Alumni – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Thu, 27 Jun 2019 17:02:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A Hundred Trucks to Call Her Own Tue, 28 May 2019 14:48:04 +0000

Renee Meiller

Nancy Spelsberg ’99, MBA’06 will gladly nudge students toward industrial engineering. And it’s not just because she’s a graduate of the UW Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) and a member of its advisory board.

“You can go into business, you can go into engineering directly, or you could do just about anything,” she says.

Spelsberg is living proof of those words. Never in her wildest dreams would the president and part owner of BCP Transportation have imagined herself running a trucking company. Spelsberg worked her way up at Alliant Energy during a decade-long tenure, but she had dreamed of owning a small business since high school — an ambition she traces to childhood visits to her uncle’s road construction operation and limestone mine in West Virginia.

Her experience in the evening MBA program in the Wisconsin School of Business only strengthened her resolve. The trick? Finding the right opportunity. Spelsberg sent letters to some 75 small manufacturers across south-central Wisconsin to inquire about buying them out. Most didn’t reply; Badger Custom Pallet did. When the pallet manufacturer decided to revisit operating its own trucking company in 2011, it asked Spelsberg to run the Deerfield, Wisconsin–based business.

“It was an opportunity to start something from scratch,” she says. “I kind of thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’ll always look back and wish I would have tried it.’ ”

BCP has grown from four trucks and fewer than 10 employees to more than 100 trucks and a team of 140, while also adding warehousing and an equipment maintenance and service shop. The company hauls freight all over the lower 48 states, even delivering the UW football team’s equipment for road games.

Spelsberg has introduced a number of sustainable strategies to reduce fuel costs and carbon emissions. All of BCP’s trailers are outfitted with side skirts to reduce aerodynamic drag, and the company has installed auxiliary power units in its trucks to provide electricity, heating, and cooling without idling overnight.

She’s also turned to UW–Madison ISyE students to find operational efficiencies through the department’s senior design course. Those team projects hone the kind of continuous improvement mentality that she gained from her own engineering education.

“There’s always something that could be done better or more efficiently,” she says.

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‘Writing Emotion’ at Hallmark Tue, 28 May 2019 14:48:04 +0000

Jason Tracy

If you’ve been to a wedding, baby shower, funeral, or birthday party in the last 13 years, you’ve probably crossed paths with Melvina Young ’90, MS’92, PhDx’07. She’s a quiet party presence — she usually arrives hidden in an envelope — but Young’s voice always leaves a heartfelt impression on the guests of honor.

Young is a senior creative writer at Hallmark, where she says she writes much more than greeting cards. “I write emotion across formats that have deep, authentic resonance for people,” she says. “I write gift and children’s books, internet content, keepsake copy, women’s empowerment editorial, and for Hallmark’s community-support efforts. I believe in the company’s mission to touch every life in a meaningful way.”

Young’s work is infused with a sincere sense of compassion for people who are experiencing major milestones. She writes regularly for Hallmark’s Mahogany collection, aimed at African American consumers, and credits her ability to craft personal messages that resonate with diverse communities to both her personal background and her academic training. Young grew up in rural Lepanto, Arkansas, during segregation, and she enrolled at the UW in the late 1980s, an era when campus was roiling from a series of racial incidents. She participated in the student movement that resulted in a new Multicultural Student Center and an ethnic studies requirement for all undergraduates, among other diversity and inclusion initiatives.

“I went to campus and found a language for things that explained my lived experience and helped me formulate an identity built in strength,” she says. “Everything you encounter is what makes you.”

Young also found faculty mentors at the UW who encouraged her to transition from activist to academic, and she earned a master’s degree in African American studies and completed PhD coursework in women’s history and U.S. history. She then left Madison to become a college instructor and eventually landed in Kansas City, Missouri, where she decided to apply her skills in a different industry.

“In my scholarship and teaching, I focused on relationships from a broad socio-historical perspective because I felt if you could understand the root causes of certain injustices and relationships, then you could build connections and coalitions that would actually effect change,” she says. “I discovered at Hallmark, I could actually achieve a similar goal through words that touch people emotionally one to one.”

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Photography vs. Segregation Tue, 28 May 2019 14:48:04 +0000 In 2002, Gillian Laub ’97 made what would be the first of many trips to Mount Vernon, Georgia, to photograph the lives of teenagers in the South. What she discovered was an idyllic yet racially divided town struggling to confront longstanding issues of race and inequality.

For the next decade, Laub visually documented Mount Vernon and the surrounding Montgomery County. Her photographs of the region’s longstanding segregated proms were published in the New York Times Magazine in 2009. The photo essay, which sparked national outrage, led to integrated dances in the area.

Those photos and more, collectively titled Southern Rites, were on exhibit at the UW’s Chazen Museum of Art this past semester. Laub says that it took many months to curate and organize the exhibition. “The photographs, captions, and case objects are meant to take [audiences] on a decade-long journey,” she explains. “Unfortunately, this story is not an anomaly in this one town. There is segregation and racism all over our country. So I hope viewers can also reflect on what is going on in their own communities.”

This isn’t the first time Laub’s lens has candidly captured and chronicled individuals’ courage while simultaneously investigating cultural conflicts.

Her exhibit Common Ground (Israelis and Palestinians) explored the shared yet divided worlds of these two peoples, while her installation An American Life documented the intimacy and pain that can define family — in this case, Laub’s own family. And just recently, in 2018, the photographer captured Stacey Abrams’s run for Georgia governor — a race that garnered national attention.

