one of the coolest groups on the planet, the calls kept coming. She was writing more than 100 songs a year at one point. “I was a machine,” she says. But she quickly grew bored and knew that she couldn’t keep it up indefinitely.

Years of artistic torment followed. “Writing a song is very much dependent on who I am working with,” Willis explains. “If it’s someone I love, who’s talented, I can have a great time. But a lot of the time, they need help writing and basically you’re a babysitter. I spent a lot of my career doing that. It’s why I got on so many records, but it made me absolutely hate songwriting.”

Willis also tired of seeing her male peers promoted to producer roles, while many women with equal success, or more, were denied the same opportunities.

“Women have never had a big voice in music,” she says. “More power started to come with Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, but before that, you had to fight for every inch.”

In the 1980s, Willis tried to rally her fellow songwriters to unionize, but there wasn’t enough interest from other writers, male or female, in going up against decades of tradition.

“I just wanted to express my creativity. The easiest way to do that was to just start doing things other than music,” she says.

Early Adopter

Willis continued to write, but chose her collaborators more carefully.

In 1991, she became fascinated by technology and the boundless possibilities of the budding internet. She spoke at the first Digital World conference in 1992, along with the founders of AOL and Intel. In 1997, she addressed Congress on the topic of artists’ rights in cyberspace. And she spent years developing willisville — an early social network populated with fanciful fictional characters who acted as guides into cyberspace and interacted with humans — more than a decade before the invention of Facebook or Twitter. (She says of today’s social media platforms: “They’re a necessary evil. There are incredible things that have come out of them, and hideous things.”)

Also an early adopter of eBay, Willis discovered some of her now-favorite kitsch collectibles on the online auction website. Vintage clocks, collectible lunchboxes, and decorative ceramics fill her historic pale pink home in Los Angeles (known as Willis Wonderland, after her hit “Boogie Wonderland”) and populate her Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch website, ostensibly one of the largest collections of kitsch in the world.

Last year, Willis wrapped one of her most ambitious projects, a tribute to her much-loved and often maligned hometown of Detroit. Willis and collaborator Andrae Alexander wrote “The D” and recorded more than 5,000 people at 70 singalongs across the city. Aside from $15,000 raised in an online crowdfunded campaign, Willis financed the entire six-year project.

“I will do anything for Detroit,” she says.

The feeling is mutual. Her hometown honored her with a Distinguished Achievement Award in 2018. “To be acknowledged by the Detroit Music Awards, which is a major thing in Detroit, was as thrilling as the [Songwriters] Hall of Fame,” she says. “This whole year has been completely unexpected and amazing.”

Willis is an enterprising entertainer seeking out what makes her, and the world, happy — and having a blast doing it.

“I’m always excited. That’s the key. You gotta remain curious,” she says. “And if it’s not working for you … get off your ass and do something else.”

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Room for Debate https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/room-for-debate/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/room-for-debate/#respond Tue, 26 Feb 2019 16:45:58 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24962

In a polarized world, UW–Madison fosters tough conversations.

On a warm autumn afternoon when I needed it badly, I got a shot of hope for the future of conversation. Pulling up a chair at the Memorial Union Terrace and eavesdropping there under the old oak trees, I heard brilliant debate by research scientists about the best way to get a stubborn gene to express. At another table, there was virtuosic smack talk accompanying a game of cribbage. These lovely (loud!) sounds are ear candy after the deafening silence of being among too many people staring at their phones. They confirmed for me that the great collegiate tradition of chewing the fat with friends lives on.

But I still worried about our collective capacity to have deep conversations about tough topics with people who aren’t already our friends or colleagues and who we suspect see the world from a different perspective. Research shows that, for the first time in more than two decades, members of both political parties have strongly unfavorable opinions of their opponents. And our society is highly subdivided in other ways, so that people often end up congregating almost exclusively — in real life and through online communities — with others who share the same racial, religious, and demographic profiles.

Luckily, though, many at UW–Madison are actively seeking, encouraging, and developing the ability to discuss difficult topics fruitfully. Students are seeking out opportunities to talk through some of the biggest matters on their minds, and they (like many faculty members) are eager to argue respectfully and learn more about what they don’t understand. And those of us eager to reclaim conversation — the face-to-face kind — as a means for sifting through the complexity of contemporary life and building bridges can learn a lot from listening to what people on campus are doing.

Fireside chats

Later last fall, I joined the student-run Afternoon Conversation Series, a regular all-comers-welcome meetup held beside the flickering hearth of the Prairie Fire coffee shop inside Union South. I found about a dozen undergrads and graduate students listening intently as the day’s invited guest, Sumudu Atapattu, director of the UW Law School’s Research Centers and a specialist in international environmental law, spoke in soft, serious tones about the impacts climate change is already having on daily life in places vulnerable to rising sea levels, including parts of Alaska.

Though the legal and human rights implications of climate change Atapattu detailed were sobering, the students present seemed undaunted, going on to pepper her with thoughtful questions about how they might help push for change. One young woman wondered if she could combine her interests in law, science, and economics in a career. Absolutely, Atapattu says. If we’re going to meet the challenges of climate change, “all of those disciplines need to learn how to communicate with each other.”

Last year the group also discussed the status of the young immigrants known as DREAMers and international women’s health. After the conversation, one of the group’s organizers told me that the aim of these intimate talks on serious topics is to give students a chance to interact with professors without “the usual intimidating student–teacher power dynamics.”

The art of argument

UW mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg is a fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and professional-grade curator of talk — one of those classic social network figures who’s as comfortable discussing baseball and James Baldwin as he is breaking down the intricacies of multivariable equations. Over tea at a café near campus last spring, Ellenberg says that, for him, a key benefit of working at “this gigantic, multifarious institution” is having many opportunities to chat and mind-meld with researchers working in far-flung disciplines, who often shed surprising new light on his work, and he on theirs. But he also enjoys the “intellectual exfoliation” he receives as a result of speaking with other faculty members who aren’t afraid to challenge conventional wisdom and “push you to expand and enlarge” how you view an issue.