Laub also returned to Mount Vernon one year after the town merged its segregated proms and directed and produced a documentary, also titled Southern Rites, along with John Legend and Lisa Heller ’90. The film, which explores racial tensions, premiered in Madison at Union South in April.

While Laub didn’t study photography at the UW, she says that taking art history and English literature classes had a “huge impact” on her future work.

“I learned I wasn’t good at writing, but my love of narrative storytelling influenced my visual art-making,” she says.

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Dance, Dance Revolutionary Tue, 28 May 2019 14:47:34 +0000 “There are times when I believe ‘Bunny’ was born to dance,” said Cordelia Chew Hinkson of her daughter in a 1952 interview.

A year earlier, Bunny — as Mary Hinkson ’46, MS’47 was known to her family and close friends — had broken through the almost exclusively white world of modern dance when she earned a lead role with the Martha Graham Dance Company.

But if she was born to dance, she also learned — through her own effort and through her study at the UW. Between her youth and her debut with America’s leading modern dance troupe, Hinkson came to Madison, where she discovered the science of movement as well as some of the complicated realities of what it means to be black in America.

Hinkson was born to a storied African American family in Philadelphia on March 16, 1925. Her mother had been a public- school teacher, and her father, DeHaven Hinkson, was a prominent physician and the first African American to head a U.S. Army hospital. Hinkson’s aunt, Mary Saunders Patterson, was famed contralto Marian Anderson’s first music teacher.

A 17-year-old Hinkson arrived at the University of Wisconsin in February 1943. She chose the UW, in part, because it offered an extensive curriculum in physical education — the subject she aspired to teach. But Madison was far different from Philadelphia, and the transition wasn’t easy.

Although African Americans had matriculated at the UW since 1862, they were often excluded from white social events and faced ardent racism. An unwritten but widely acknowledged policy excluded African Americans from dormitories and most rooming houses. A 1942 survey conducted by the Daily Cardinal revealed that 95 percent of housemothers on the university’s list of approved rooming houses preferred not to rent rooms to black students. “Many Negro, and to a lesser degree Chinese and Jewish, students have been denied rooms that are vacant and have been forced into outlying districts or have been forced away from the university altogether,” the study noted.

Hinkson made arrangements to live off campus. Discriminatory housing policies coupled with the wartime economy — students were often displaced to accommodate military trainees — made securing campus housing nearly impossible. During her undergraduate years, Hinkson lived in the Groves Women’s Cooperative at 150 Langdon Street, where she shared a room with fellow dancer Matt Turney ’47. The interracial boarding house named for noted agricultural economics professor Harold Groves 1919, MA1920, PhD1927 brought together women from all over the world. Groves was Madison’s first women’s cooperative house, and it opened the year Hinkson arrived. Already well traveled, Hinkson likely thrived in the multicultural co-op, which provided vivid evidence that blacks could live with whites. Members worked together as part of a single household, cleaning floors and scrubbing toilets. Hinkson washed dishes and swept floors to defray the cost of lodging.

“World War II and its immediate aftermath led mid-century Americans to reconsider the nation’s democratic principles and the backdrop of unprecedented political, social, economic, and ideological changes,” Groves later recalled.

UW Dean of Women Louise Greeley wrote to President Clarence Dykstra in 1943: “We believe … that if a group of Negroes, Jews, and Gentiles such as this … can demonstrate ability to live successfully together, it will be worth trying.”

Hinkson dances in the Union Theater. Her experience with Margaret H’Doubler brought her to the attention of major dance troupes. UW Archives S16295

While at the university, Hinkson succeeded academically, earning mostly As and Bs, and she reveled in Madison’s robust dance scene, joining Orchesis, the UW’s modern dance troupe that had been founded in 1918. She studied English, French, history, zoology, and PE, and she impressed physical education professor Katherine Cronin with her “good mind and sincere attitude toward her work.” Hinkson soon changed her major to dance after taking a course with Margaret H’Doubler 1910, MA1924, and when she told her father of the change, he was reluctant but supportive. “If that’s what you want, go to it,” he said. And so she went: in 1945, she appeared in Orchesis’s production of Orpheus and Eurydice. The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper covered the performance, describing Hinkson and Turney as the group’s first “colored dancers.”

“[Mary] was in heaven,” her sister commented some years later.

Hinkson would long remember the remarkable teachers in the physical education department and courses with H’Doubler, a pioneer educator who had created the nation’s first academic program for the study of dance.

Though campus could be unwelcoming, Madison did attract African American artists and thinkers in the 1940s: anthropologist and choreographer Katherine Dunham and her dancers performed Tropical Revue at the Parkway Theater in 1944; Alain Locke was appointed visiting professor of philosophy in 1946; Pearl Primus and her “primitive modern dancers” appeared in 1948; and actor Paul Robeson was a regular feature at the Union Theater.

And Madison offered opportunities: it was at the UW that Hinkson was introduced to the Martha Graham Dance Company, which performed at the Union Theater in March 1946. H’Doubler had required her dance students to attend the show, and Hinkson said she was “completely blown away.”

Hinkson graduated in 1946 but continued with graduate courses. After a year of studies and writing a thesis, she earned a master’s degree and then became an instructor in the Department of Physical Education for Women — one of the first black women to teach at any majority-white university. Hinkson and three other students then formed the Wisconsin Dance Group, touring Toronto and across the Midwest in a 1933 Buick. The group included Turney, Miriam Cole ’46, and Sage Fuller Cowles ’47.

In 1951, Martha Graham asked Hinkson to perform a “demonstration” — a combination recital and audition. Graham then asked Hinkson to join her company, and by 1953, Hinkson held the title of principal dancer, starring in a production of Bluebeard’s Castle in New York. For 20 years, Hinkson was one of Graham’s leading dancers, and she also taught at the Juilliard School and at the Dance Theater of Harlem.

Hinkson may have found a challenging environment at the UW, but she left prepared for a key role in the world of dance. When she passed away on November 26, 2014, her obituary lauded her as “an influential teacher both in the United States and abroad,” “highly versatile,” and “one of Martha Graham’s most important leading dancers.”

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A Future for Nuclear Fusion Tue, 28 May 2019 14:47:34 +0000 Fatima Ebrahimi PhD’03 is determined to unravel one of today’s most pressing needs.

Ebrahimi is a principal research physicist in the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s Theory Department and an affiliated research scholar in Princeton University’s Department of Astrophysical Sciences. She strives to fully understand what many believe could be the answer to unlimited, clean, and reliable energy: nuclear fusion. She mirrors the very subject she studies, driven by seemingly limitless energy to help direct the future of the field.

Although nuclear fusion — a means by which the sun produces its own energy — has been achieved in laboratory settings, current strategies are neither efficient nor reliable for producing energy on a large scale. Researchers, including Ebrahimi, are working to better understand and control fusion on Earth to develop a sustainable method that produces more energy than it uses.

“It will be fantastic. The whole world will change,” Ebrahimi says of the day when this method becomes a reality.

In her pursuit to understand the mechanics of nuclear fusion, Ebrahimi stands out for her desire to discover why things work the way they do. In addition to collaborating with fellow physicists, she takes walks and pulls late nights to think through problems alone. In her day-to-day research, Ebrahimi also explores unconventional approaches to fusion and calculates the physics behind her computer simulations.

“[Ebrahimi] has very good physical insight into the physics problems, and she complements the computer calculations with … calculations on pencil and paper to try to benchmark and understand the output from the large computer codes,” says Stewart Prager, who was Ebrahimi’s doctoral adviser at the UW and is now a professor at Princeton. “This capability, plus her appreciation for experiments, I believe distinguishes her from many other computational physicists.”

As a part of understanding the physics she computes, Ebrahimi fuses her work in laboratory physics with astrophysics. In one of her recent studies, she examined the behaviors of plasma (a hot, ionized gas present in fusion) and how they may affect studies about both Earth and space.

For one of these behaviors — magnetic reconnection, a process believed to be related to solar flares — she found that it has the potential to degrade the performance of a fusion reactor. Gaining a foundational knowledge about this process helps solar physicists and astrophysicists understand the nature of solar flares; understanding flares has become important for researchers to further study how to control fusion.

Nuclear fusion is a process that releases energy when lightweight atomic nuclei — such as forms of the hydrogen atom — join. In some reactors, scientists apply extreme heat to these hydrogen atoms to form plasma. The plasma is then controlled using magnetic confinement, allowing for the fusion of atoms.

As opposed to some of today’s energy sources, fuels for fusion reactors could be extracted from water and would not emit carbon dioxide. Ebrahimi also says fusion would not produce radioactive waste, and that it would be reliable — unlike the unpredictability of weather-related factors needed to power solar panels and wind turbines. Together, these factors help make nuclear fusion a coveted candidate for a new energy source.

Ebrahimi grew up in Tehran, Iran, during the turbulent times of the Iran-Iraq War.

“I was able to continue my education. But it affects [you], you have these memories,” she says, noting that everyone living in Tehran faced scarcity of “almost everything” — from foreign goods to food. “I also have memories of being wakened by air-raid sirens and running for shelter, and sometimes temporarily [evacuating].”

In high school, Ebrahimi first discovered her curiosity about physics. She naturally excelled at it and found herself wanting to understand the physical laws that determine how matter and energy interact. She wondered if there was a unified law that could explain it all.

“I think that was the thing for me,” she says. “The universality was something I was looking for.”

She went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics at the Polytechnic University of Tehran. During these years, she explored several areas of the subject — including plasma physics — and wanted to understand how they worked together to govern the universe. But she found herself gravitating more and more toward plasma physics. Although an area less focused on a universal law, it’s one in which several branches of physics overlap.

Ebrahimi then moved to Sweden to begin a doctoral program at the Royal Institute of Technology, where she started specializing in plasma physics and fusion. After a year, however, she decided she wanted to continue her research in the United States.

“Something was missing [in Sweden],” Ebrahimi recalls, adding that research there lacked a multidisciplinary approach. Researchers from the U.S. also had visited — including some from the UW, where a world-leading fusion experiment was located. “There was something special about the research environment in the U.S. It was clear from the scientists that I wanted to be there, and I wanted to work with them.”

Shortly after, Ebrahimi applied to a doctoral program at the UW. “I applied for other places, too, but I think I just felt that this was the right place for me to go to do my PhD,” she says. At UW–Madison, Ebrahimi saw opportunities to learn within a plasma physics program that offered a wide breadth of fusion experiments located on campus — important features that were difficult to find elsewhere.

While completing her doctorate at the UW, she continued to study a fusion method she’d begun in Sweden. She worked with the Madison Symmetric Torus located in Chamberlin Hall, conducting simulations to understand how to efficiently sustain a steady, controlled plasma current for an extended period of time — something that physicists today are continuing to study, as it will be necessary to harness if we are to use fusion for energy.

Ebrahimi collaborated with others in the lab to put her computational results into practice, hoping to understand the physics behind these simulations. This effort to validate computational research against a laboratory experiment is important because it helps provide more confidence in the results, says Ellen Zweibel, a professor in the UW’s Departments of Astronomy and Physics.