One such stimulating loofah figure Ellenberg always likes being “a little conversationally scraped by” is Harry Brighouse. The UW philosophy professor has argued on his popular blog and at various campus gatherings on teaching methodologies that the standard, top-down instructional model many American college classrooms follow does students a disservice. Research shows that college students (and adults generally) can pay attention to a single speaker for only about 20 minutes. So Brighouse makes a deliberate point of beginning classes with a short lecture, but then largely ceding the floor to his students.

To keep the conversation on track — or to redirect when one or more students begin to dominate a group discussion — Brighouse continues to dole out questions carefully. And he has his students — most of whom are accustomed to socializing mainly with their dorm and apartment mates — introduce themselves to each other over and over. It’s a strategy inspired by his own experience as an undergraduate at King’s College London, where he not only took all of his classes with the same group of people, but lived and ate meals with them, too, sparring over philosophy and history all the while.

And his chief aim, he explains, is to help students burn through shyness to become friends and strong intellectual debate partners for each other.

“Some of my students come to college reeeeally reluctant to argue. But even they will eventually say, ‘What are we going to argue about next?’ They’re really hungry for this,” Brighouse says.

Describe your path

In his cozy office decorated with vintage school maps and a stellar collection of LEGO Star Wars ships, Greg Downey, associate dean for the social sciences in the College of Letters & Science, keeps a small conference table. Students know they can sit down and discuss their aspirations and future plans, bouncing ideas around until they land on ones that feel, if not perfect, then good enough for now. And it’s here — as well as in the college’s popular Taking Initiative professional planning course, which Downey leads, and its new SuccessWorks career center — where Downey and his colleagues are invested in helping students get hands-on experience and find the right words to describe their evolving skills and interests to prospective employers.

Companies consistently report that they consider strong verbal and written communication skills essential for hiring, and there’s evidence from social psychology showing that creating an overarching narrative (aka storyline) for your life helps people gain healthy perspective and move ahead fruitfully. Downey has each of his students develop a “two-minute career story” and practice delivering it with classmates. Some struggle with the assignment. Maybe they’ve heard that speaking about your accomplishments amounts to bragging, or they’re still not entirely sure what they want to do with their lives, Downey explains. But once they hear other students sharing similar stories and realize that it’s okay to be still exploring options and just say this plainly, they usually get more comfortable.

But there are other reasons why he thinks it’s important for him, and faculty and staff at colleges everywhere, to be available to speak with students about whatever’s weighing on their minds. “UW students are accomplished and goal-oriented,” Downey says. “If you set them a task, they will work through it.” But he and other campus advisers have also realized — partly in light of the fact that the number of college students seeking treatment for anxiety and depression has shot up in recent years — “that we need to be continually active in encouraging our students to talk with us, and talk with each other,” he says.

Beyond managing coursework, many students today face “family pressures, peer pressures, [and] pressures from jobs. Technology pervades their lives, and while sometimes it helps them cope, sometimes it ratchets those pressures up.”

Group dynamics

More and more, students and faculty are seeking out and welcoming conversations where they can feel not only free, but encouraged to unfurl — working through difficult thoughts together with others in an unhurried way, saying things they’ve never said (or thought) before, opening up new doors of understanding to combat distrust.

Last fall, the UW released its Campus Climate Survey, which found that, while most students find the campus to be a safe, welcoming, and respectful place, students of color and from other historically disadvantaged groups consistently rated the climate less favorably overall than students from majority groups did. And since then, the work of various UW discussion programs created to foster greater equality, inclusion, and understanding across differences has taken on new urgency.

One such program, run by the UW School of Education’s Department of Counseling Psychology, is Diversity Dialogues. When it started almost 15 years ago, the big, burning divide that students wanted to discuss was the difference between students from the Midwest and the coasts. But now that issues of racial discrimination, gender nonconformity, and economic disparity have shot to the forefront of national news, students from different racial, ethnic, gender, and class backgrounds are eager to meet and talk about how these dimensions have shaped their experiences and perceptions.

UW professor of counseling psychology Steve Quintana, who directs Diversity Dialogues, says that one of its primary objectives is to help students recognize that all people (not just those who are obviously similar to them) are “living rich, interesting, and complex lives.” The theory behind deepening social understanding is that it makes it easier for people to understand and appreciate (if not always love) why others may act a certain way or hold a certain view.

To help students who typically have never met before they start talking, Quintana and other dialogue facilitators give participants different cues, such as asking them to describe pivotal childhood experiences or their own negative or positive experiences of diversity. A running rule is that no one can interrupt whoever is speaking for at least 90 seconds. Facilitators also work to sustain a respectful balance by reminding participants that every person’s perspective and personal experience are valid.

They also point out that mixed-company conversations on race, in particular, have a tendency to become “one-sided white confessionals,” wherein white students wax on describing their guilt over certain societal privileges they’ve enjoyed, at the expense (in terms of comfort) of black students in the group. But just naming the potential dynamic up front and noting that it can place additional burdens on black students is a surprisingly effective way of keeping it at bay, Quintana says.

After they’ve participated in the program, many students tell him that learning how to trade notes on class, race, sexuality, and other topics in a calm, non-adversarial setting (unlike so many of the combative finger-pointing sessions we see on TV today) made them feel more flexible and open — and eager to keep speaking with people who aren’t obviously like them. Getting new “windows into the depths of people’s experience is rewarding,” Quintana says. Once they’ve realized that everyone has an interesting story to tell, students often say they’re more likely to break the ice with strangers in everyday settings.