Ebrahimi met Zweibel while conducting her postdoc studies and research at the UW. They worked together through the UW’s former Center for Magnetic Self-Organization (CMSO), which joined the studies of phenomena seen in both astrophysics and plasma physics.

Although mainly focused on laboratory plasma research, Ebrahimi gained exposure to astrophysics by working at CMSO and with her adviser Stewart Prager, Zweibel, and a mentor whom she’d met in Sweden, the late Dalton Schnack of the UW’s Department of Physics.

This cross-disciplinary approach taught her to think of problems differently, applying knowledge from her fusion research in the laboratory to astrophysics and vice versa.

“It is a strength of Fatima’s that she is able to … walk over and collaborate with experimenters and help them understand what they’re seeing in the experiment,” Prager says. “She also has had collaborations with astrophysicists who don’t study plasmas in the laboratory at all, and she’s able to bridge that gap and apply her work to both laboratory and astrophysics.”

Zweibel notes that she and Ebrahimi were the only senior women involved in CMSO while it was still on campus. Since that time, Zweibel has noticed that the number of women in astronomy remains consistently higher than the number of women in plasma physics.

Despite the numbers and her hopes for more women to follow, Ebrahimi focuses on what she can control — pursuing her passion to solve the puzzle of nuclear fusion.

“You find a problem that you’re excited about, and you work on it. That’s it,” she says.

“Women are underrepresented in the U.S. fusion community, especially in senior positions,” she adds. She also recalls an experience when, for nearly a year, she faced delays in obtaining a visa to return to the United States for her postdoc at the UW — all while she continued to pay rent for her Madison apartment until her UW colleagues helped store her belongings. “In my case, being an immigrant was even harder, and until I became a U.S. citizen, several times it stalled my career.”

At the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Ebrahimi works with the National Spherical Torus Experiment Upgrade (NSTX-U) — one of the most powerful experiments of its type.

Some of her research builds from where her doctoral work left off, but it focuses on a different innovative method. She models her research using the NSTX-U — which is more compact than conventional fusion devices used by some researchers — to understand how to efficiently create a lasting, steady plasma current.

“You want to think out of the box,” Ebrahimi says, and — by taking on compact, non-boxlike approaches (a torus, after all, is more of a doughnut shape) — she does just that. “I think that’s what fusion also needs.”

By studying innovative methods, such as using compact devices, she says researchers may be getting closer to finding a sustainable, controllable solution — the ticket to using fusion as an energy source.

Although researchers have made large strides in the past few decades, Ebrahimi says that it’s difficult to predict when we will use nuclear fusion as a source of energy.

“Fusion is hard,” she says. It takes a global team: a variety of fusion projects are happening around the world, all of which help physicists gain a more comprehensive understanding of fusion. This multitude of projects is expensive but necessary, Ebrahimi says. The payoff, though, is expected to be well worth it.

“It’s unlimited [energy] for mankind,” she says. “It’s not for one generation. It’s for many, many generations to come.”

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Day of the Badger Gets the Red Out Tue, 28 May 2019 14:47:33 +0000

Katie Vaughn ’03, a senior university relations specialist for the College of Letters & Science, shares her spirit during April’s Day of the Badger. Joelle Stewart

The university celebrated its inaugural spring day of giving on April 9, as the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association (WFAA) encouraged alumni and friends to go online and make gifts to the school, college, or UW cause of their choice. Billed as Day of the Badger, the event featured 1,848 minutes of pure fun, spirit, and generosity summed up in the call to “give back, wear red, and stay connected.” (The 1848 figure is a nod to the year of the university’s founding.)

“People from all across the globe used this day to get connected to the UW,” says John Grice, WFAA’s director of annual giving. He added that donors could choose from more than 140 areas, academic departments, and causes, such as preventing student food insecurity and enhancing scholarships.

The day generated lots of positive energy, as well as:

  • more than 5,000 gifts
  • more than $1.8 million
  • upward of $369,000 in matching gifts
  • gifts from every state, more than 14 countries, and four continents

Many campus units shared their excitement as they watched totals grow online in real time, providing friendly competition as momentum built. And more than 16,660 social media engagements using the hashtag #dayofthebadger demonstrated alumni pride, including messages from former student-athletes Michael Finley ’14, Carey Lohrenz ’90, Mark Tauscher ’99, MS’03, and Melvin Gordon x’14. Gordon tweeted: “Blessed to have been able to go to the best university in the country!!! So so so proud to be able to call myself a badger.”

Donors posted thank-yous to academic departments for opening doors, to the vet school for saving pets’ lives, and to retiring band director Mike Leckrone. Other comments were more general, such as “I can’t believe I got to go to school here!” and “Thanks so much for helping all of us Badgers pay it forward.”

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Cora Weiss Keeps the Peace Tue, 28 May 2019 14:47:33 +0000 Cora Weiss ’56 has long been on the front lines of the international women’s and peace movements. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times for her tireless activism, including efforts to abolish nuclear weapons, end the Vietnam War, and rid South Africa of apartheid. But her lasting legacy may be her role in the drafting of a United Nations Security Council resolution ensuring that women get a permanent seat at all peacemaking tables.

You attended the UW at the height of the McCarthy era. How did that affect you?

McCarthyism choked off free speech at the university — or tried to. When I wanted to invite [folk singer and social activist] Pete Seeger to come and sing, the university wouldn’t let me have a room on campus, and we had to go to the street. When Leroy Gore, who was the editor of the Sauk City newspaper and a Republican, started the campaign to recall Senator McCarthy, I tried to run a Madison office and drove around the state collecting signatures. My car was pelted with tomatoes and potatoes and corn husks, and I couldn’t understand quite why, until one day I walked around my car and realized I had New York license plates. That was my first lesson in politics: don’t bring your home-state plates with you when you’re working in another state.