Comfortable with uncomfortable

UW professor Christy Clark-Pujara often spends the first few sessions of her classes on African American history and the history of slavery speaking with students about why it’s important for them to be able to discuss race together, even though it’s a subject many of them have been told to avoid. And she explains that “it’s okay to feel uncomfortable in this class, and even a good thing, because that’s where you learn and grow.” Clark-Pujara knows most of her students have so far been taught only the scantest rendition of black American history: “First there was slavery. That was bad, but some people were nice. Then there was Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, and now everything’s fine.” But then she begins fleshing out that time line with stories that fly in the face of certain well-oiled myths, including the myth that slaves did little to resist their circumstances.

“When you look at the primary documents, the history of slavery becomes a history of great resistance — not only physical, but moral, emotional, and cultural resistance,” Clark-Pujara says. She also disproves the folkloric belief that Wisconsin was always free of slavery. French-Canadian trappers brought slaves with them when they settled here in the early 1700s. When Southerners — including Henry Dodge, two-time governor of the Territory of Wisconsin — arrived in the early 1800s to mine for lead in the southwestern part of what later became the state, they had slaves with them, too.

At some point during the semester, students of different races overflow with “indignation” over never having been given an inkling of this richer, more complicated history. Clark-Pujara is there for all of it, ready to help them talk through and process “the terribly uncomfortable” fact that the “economic ascent of the United States rests on the backs of enslaved black people.” Empathy is a major theme in the class, she adds.

As we neared the end of our own conversation, Clark-Pujara pulled out two thank-you notes she had just received from students who’d taken her Introduction to African American History course. Each described a different way in which the class and Clark-Pujara’s teaching had changed not only their minds but their lives. The notes were beautiful. And they reminded me why talk, at the UW and everywhere, is so vital to staying alive and engaged: our world is never going to be perfect, and individuals and systems will inevitably let us down. But we should by no means withdraw and give up.

By debating and grappling with new ideas together with others, in real time — riding tides of confrontation without getting too rattled, watching one another’s faces light up and fall and light up again — we get to take another look at what we think, and make it better.

But we can’t get there through silence.

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Stop at the Top https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/stop-at-the-top/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/stop-at-the-top/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:41:22 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24351 As he had done at the end of countless UW Marching Band practices, director Mike Leckrone stood on top of a ladder on a hot, sunny August afternoon. The band’s veterans, along with rookies who had just won a coveted spot, crowded around to listen.

It had been a year since Leckrone had lost his wife of 62 years, Phyllis. Seven months before that, he had undergone heart surgery. Today, he would tell the band of the decision he had shared with only a few senior university officials: he was ending his remarkable half-century reign. He would lead them through one more football season, followed by hockey and basketball and the spring concert.

In this moment, Leckrone told his musicians what he expected of them.

“You must maintain the traditions, the intensity, the desire, and everything that everybody for the last 50 years has brought to this group,” he said. “I would be sorely disappointed if I see that doesn’t happen, because it’s in your hands to do that.”

Later that day as the news quickly spread, alumni band members began posting decades-old photos of themselves in their band uniforms on Facebook with the hashtag #IMarchedforMike. In September, the annual alumni band day — when former members march during the football pregame and halftime shows — drew record numbers. So many people wanted to play under Leckrone’s direction for one last time that organizers had difficulty creating a routine that would fit more than 500 people on the field, all wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with his name.

“Any one of us whose paths have crossed Mike’s feel that … he deeply touched us and continues to do so,” Sarah Halstead ’87, a cymbal player who spent four years in the band, said shortly before the alumni band took the field. “We’re here to honor him and, in some way, say, ‘Thank you.’ We’ve heard so many times from him — ‘Just one more time.’ And this really is the last time.” It may seem strange to think now, but Leckrone could have spent decades performing the University of Minnesota fight song.

Every Badger fan who has attended a home basketball, football, or hockey game since 1969 knows the man wielding the baton — a beloved, charismatic musical leader who exhorts crowds to shout, “When you say Wis-con-sin, you’ve said it all!” So it’s hard to picture Leckrone leading a stadium full of Gopher fans through their signature chant of “M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A.”

But in 1968, seeking a step up from his job as marching band director at Butler University, Leckrone looked to the Big Ten and applied for openings at Minnesota and Wisconsin. Both schools turned him down.

A year later, the UW called and asked if he was still interested. Leckrone said yes, even though it did not have the makings of a dream gig. At that point, the band had cycled through three different directors in as many years. And in the last 20 games, the football team had logged 19 losses and one tie (see page 13). The band’s ranks had dwindled — from around 130 participants to just 96 — and they frequently played to partially empty stands. It was also the height of the antiwar protest era on campus.

“It wasn’t really politically correct to put on a uniform and march around campus in those days,” says Leckrone, 82, an Indiana native and the son of a marching band director.

Unimpressed with the band’s lack of energy, Leckrone changed its marching style. He made the switch to a high step, which requires a musician’s knee to hesitate while lifted at 90 degrees, which he calls “stop at the top.” Leckrone stressed pride in the band and worked on small details like the snap of the “horns up” movement. Gradually, more students joined and, by his third year, the band began to transform into a cohesive unit.

Initially there was some resistance, recalls Ray Luick ’73, the band’s drum major when Leckrone took over. Luick played tuba his freshman year in 1968 before serving as drum major for the next three seasons.

“He had such a clear idea of what he wanted to do and we didn’t have a clue. Here’s a guy whose lifelong ambition was to be a Big Ten band director, and we were just part of the group he inherited,” says Luick, who returns each year with his drum major baton to lead the alumni band.

Fifty years after watching Leckrone take over the band, Luick is not surprised to see the director in charge this long.

“He has never lost the enthusiasm or the realization that this is just a lot of fun for a lot of people,” Luick says. “I think that recognition of how all these insane pieces fit together is very important to him and allowed him not to see this as 50 years of work but a continuation of something he enjoys doing.”

When he was hired, Leckrone figured he would transition to an administrative role in the School of Music within 10 years. But he enjoyed the marching band so much that, within a few years, he put aside thoughts of taking off the black uniform he wore for football games.

He says he’s lucky Minnesota turned him down. With a smile, Leckrone explains that Wisconsin has a much better fight song.

“Part of that is the cleverness [songwriter William] Purdy used in the song. That first four-note interchange — da, da, da, dum — you can turn it into all sorts of musical ideas. It doesn’t sound forced. It has a flow to it,” he says.

It has been decades since Leckrone struggled to find enough players to fill the band’s ranks. About 300 students make up the current band; 230 march at halftime. Others, usually freshmen, serve as alternates ready to step in for an injured player. To his musicians, Leckrone is more than a band director — he’s a mentor and coach who instills the necessity of hard work and having fun. And as the fortunes of Badger sports teams have soared and sunk over the years, there’s always been one constant: the appeal of the band.

“Mike is without question one of the most beloved figures in the history of UW–Madison. He has made a significant impact on campus, in Madison, throughout the state, and beyond,” says UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez. “When we speak with officials from bowl games each year, I tell them that Wisconsin will bring the whole package — team, fans, and band. Mike’s leadership of the band has certainly been an important part of that package for our school for many, many years.”

Although it might look seamless to fans at Camp Randall, each band performance at home games represents much thought, planning, and practice. Leckrone is one of the few — if not the only — college marching band director to continue to arrange all the band’s music as well as write charts for the pregame and halftime shows.

In addition to leading the marching and pep bands at sports events, Leckrone also teaches classes and conducts the symphonic band. A fan of big band music, his jazz and pop music courses are popular because of his encyclopedic knowledge and his infectious excitement for the tunes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and other early jazz legends. During a lecture on his favorite jazz artist — trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke — Leckrone has been known to dramatically rip open his overshirt to reveal a “Bix Lives!” T-shirt.

“It’s pretty amazing to keep up with his schedule. He’s a very energetic guy. I hope I have at least a quarter of his energy when I’m his age,” says assistant director of bands Darin Olson, who’s some 50 years Leckrone’s junior.

Leckrone knows the students who crowded around his ladder in August are the last group of young adults he’ll lead at the UW. They are the ones who will play his last football games at Camp Randall. They will tell the musicians who join the band next year and the year after that, what it was like to play for a legend.

He reminded them to keep up the intensity — but, most of all, to have fun.

“You have provided me with so many moments of happiness,” an emotional Leckrone said during his August address. “I can’t even begin to thank you. I will tell you those moments of happiness have gotten me through difficult times. I hope they can do that for you. Live for those moments of happiness.”

Then Leckrone climbed down and sang “Varsity” with his band.

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Stem Cells at 20 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/stem-cells-at-20/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/stem-cells-at-20/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:41:22 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24361 In the lab dish, a human embryonic stem cell can live forever. If the conditions are right, the cell will divide endlessly, providing a limitless supply of the blank-slate cells now used widely in biomedical science.

Immortality is an astonishing quality, certainly, but the feature of stem cells that has most captured the public’s imagination since they were first cultured at UW–Madison 20 years ago is the ability to manipulate them to become any of the myriad cells in the human body. The idea that specialized cells could be whipped up in large quantities to treat any number of afflictions — from dopaminergic cells for Parkinson’s to islet cells for diabetes — is a powerful one.

“For the first time, we had unlimited access to all of the basic cellular building blocks of the human body,” says James Thomson, the UW developmental biologist who first derived the original cells in 1998. “And if you make an embryonic stem cell line, that’s infinite. You can make as many cells as you want.”

But two decades on, stem cells have yet to live up to that grand clinical aspiration. Embryonic and now genetically induced stem cells from adult tissue have become lab workhorses and underpin the new field of stem cell and regenerative medicine. Worldwide, there is a score of clinical trials using stem cells, including trials for heart disease, the blinding disease macular degeneration, and spinal cord injury. And some of those trials are using the original cells Thomson made.

“I think where things are right now is pretty promising,” Thomson says. “There are a number of trials underway. Most will fail because clinical trials are hard, but some will succeed. The whole field just needs one to work.”

Stem Cells 101

Illustration of sperm fertilizing an egg

1.

Sperm fertilizes an egg. Illustration of fertilized egg starting to divide

2.

The fertilized egg begins to divide. Illustration of fertilized egg divided in to many cells

3.

Within five to seven days, the fertilized egg has divided into 100 cells (a blastocyst), containing cells that would form an embryo. The UW’s James Thomson used blastocysts produced through in vitro fertilization (IVF) and donated for research purposes. Illustration of cells in culture dish

4.

Those cells are placed in a culture dish, where they continue to divide, becoming what’s known as a stem cell line. Illustration of cells in multiple culture dishes

5.

The dividing cluster of cells is removed and separated into new culture dishes before it can become different types of cells. There, the cells continue to divide and remain stem cells. Illustration of cells in culture dish

6.

Researchers use biological and chemical signals to coax stem cells — the Swiss Army knife of cells — into becoming various kinds of cells.

Illustration showing multiple types of cells created through stem cells7.

Stem cells provide a limitless source of cells that scienists hope will one day be used for therapy to treat conditions including heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, and macular degeneration.

Global reach

5
The number of original stem cell lines

5,200
The number of times the original five stem cell lines have been distributed around the world to:
2,350 investigators | 820 institutions | 45 countries

$1.43 billion
U.S. funding for stem cell research (1998–2017)

1,300+
U.S. scientists work with any of the original embryonic stem cell lines

UW–Madison IMPACT

284
stem cell–related patents have been issued to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (May 2018)

685
people — faculty, staff, and students — work with stem cells on the UW campus

$75M
Grants supporting stem cell projects at the UW (fiscal year 2017)

10
Wisconsin companies are devising stem cell–based products, mostly used to test drugs in lieu of using research animals

Then and now

The UW’s Thomson had high hopes for the technology in 1998. Today, he remains convinced that the legacy of stem cells will not necessarily be as therapy for replacing diseased or damaged cells, but in basic understanding of human development and — using engineered stem cells from patients — the cause of cell-based diseases, including diabetes, Parkinson’s, and ALS.