In 2000, you helped to draft UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which became international law. Why is it important?

We saw the need for the participation of women at all levels of governance and at peacemaking tables for the prevention of violent conflict and for the protection of women and girls during violent conflict. It’s the three Ps. [It’s true to] the purpose of the UN. In the charter it says, “We the peoples determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

What are the important lessons from your work?

I think people have to work together. We have to bring organizations together. We have to bring issues together. Both nuclear weapons and climate change end with the same consequence — apocalypse. One does it instantly in minutes or hours or a day, and the other takes a long time. But, both climate change and nuclear weapons mean the end of life as we know it. So, why aren’t we marching together? And the other lesson is that without women at the table, the table is not legitimate. No women, no peace.

What advice would you give today’s students?

Do something that responds to your feelings, your values, your passions — and don’t be afraid. Look at what young people have done since [the Parkland, Florida, school shooting]. Those kids went around the country helping people understand why they had to work against small arms. I don’t think I have to tell kids what to do. I think they’re going to know what to do. I have a lot of faith in young people.

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Madcap UW Writer Makes History in a Model T Tue, 28 May 2019 14:47:32 +0000 Emily Hahn ’26 opened readers’ minds by writing about her journeys across Africa and Asia. But her first adventure began with her college roommate, an old Ford, and 2,000 miles of uneven road.

Today, the Great American Road Trip is a common rite of passage for college students and graduates. But in 1924, before there was an Interstate Highway System, interstate automobile travel was a rare adventure. That year, two Badgers undertook a special cross-country drive that made headlines and history — and forever altered the trajectories of both travelers’ lives.

But first, let’s back up a bit.

Emily “Mickey” Hahn ’26 was one of the most prolific and adventurous writers to graduate from the University of Wisconsin, yet she’s also one of the least remembered. I first came across her name by accident during my final weeks as a science writer at the College of Engineering in 2011. I stumbled on a timeline buried deep in the website of the materials science department and noticed this tidbit: Emily Hahn, first female graduate, 1926.

No one else in my office had heard of Hahn, and I set about investigating her. What I found astonished me. Starting in the 1920s, Hahn traveled the world and worked for more than six decades as a correspondent for the New Yorker. In 1931, she hid herself in a crate to sneak across borders into the Belgian Congo, and she spent most of World War II in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. She split her later life between New York and London, and she wrote more than 50 novels, memoirs, and biographies, many of which are still in print.

Hahn poses with her pet gibbon, Mr. Mills, in Shanghai. Courtesy of Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

I was leaving the College of Engineering to go across campus and obtain a master’s degree in journalism, and yet here was Hahn, who’d built a substantial writing career after earning, of all things, the first engineering degree ever awarded to a female UW student. “I don’t know that name,” the late UW journalism professor James Baughman told me when I suggested that he make a mention of Hahn in his long-running Literary Journalism course. Both of us were genuinely surprised that she’d never made it onto the journalism school’s radar.

Hahn’s experience at the UW wasn’t something that past generations of university storytellers were especially keen to promote. A Saint Louis native, she originally enrolled at the UW as an art major, and on a whim, she attempted to enroll in a geological chemistry course in the engineering college. She wrote later that the department chair blocked her enrollment and told her, “The female mind is incapable of grasping mechanics or higher mathematics or any of the fundamentals of mining taught in this course.” Indignant, Hahn immediately switched her major to mining engineering and survived the department’s appeal to the state legislature to remove her from the program.

Hahn’s engineering classmates and instructors frequently tested her resolve. “I trained myself to keep very quiet and to maintain a poker face whenever I was in the college,” she wrote in Times and Places, a collection of essays that was first published in 1970 and was recently rereleased under the title No Hurry to Get Home. Over time, though, Hahn did manage to make a few engineering friends, who took to calling her “Mickey,” a childhood nickname that sounded masculine enough for an engineer — and Hahn used it for the rest of her life.

Discrimination wasn’t limited to the classroom. During her sophomore year, Hahn watched with dismay as, one by one, her classmates were offered summer internships and fieldwork opportunities that were considered inappropriate for women. It was her roommate, Dorothy Raper (later Miller) ’27, who unrolled a map of the world and pointed to a solution: Lake Kivu in the Belgian Congo seemed as good a place as any for a summer adventure.

But before embarking for the Congo, the roommates decided to take a practice trip to Albuquerque. Miller suggested they drive south, stay with her uncle for a while, and then finish the trip with a quick jaunt over to California to see the Pacific Ocean. Hahn’s biographer, Ken Cuthbertson, describes Miller as “outgoing, energetic, and athletic; she was a competitive swimmer,” and Hahn also called her “enterprising.” The only daughter of a newspaper columnist in Cleveland, Miller didn’t hesitate to petition her parents for $290 to purchase a Model T Ford. Miller then spent the spring teaching Hahn how to drive in the “gentle, glaciated hills of the [Wisconsin] countryside, past grazing cows and farmhouses.”

However, not everyone was supportive. “Why do you talk all the time about getting away?” a date asked Hahn not long before the trip. “Isn’t Madison good enough for you?”

“Madison’s all right, I guess, but no one place is good enough,” she replied. “I want to get around. I want to see things.”

• • •

In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson and Sewall Crocker took 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes to complete the first-ever American cross-country car trip, driving from San Francisco to New York. Twenty years later, most travelers were still unaccustomed to moving long distances by car. Most American roads were still unpaved, highways were not yet numbered, and the country’s first “motor hotels” wouldn’t open until 1925.