1998: Stem cell predictions

  • Revolutionize basic research and understanding of human and animal development
  • Use to screen drugs before using in humans
  • Develop treatments — including tranplants and replacement of diseased cells and neurons — within 10 years

2018: Stem cell reality

  • Use to study basic development and to model diseases in the laboratory
  • Test the good and bad effects of potential new drugs on human cells, rather than in animal models
  • The first clinical trials for treating condtions like spinal cord injury, eye disease, heart disease, and Parkinson’s are underway; therapeutic applications of stem cells have not yet been realized
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The Hunt for Answers https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-hunt-for-answers/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-hunt-for-answers/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:16 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24380 Don Waller first saw them near sundown: a wall of whitetail deer, coming doe after doe through an abandoned apple orchard about 15 miles west of campus. In many ways, Waller was well acquainted with these animals, having tracked their numbers and effect on the state for decades. In other ways, it was an introduction. He had never been so close to a deer — let alone a dozen — before he clambered into a tree stand in October 2011.

Waller had long documented how deer are eating trilliums and other wildflowers close to extinction and devastating white cedar, hemlock, and oak saplings across much of Wisconsin. His research has helped to show that the huge number of deer in recent decades is throwing the natural world off balance. But in spite of all that, Waller was still not expecting to see so many deer so quickly.

Up the trunk of an ash tree, the then 58-year-old scientist seemed about to succeed on the first hunt of his life. Following in the footsteps of Aldo Leopold — a UW professor and hunter who had also warned about deer impacts — Waller had for years been urging state officials to let hunters harvest more deer to blunt the animals’ effects. For Waller there was a powerful logic to what he did next: he drew his bow. The image of an archer aiming at a clearing full of deer might seem more a part of Wisconsin’s past than its present. But there’s never been a better time to be a deer hunter in this state — and many other parts of the nation — than the past several decades. Wildlife experts think that, in recent years, the country’s whitetail herd has been as large or even larger than the one that existed before white settlers arrived two centuries ago. The landscape of Wisconsin has been upended since then. In northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Waller has focused much of his research, old-growth forests have given way to young forests, edge habitat, and farm fields that are far more favorable to whitetails.

Deer rely on the forest’s understory and the plants that they can reach to survive. But towering trees block the sunlight and limit growth on the ground. Logging, fires, and anything else that clear the way for sunlight and undergrowth in a forest provide more food for whitetails. Add farm fields and row crops, and suddenly deer have enough food to reach densities that Wisconsin’s native peoples might not have imagined.

Scientists estimate that when white people first arrived in Wisconsin, the northern forests of the state held four to eight deer per square mile. As a result of human intervention, there are now roughly 15 to 30 deer per square mile in parts of northern Wisconsin, and double that in some middle and southern counties. The same challenge extends to many other parts of the country.

In Virginia, state wildlife officials estimate that deer densities in Fairfax County parks — not far from Washington, DC — have reached more than 100 animals per square mile. Scientists in New York and Pennsylvania have turned up ecological impacts from whitetails as well, prompting groups such as the Nature Conservancy to argue that high deer numbers may pose a greater threat to forests in the eastern United States than climate change. As adults, each of Wisconsin’s 1.3 million deer will eat more than 2,000 pounds of food a year. Profound ecological damage can result, as Waller saw firsthand on a 1987 trip to northern Wisconsin.

One of his research collaborators, William Alverson ’78, PhD’86 had convinced Waller to drive up that summer from Madison to Foulds Creek State Natural Area near Park Falls. The two were looking for a small, fenced-off section of woods. They wanted to examine the plants inside the roughly 20-year-old “exclosure” — so named because it excludes deer. Waller thought the fence would be difficult to find in the forest — it was anything but. Hiking in, the two men saw their destination from far away.

“You can’t really see the fence from a distance. You just see the green,” Alverson says.

Within the fence, whitetail favorites such as hemlock and northern red oak thrived. Outside the wire, those plants were absent or stunted — a stunning difference. At the time, wildlife managers still sometimes argued that deer had no environmental impacts. Waller could see at a glance that wasn’t true.

“It converted me instantly into a believer,” he says. “It made me realize, ‘Wow, we need to pay more attention to this.’ … I had assumed up until then that the experts knew what they were doing.”

David Clausen reached a similar, but much more costly, conclusion of his own about damage from deer. A retired veterinarian familiar with Waller’s work, Clausen once served as chair of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Board, which helps oversee wildlife and environmental policy in the state. Twenty-five years ago, Clausen planted roughly 50,000 oaks on land he owns in the northwest part of the state. Today only a handful of those trees remain — deer helped kill the rest. Most of the surviving oaks are less than three feet tall and have the strange, undersized appearance of a bonsai tree.

“I became aware of just how much having that excess of deer on the land had cost me,” Clausen says. To restore his land, Clausen would like to remove invasive species such as buckthorn — a small tree that deer won’t eat — and plant other, native species like aspen. But he sees little point to doing that if deer are going to kill the plantings. Many oaks still tower over Clausen’s land, dropping acorn crops each fall that nourish deer, squirrels, and turkeys. But as the trees succumb to wind and old age, he worries about whether they’ll be replaced.

“You can’t have a sustainable forest if you can’t get regeneration,” he says.

Leopold made a similar observation in the years just after World War II in his landmark work, A Sand County Almanac. In the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold describes how the land had suffered after he and other wildlife managers had exterminated wolves in western states. In the Midwest, deer numbers had yet to rebound fully, and few were imagining any potential fallout from them. But before moving to Wisconsin and writing that essay, Leopold lived and worked in the American Southwest, where he saw how the loss of wolves contributed to an overabundance of deer that damaged the landscape.

“I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn,” he wrote.

Decades later, Waller and his colleagues found those impacts and more: a cascade of effects on plants, other animals, and even the soil itself. The scientists built their own exclosures and also did surveys to compare current plant populations in parts of Wisconsin to those documented in the 1950s by UW professor John Curtis and his students. They found a startling result: deer accounted for at least 25 percent of the changes they observed in plant composition over the past half century. Whitetails didn’t just stress some native plants and make room for invasive species — they shifted the makeup of whole plant communities toward species with unpalatable or tougher leaves. Deer also compacted the soil, altering the composition of its upper layer. By changing the plants in the understory, deer also affected the other animals and birds that rely on them.

In addition, big numbers of deer can lead to more auto accidents, more of the ticks that carry Lyme disease, and a faster spread of threats such as chronic wasting disease (CWD), which attacks the nervous system of deer and causes them to lose weight and eventually die. The misshapen protein that causes CWD hasn’t been shown to affect humans, but concerns over it are leading some hunters to avoid certain areas or give up the sport entirely. That in turn could make it harder for the remaining hunters — already an aging and dwindling group — to keep the herd in check. Nationally, the number of hunters dropped 16 percent from 2011 to 2016, according to a national survey released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Census Bureau. The level of hunting in 2016 was the lowest measured in the past 25 years.

There are other obstacles to preventing deer impacts. In deciding how many whitetails are too many, the DNR has traditionally looked at the populations in large geographic areas. But deer numbers and impacts on local plant communities can vary widely across these big zones, and the measurements aren’t necessarily meaningful at the local level, says Alison Paulson PhD’18, who worked with Waller as a graduate student.

Paulson and Waller’s other collaborators, including Sarah Johnson PhD’11, a Northland College professor, want scientists and wildlife managers to pay more attention to these differences and are investigating methods for easily monitoring deer impacts. They’re working in iconic places such as the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior and Leopold’s land near Baraboo, which was featured in A Sand County Almanac and is now held by his family foundation.

Not everyone is listening to Waller’s warnings. He found that out in the early 1990s, when he tried to convince DNR officials to reduce the deer population over the objections of hunters.

“I was told point blank that it was politically unfeasible,” Waller says.  

George Meyer, the DNR secretary from 1993 to 2001, says that sounds plausible, though he doesn’t recall ever speaking with Waller about it. Meyer, now the executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, a conservation group of hunters and anglers, says many deer hunters loved the large herd sizes of that era and opposed lowering them.

“If you had talked to a wildlife manager back then, I’m sure you would’ve heard that kind of statement,” Meyer says.

In states including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Indiana, it’s common to see state wildlife agencies come under fire from hunters if the deer population dips below record levels. In his time on the DNR board, Clausen also saw how hard it can be to convince others to thin the herd. “A lot of people don’t understand what the deer herd is doing and, frankly, a lot of them don’t care,” he says.

Clausen has been hunting deer for nearly 60 years — he took his first buck while Dwight Eisenhower was president and deer were less plentiful. He thinks that hunters who came of age in recent decades have grown accustomed to easier hunts.

“It’s a matter of perception,” he says.

Waller and his research team haven’t been content to document the loss of biodiversity — they’ve tried to stem it. Waller and other researchers sued the U.S. Forest Service in 1990, seeking to force it to set aside large swaths of mature forest without the kind of cutting that ends up providing food for deer and boosting their numbers.

“If you want to hang onto things that love old-growth forest, you have to think about that,” Alverson says.

Though the lawsuit failed, Alverson believes it helped change the thinking of many land managers. In recent years, Waller’s been looking for other ways to shift people’s thinking about what it means to have healthy forests and a healthy herd. He decided to become a hunter, for instance, in part to understand hunters better. To do that, he says he had to overcome some of his own preconceptions.

“I sort of assumed people were into [hunting] for the bloodsport aspect of it,” says Waller, who began to discover other reasons why people hunt, such as access to lean, organic meat.

He also got pointers on pursuing deer with a gun from Tim Van Deelen, a UW professor of forest and wildlife ecology and former DNR manager who read Waller’s work as a graduate student and found himself fascinated by its insights. The two men have since collaborated on research.

“Having been a deer specialist my whole career, [Waller] is one of the important voices out there,” Van Deelen says.

For his part, Waller’s several years of hunting have given him an appreciation for its challenges. He has helped to field-dress a deer but has not yet taken one himself. One of his closest moments to success remains that first hunt. The problem that day was, ironically, that there were too many deer. With all those does and yearlings below his tree stand, Waller couldn’t draw his bow — too many eyes were watching. After a long wait with no opportunity, he finally felt compelled to pull back his bow. As he did, the deer below caught the movement and scattered like marbles struck by a taw. Waller never had time to shoot.

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A Search for Simple Life https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/a-search-for-simple-life/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/a-search-for-simple-life/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:16 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24394 When he was deciding on a profession, Adam Steltzner PhD’99 just wanted to live a simple life: be a bit mundane, do the nine-to-five, collect a paycheck, maybe wear a tie. That’s why, though he discovered in his 20s a talent for physics, he passed up pure science for engineering.

“Engineering is physics that you do,” he says. “There are many physicists driving cabs, driving Ubers. But there aren’t as many engineers driving, because engineers get jobs.”

That desire for a regular job has led Steltzner to NASA, where he’s a leader in the effort to seek out simple life-forms on other planets. As the top engineer on the Mars 2020 project, he’s preparing to send into space the first project that will not only explore the red planet, but if all goes right, will pick up samples, ship them back home, and put them in the hands of Earthlings for thorough analysis.

“We know that Mars was habitable,” Steltzner says. “Back in the epoch when microbial life was starting to bloom here on Earth, the conditions were ripe to support life on Mars. And so the holy grail would be to find that, in fact, ancient Mars had supported microbial life — to find evidence of that in the rock record, to find microfossils and show them to the world.” It may sound odd to characterize a career spent designing rocket ships as mundane work, but you have to understand context: growing up, Steltzner had very few role models for what a day job should look like.

“My father didn’t work much,” he says. “There was some inheritance that allowed him to coast along for a bit. My parents read, and they traveled, but they didn’t build anything.”