Yet the concept of Hahn and Miller’s driving trip wasn’t quite as radical or treacherous as it seemed to Hahn’s sophomore date. Before the roommates’ quest, Luella Bates had already gained a modicum of fame in Wisconsin as the “first girl truck driver” after she was hired by the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company in Clintonville. And Jazz Age Americans were far more captivated by airplanes than automobiles, anyway; female pilots like Bessie Coleman and Lillian Boyer were barrel-rolling their biplanes and walking on the wings (literally) when Hahn and Miller let their boyfriends haul the last of their luggage into the Model T. However, none of this is to say that what Hahn and Miller did in 1924 was simple or easy. In fact, what interests me most about their adventure is that it was encouraged and financially supported by their parents — and yet was still considered audacious enough to attract newspaper coverage in the Albuquerque Morning Journal.

The roommates departed Madison on June 19, 1924, and made their way first to Chicago and then Saint Louis to see their families. They’d converted the back of the Model T into a fold-down bed — complete with a mosquito net — and as they tried to sleep in a relative’s yard, Hahn’s young cousins kept peeking in through the windows to spy on them. Finally, the women broke free of their required visits and got out on the open road and headed south.

“On our way, on our own, on the road,” Hahn recounted saying to Miller as they skidded along rain-soaked country lanes, taking more than a few curves too fast through rural Missouri. When they didn’t sleep in the car, they stayed at “tourist camps,” which were just gated fields with outhouses. Once, a local sheriff tapped on their car window as they slept and insisted they relocate in front of his own house where he could keep an eye on them. In the morning, Hahn and Miller woke up with a crowd of locals staring at them.

They pressed on, navigating bumpy roads and regularly quieting the Model T’s hissing radiator with buckets of water. The roommates named the Model T “O-O” in honor of all the times the car made an odd noise and prompted them to exclaim, “Oh-oh!” After negotiating a mountain pass and testing the limits of O-O’s radiator and brakes, Miller and Hahn finally arrived in New Mexico on July 6 in mixed spirits. “I must be wrong to recall the tour as long,” Hahn wrote. “Even in 1924 it was not a matter of months to drive to Albuquerque from Saint Louis. Nevertheless, that is the impression I have kept.”

After six days in Albuquerque, the roommates pressed onward to Los Angeles to briefly glimpse the ocean as planned, driving through the desert mostly by night. But the trip finale was anticlimactic, wrote Hahn. By then, Miller was homesick and O-O was developing mechanical problems. “Might as well start back to Albuquerque,” Hahn recounted Miller saying as they watched blue-green waves crash against the rocky shore. “We’ve seen the Pacific.” • • •

The drive west was the first but far from the last time that Hahn garnered public attention for her travels. When the roommates set out for New Mexico, they were almost certainly aware of some of the famous American women who’d trail-blazed before them, such as Wisconsin-born explorer and museum curator Delia Denning Akeley, along with others who circled the globe and then made money giving public lectures about their adventures.

Later in life, the “lady traveler” persona became a devil’s bargain for Hahn, and she chronically struggled to get New York critics to take her work seriously. Her first major book, Congo Solo, originally exposed the polygamous lifestyle and cruelty of a prominent American medical missionary, but her publisher was wary of a lawsuit and edited the book to instead emphasize Hahn’s challenges as a woman traveling in Africa. Reviewers dismissed the result when it was published in 1933. Kirkus Reviews called it “utterly unconvincing in so far as the human equation is concerned.”

Some 54 books and hundreds of articles and short stories followed, covering diverse topics ranging from biographies to natural history, from the diamond trade to zoos, cookery, and communication with animals. But even her 1997 obituary in the New York Times was headlined “Emily Hahn, Chronicler of Her Own Exploits, Dies at 92,” which strikes me as unfair. It does little justice to Hahn’s extensive bibliography or her serious reporting on international politics on three continents. But her legacy does reflect that Hahn eventually recognized that to sell her work, she had to play up her more audacious angles. For example, her most lasting success, China to Me, highlighted her years as an opium addict in Shanghai and her romance during World War II with a married British spy, who later became the father of Hahn’s two daughters.

Hahn with her two daughters, Amanda and Carola. Courtesy of Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

But long before Africa and China, there were Albuquerque and California. And that’s where the UW roommates’ paths began to diverge. In her later writings about the trip, Hahn was quick to juxtapose her own New Woman persona with Miller’s more traditional outlook. In particular, Hahn was critical of Miller’s boyfriend, who sent letters for Miller to pick up at every town along their planned route.

“Letters in general were an intrusion, I felt, on this otherwise wonderful existence, reminding me that I had not always been free, that I would someday have to go back to my past,” Hahn wrote. She added that Miller’s “life wasn’t affected by the trip in any serious way, though no doubt it altered a few details for her … She married an Albuquerque man instead of [her college boyfriend], but what’s the difference really? If that’s the way you’re going to be, that’s it. Why, by the time I actually got there — to Lake Kivu [in 1931] — [Miller] already had two children.”

It’s easy to buy into the myth of Miller and Hahn as opposites, to make the practical Miller a duller foil to the risk-loving, adventuresome Hahn. Yet there’s no question the road trip was originally Miller’s idea, and so perhaps she knew what she was doing all along. After all, Miller effectively harnessed her plucky roommate’s energy to get exactly where she wanted to go: New Mexico, where she began to lay the groundwork for a new life. Miller fell in love with Albuquerque during the trip, and after finishing her UW degree, she spent the rest of her life there.