Steltzner calls his parents artists, though they didn’t use the word to describe themselves. He also calls them dilettantes, people who were creative but who didn’t put serious effort into their endeavors. They never pushed him to see the practicalities of life. NASA was certainly never an ambition.

“I remember distinctly Neil Armstrong [walking on the moon] when I was six years old,” he says. “That was a big deal in my family — it was a big deal in everybody’s family. But I never had the picture of myself as academically inclined or a math and physics person.”

Steltzner grew up in the San Francisco area, where he got involved in the new-wave music scene. His first attempt at higher education was at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he studied jazz but dropped out. He returned to California, played in bands, and scraped out a living working at an organic market: he coasted.

Then, while watching the progress of the constellation Orion across the sky one night, he discovered that he was actually interested in science. He soon enrolled in his local community college, the College of Marin.

“I took an astronomy course to find out why the stars were moving,” he says. “And of course they weren’t; the earth was spinning on its axis. But I hadn’t learned this in high school. And I fell in love with this idea that the universe was governed by just a few laws. There’s like six, eight laws, like eight ideas. You can exploit these very basic, fundamental truths of the universe and develop about a dozen equations or governing laws that describe all of the behavior of the world around us. That is amazing.”

From physics at the College of Marin, he went on to study engineering at the University of California–Davis and then applied mechanics at Cal Tech. Engineering gave him things that his parents never did: purpose, focus, and attention to persnickety detail. It gave him the pleasures of tedium. Still, academia’s demands were high, and a year into his doctoral program at Cal Tech, Steltzner found himself burning out. Shortly after completing his master’s, he quit and took a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where he could work in the kind of physics that didn’t kill people. “This was the late 1980s, early 1990s, the Reagan Star Wars epoch,” he says. “I didn’t want to make weapons, and Jet Propulsion doesn’t make weapons, so I pushed myself into a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

He took part in the Cassini space probe project, which launched in 1997 and flew by Venus and Jupiter before orbiting Saturn. Though expected to run until 2008, Cassini continued delivering data back to Earth until September 2017, when it finally burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Steltzner was emerging from his own burnout. With funding from JPL, he enrolled in UW–Madison’s engineering mechanics doctoral program and studied under Daniel Kammer ’76, MS’77, PhD’83. And he continued to focus on the minutiae of engineering work. His dissertation, “Input Force Estimation, Inverse Structural Systems, and the Inverse Structural Filter,” looked at how the U.S. space shuttles and Russia’s Mir space station damaged each other during docking. When he received his degree, he returned to JPL and to NASA, where he was eventually brought into the informal community of engineers and scientists who were working on Mars exploration.

“I’m a phenomenally curious person, always curious about what’s over the horizon,” he says. “I am filled and made happy by vistas — broad, beautiful vistas of places that I have never seen and that I am about to explore.”

He helped create each of NASA’s Martian rovers: Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. Mars 2020 will be NASA’s most ambitious effort since putting Armstrong on the moon.

“This is annoying to me,” Steltzner says, “but it’s certainly true that there are a tremendous amount of very mundane things that you have to get right to make this mission work.” Again, Mars exploration may not sound mundane, but context is important: the Mars 2020 mission was born not just out of ambition, but out of a desire to be what engineers might characterize as efficient and others might just call cheap. It began as an attempt to recycle elements of the Curiosity program after that mission launched into space in 2012.

“We had these spare parts,” Steltzner says. “We started to sketch out what we might do, what kind of discount we might be able to achieve. By leveraging spare parts and the design expertise, how could we get back to Mars?”

Between 2012 and 2015, the plan for Mars 2020 took a backseat to Curiosity’s launch, landing, and mission, which has increased the number and quality of images that we have of the surface of Mars. Well into 2018, Curiosity continued to send back images and data. But it will never leave the Martian surface.

By aiming to bring bits of Mars home, the 2020 mission will present all the challenges of Curiosity, plus add new ones, many of which require perseverance more than spectacular breakthroughs. One of the chief concerns, Steltzner notes, is protecting the integrity of collected samples. Should anything from Earth get into the sample — a microbe or virus or organic molecule — it would contaminate the findings. Scientists wouldn’t know whether they’d found evidence of life from Mars or life they had taken to Mars. Steltzner and the NASA team have been working to create what he describes as “hypersterilized containers,” vessels designed to be free of any possible contamination by anything from Earth and preserved during passage through the Martian atmosphere, deep space, and reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

“The hardware elements are cleaner than anything, really, on the surface of the earth,” he says. “We’ve had to invent techniques that [can clean objects more thoroughly] than anything has ever been cleaned. It’s a lot to get right.”

And it’s a lot to do on a firm schedule. Due to the difference in orbit between Mars and Earth, missions can only launch once every 26 months. NASA’s target window is the summer of 2020, with the rover landing in February 2021. It will mean a lot of long days in the office, in the lab, and in construction for someone whose early life didn’t emphasize the value of tedium.

“I’m kind of striving against my parents’ ethos,” he says. “They didn’t do the mundane, day-to-day, go-to-work thing. I wanted to make something real. … Engineering has all the beauty of physics, and it’s a real job.”

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Five Badger Standouts https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/five-badger-standouts/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/five-badger-standouts/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:15 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24416 With more than 440,000 living alumni and a top-tier reputation, UW–Madison has no shortage of exceptional graduates. Selecting the superlative among this crowd is no easy task, but the Wisconsin Alumni Association has offered Distinguished Alumni Awards annually since 1936. This year, WAA’s highest honor acknowledges five alumni who have made stellar contributions to their professions, their communities, and their alma mater.

Carol Edler Baumann ’54

As a former U.S. State Department staffer and board member for numerous diplomatic organizations, Carol Baumann built a network of professional relationships “that helped bring the world to Milwaukee,” according to a longtime colleague.

Baumann earned her doctorate from the London School of Economics and was a professor of political science at UW–Madison and UW–Milwaukee. In 1979, President Carter appointed her to serve as U.S. deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

At UW–Milwaukee, she directed the international relations major for 17 years and the Institute of World Affairs for 33 years. Baumann built the institute into one of the best of its kind while continuing to teach and inspire students to pursue careers in international affairs and global business. She was the first host of the institute’s television program, International Focus, which is still broadcast on Milwaukee public TV. Baumann also hosted the Dialogues with Diplomats series, which drew ambassadors and other high-ranking officials from around the world, including President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

In 1958 she ran for Congress in Wisconsin’s Ninth Congressional District. Her extensive professional affiliations included the Council on Foreign Relations, the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the United Nations, and the National Foreign Policy Association.

Baumann helped facilitate cross-participation in international programming between the Milwaukee and Madison campuses, and she helped to forge a connection between the European Union and the international studies programs at UW–Madison. She retired in 1995 as a UW–Milwaukee professor emerita. Baumann published a novel, Journeys of the Mind, based on her travels and career.

John Bollinger ’57, PhD’61

As dean of the College of Engineering (CoE) from 1981 to 1999, John Bollinger presided over the creation of a familiar college landmark — the Maquina sculpture and fountain on Engineering Mall.

It was just one element of the $16 million CoE expansion to Engineering Hall in 1993. Bollinger’s 18-year tenure as dean also saw many other innovations, including a renovation of the materials science building and a new freshman course that assigned a real-world engineering project from design to final product. The college also instituted several annual competitions that encourage students to invent, patent, and commercialize their own technology. After retiring as dean, he created a new course, Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Bollinger served as director of the Data Acquisition and Simulation Laboratory and as chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering before becoming dean. He was a Fulbright Fellow in 1962 and 1980 and he coauthored two textbooks. Among his many patents, he invented a noise-quality detector for electric motors and an automated welder that helped Milwaukee’s A. O. Smith Company in manufacturing automobile frames. He founded and served as editor of the Journal of Manufacturing Systems.

He has served on the board of numerous companies, including Nicolet Instrument Corporation, Unico Incorporated, Kohler Company, and Berbee Information Networks. Bollinger is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the American Society for Engineering Education.

A Bascom Hill Society member, he has also generously supported the college financially. In honor of his parents, he established the UW’s Bollinger Academic Staff Distinguished Achievement Award.

He also established several engineering student scholarships.

George Hamel Jr. ’80

When the California wildfires swept through wine country last fall, George and Pam Hamel, co-owners of Hamel Family Wines in the Sonoma Valley, sprang into action. They quickly organized and hosted a benefit with singer John Fogerty in support of wine country wildfire relief, raising more than $1.2 million. For the Hamels, who lost their own home in the fire, it was a typical act of generosity.

The Hamel family, which includes three generations of UW–Madison alumni (and a Badger alum daughter-in-law), has been extraordinarily generous across the campus. They provided the $15 million lead gift for the new Hamel Music Center on campus, as well as the founding gift for SuccessWorks at the College of Letters & Science. They have been longtime supporters of the communication arts department and have provided major gifts to the Department of Athletics, the Garding Against Cancer initiative, the Office of Student Financial Aid, the Memorial Union, and several other UW programs.

Before becoming a vintner, George was a founder and served as COO of ValueAct Capital, a San Francisco–based investment firm.

For the Van Hise Society member, his support of the university has extended to giving generously of his time and advice. He serves on the Chancellor’s Advisory Board, the Communication Arts Partners, and the Garding Against Cancer steering committee, and he previously served on the UW Foundation board of directors and the College of Letters & Science board of visitors.

Ann McKee ’75

Ann McKee has studied hundreds of individuals diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and is the leading researcher on the degenerative brain disease. CTE is triggered by repetitive blows to the head and is most commonly found in athletes participating in boxing, football, ice hockey, and other contact sports, as well as military veterans. CTE causes symptoms such as cognitive impairment, depression, memory loss, aggression, and suicidal behavior. McKee was lead author on a 2017 study that found that CTE had been diagnosed in 110 of 111 former NFL players whose brains were donated for research.

She has presented her findings to NFL officials and testified many times before Congress. Her research was highlighted on the Frontline special “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” as well as in the New York Times, TIME, Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe, CBS’s 60 Minutes, CNN, NPR, and other outlets.

McKee is a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University School of Medicine and directs its CTE Center. She’s also the director of the brain banks at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center, and the Framingham Heart Study.

Her game-changing findings continue to make headlines. Her data show that it’s actually repetitive small blows to the head, rather than big, concussion-inducing hits, that have the strongest link to CTE — and that has the potential to drastically change the game of football as we know it today.

In 2018, she received a lifetime achievement award for Alzheimer’s disease research from the Alzheimer’s Association, and she was named by TIME magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

Allan Chi Yun Wong MS’73

Allan Chi Yun Wong is the founder, chair, and group CEO of the Hong Kong–based company VTech, one of the top 50 electronics manufacturers globally, with more than $1.8 billion in revenue.

After a brief stint at National Cash Register Company, Wong started VTech in 1976 as an electronics company that designed and manufactured home-gaming consoles, including Pong (an early video game based on table tennis).

In its first year, the company expanded from an initial investment of $40,000 to an annual revenue of just under $1 million. Under Wong’s direction, the company later focused on producing children’s learning products and cordless phones. In 1998, Business Week included him on its “World’s Top 25 Executives” list.

Wong serves on the board of China-Hongkong Photo Products Holdings Limited and Li and Fung Limited, and he’s also the deputy chairman and director of the Bank of East Asia, the third largest bank in Hong Kong. His government honored him with the Gold Bauhinia Star in 2008, and the United Kingdom gave him its Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award in 1997. He has an honorary doctorate from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and he served as a keynote speaker at the March 2017 Hong Kong chapter UW alumni event.

In 2016, Wong told CNN, “You don’t go into business to make money. You need to love your business, and you need to have passion, and you need to really want to make a difference in people’s lives. And making money is a byproduct, not the sole purpose.”

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