The drive was also an important moment for Hahn’s budding sense of herself as an adventurer. “My first trip West was a tremendous affair,” Hahn wrote. “I don’t think I ever got so steamed up again, not even when I went to Africa or China.”

After returning to Madison, Hahn completed her mining engineering degree and landed a job with a petroleum company in Saint Louis, which she appeared to accept with a sense of resignation rather than pride. Though she did successfully become an engineer, she didn’t stay one for long. One night after work, she heard that fellow UW engineering student Charles Lindbergh x’24 was attempting to fly across the Atlantic. She made a bet with herself that if he made it, she’d quit her job and become a writer. When The Spirit of Saint Louis landed in Paris the next day, she did just that and bought a ticket to New Mexico.

Hahn wanted to say hello to her old friend before embarking on her next adventure.

• • •

I carried Hahn’s name with me through graduate school and into another campus writing job, this time at the Wisconsin Alumni Association. There, I introduced her to my editor, who put her on the list of names to be included in the new Alumni Park. You’ll now find Hahn’s words laser-cut into one of the metal benches along the east side of the park: “Let’s not spend money on anything else, except books.”

Personally, my favorite Hahn quip is what she’d say in response to those who asked why she often chose the roads less traveled: “Nobody said not to go.” Those words became my mantra when I, too, finally left Madison. In 2016, I moved to Europe and traveled across a few borders myself — though never while hidden in a crate. I continue to be inspired by Hahn’s fearlessness, along with her prolific work as a writer. And I hope that the Badgers who happen across her words in Alumni Park will now know the answer to the question I first asked almost a decade ago: Who was she?

Hahn at a 1954 lunch with British magazine publisher Edward Hulton. Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images

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For Transgender Patients, a Surgeon Who Understands Tue, 28 May 2019 14:47:32 +0000 It’s late January, and Marci Bowers ’80 has completed sex reassignment surgeries on two patients at Mills-Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame, California. A visiting plastic surgeon from Seattle is shadowing the procedures, gleaning tips from one of the undisputed experts in the field.

Bowers is in high demand for her skill: she’s performed more than 2,300 sex reassignment surgeries during her career, 90 percent of them male-to- female procedures. But she also has a deeply personal connection to her work: she is a transgender woman herself, one of just three transgender doctors in the country performing the surgery.

Treatment for gender dysphoria — the conflict between one’s assigned sex at birth based on external anatomy and the gender with which one identifies internally — is medically necessary, according to the American Medical Association. It can involve physical changes to the body, such as hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery. Surgery is a personal decision for transgender people: some pursue it for their fulfillment, while others decide against it or can’t afford it during their transition.

With increasing societal acceptance and medical recognition, some transgender people are starting to gain better access to sex reassignment — also known as gender confirmation — surgery. Surgical costs can exceed $100,000, and until recent years, private insurance companies have been reluctant to cover them. Yet Bowers has accrued a four-year waiting list for her services.

For her patients, she’s worth the wait. Ariana Palacios, a 28-year-old flight attendant, consulted with a couple of surgeons before she met Bowers. While she did not feel at ease with others, she found that Bowers projects a special feeling of friendship and comfort. “To me, she’s an artist and a genius,” says Palacios, who traveled from her home in Washington, DC, to California to have the surgery.

Bowers is helping her patients to live authentically. “Today, I’m free, I’m confident, and, of course, I’m happy,” adds Palacios, one of an estimated 1.4 million transgender Americans.

Boosting happiness is a big deal. Transgender people remain among the most vulnerable citizens in society, facing staggering rates of harassment, discrimination, and violence. Results from the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey are alarming: 39 percent of respondents were facing serious psychological distress from mistreatment or harassment; 30 percent were living in poverty, double the rate of the general population; another 30 percent had suffered recent discrimination in the workplace or in public; and 40 percent had attempted suicide in their lifetimes, nine times the rate of the general population.

Bowers believes in the powers of visibility and education. After starting a transgender surgical program at Denver Health in Colorado, she’s now helping to create a transgender fellowship for plastic surgeons at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. The University of Toronto recently gave Bowers an honorary teaching position, and she hopes to launch a program in gender confirmation surgery at its medical school. She also started a surgical program in Tel Aviv, Israel.

“An activist is someone who speaks and stands up for what they believe, and that’s what I’m doing,” Bowers says.

On this winter day in Burlingame, Bowers processes the latest headline. Less than 24 hours earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court revived the Trump administration’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. She summons the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “The arc of the moral universe bends in the direction of justice,” she says optimistically.

But she’s clearly upset. The ban, she says, is born of “the fear of a few not-very-enlightened people, and unfortunately, that’s who we put on the Supreme Court sometimes.

“The truth,” she continues, “is [that being] transgender is an important part of the world, and it’s not going away.”

Transitioning is an unfolding process. It varies from person to person and can involve any combination of personal, medical, and legal steps — self- acceptance, external expression, coming out to others, updating one’s name and sex on legal documents, having hormone therapy, and electing surgery.

By age four, Bowers knew she was different. But her journey would be decades long. She was born Mark Bowers 61 years ago in Oak Park, Illinois, at the same hospital that gave the world Ernest Hemingway. She was the target of bullies in high school — “because I was so slight and feminine appearing,” she says.

The oldest of four siblings, Bowers spent a mostly happy childhood in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, the child of a stay-at-home mom and a furniture-salesman father. When Bowers transitioned at age 37 — while married and with three children — it cast a years-long chill on her relationship with her parents. It wasn’t until Bowers’s father was dying of cancer that they reconciled.

At 19, Bowers hitchhiked to San Diego in hopes of transitioning and expressing herself as a woman. Instead, she got caught up in the Unification Church (whose followers are known as “Moonies”) — a cult, she says, that she later escaped.

“I had no prospect for paying for anything, let alone surgeries,” Bowers recalls. “I decided I would go back to Wisconsin. Next thing you know, I’m in college, I’m in medical school, and I’m married. I was a pretty classic case [of denial], I’d say.”

In Madison, the science-minded Bowers earned a degree in medical microbiology. It was “a really solid educational foundation” for her later work, she says.

Bowers remains married to her wife. After the birth of their third child, “there was a lot of angst,” she recalls. “I just couldn’t go on without making [the transition] happen. I was trying to live this false life, being a family man. I was living for others and being who I wasn’t.”

At that point, Bowers was a mid-career ob-gyn in Seattle, having delivered some 1,300 babies. In 2003, she relocated to the hinterlands of Trinidad, Colorado, which had been known since the 1970s as “The Sex Change Capital of the World” because of the prolific surgeon Stanley Biber. She learned surgical techniques under the tutelage of the late Biber, considered one of the earliest and foremost practitioners of sex reassignment surgery. She eventually took over his practice in the small town of fewer than 10,000 residents until she moved to California.

At 5-foot-4, Biber was a stubby figure, “but he stood absolutely upright,” Bowers recalls. “He was very vertical, very proud. He had a swagger.” To Bowers, Biber looked remarkably like her own father. She projects some of her mentor’s toughness to this day.

Bowers’s national profile rose this past year with her appearance on TLC’s I Am Jazz, a popular reality show in which she operates on transgender teen Jazz Jennings. Reflecting on her own journey, Bowers says, “I don’t identify as a transgender woman. I’m a woman who has a transgender history.”

In addition to sex reassignment surgeries, Bowers has performed more than 500 clitoral restoration procedures for victims of female genital mutilation. She’s performed operations on immigrant victims at her practice, and in March, she partnered with the San Francisco–based nonprofit Clitoraid to travel to Kenya and offer her services to victims there while also training other surgeons.

“This is a seismic event in a continent that is beginning to deal honestly with the centuries-old cultural practice of female genital mutilation,” Bowers says, noting that it was her third trip to Africa.

“These women have been mutilated in such an intimate part of their body, and Dr. Bowers is so very sensitive to that,” adds Nadine Gary, the international director for Clitoraid. “She’s sensitive to how they feel and what they are trying to achieve.”

Bowers’s office administrator, Robin Lassiter, has held her position for 13 years. She’s typically the first point of contact for people inquiring about sex reassignment surgery, receiving calls from all 50 states and from countries around the world. They’re looking, she says, for clarity on the pathway to hormone therapy or potential surgery. And, ultimately, they’re looking for greater happiness.

“Marci is an incredible human being,” Lassiter says. “She has a very clear vision and focus, and she’s an incredibly skilled surgeon. That’s why people wait for her. That’s why she’s worth waiting for.”

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Florence Bascom: 19th Century Rock Star Tue, 28 May 2019 14:47:32 +0000

Florence Bascom shows off a tool of her trade: a Brunton compass. During her work with the U.S. Geological Survey, she placed benchmarks like the one pictured below, which denoted a site’s exact elevation. Florence Bascom Papers, Smith College

There’s an apocryphal story about what set Florence Bascom 1882, 1884, MS1887 on her rocky path to a career in geology. The story goes that her father, John Bascom, took her to Mammoth Cave in south-central Kentucky, and the trip made such a deep impression on Bascom that she was determined to pursue science from then on.

But not all historians agree that the trip ever happened, much less during her childhood. Instead, Bascom was initially drawn to other fields of study, obtaining an arts and letters degree from the UW shortly after her father took over as university president in 1874 (and pushed for full coeducational status for women).

After graduating, Bascom spent a year in Madison “engaged in social activities” before her father encouraged her to return to school and pick a more lasting direction for her interests. (They may also have visited “a cave” around this time.) She returned to the UW for a second bachelor’s degree, this time in science, followed by a master’s in geology. She became a protégée of Charles Van Hise 1879, 1880, MS1882, PhD1892, then an assistant professor.

Bascom’s next step wasn’t easy. After a couple of years teaching in Rockford, Illinois, she applied to the PhD program at Johns Hopkins University, which until then did not admit female students. Through her father’s connections, a special exception was made for Bascom, though she had to sit behind a screen in classes to avoid “distracting” her male classmates. Ultimately, in 1893, she was the first woman to earn a doctorate from that institution. Her influential dissertation was on metamorphosed lava flows.

“The fascination of any search after truth lies not in the attainment, which at best is found to be very relative, but in the pursuit, where all the powers of the mind and character are brought into play and are absorbed in the task,” Bascom wrote. “One feels oneself in contact with something that is infinite, and one finds a joy that is beyond expression in ‘sounding the abyss of science’ and the secrets of the infinite mind.”

Bascom went on to become an expert on crystalline rocks in the Piedmont area of the Appalachian Mountains, and some of her surveys are still in use by geologists today. She balanced academic posts at various institutions with positions at the U.S. Geological Survey and other professional associations.

However, Bascom’s biggest influence was in the classroom. Recruited to the prestigious women’s college Bryn Mawr in 1895, she spent the rest of her career establishing — and protecting — a geology department that graduated a small but dedicated number of female geologists. When the college president threatened to shutter the department due to low enrollment in the early 1900s, Bascom’s students raised a substantial amount of money to save it.

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