Faculty – 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 Say Cheese https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/exhibition/say-cheese/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/exhibition/say-cheese/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:41:23 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24307 Wrestling bears, a soaring eagle, and curious fawns are among the 22 million images captured by a first-of-its-kind network of volunteer-run trail cameras in Wisconsin.

The project — called Snapshot Wisconsin — was launched in 2016 by the state’s Department of Natural Resources to monitor wildlife and to help officials track the deer population. But it also provides UW–Madison researchers with an unprecedented, candid look at animals.

The cameras have already provided new insights into wildlife. Weasel-like fishers have been spotted in Marquette County, farther south than reported previously, and the first moose (or its knees, anyway) recently made an appearance.

More than 1,000 volunteers monitor the trail cameras. Recently, officials began accepting applications from residents in all 72 Wisconsin counties and allowing volunteers to manage cameras on public land for the first time.

The statewide expansion helps move UW research on wildlife populations into more ecosystems, says Ben Zuckerberg, a UW forest and wildlife ecology associate professor. That means getting a fuller look at the creatures that call Wisconsin home.

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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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Internet Underwater https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/calculation/internet-underwater/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/calculation/internet-underwater/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:14 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24287 Water graphic with text "4,067 miles of internet cables will be underwater within the next 15 years"

Illustration by Danielle Lawry

The digital wonders of the internet are only made possible by physical infrastructure: buried fiber-optic cables. But rising sea levels pose a threat to that very foundation.

“The expectation was that we’d have 50 years to plan for it. We don’t have 50 years,” says Paul Barford, a UW–Madison professor of computer sciences who recently published the first assessment of how climate change could affect the internet.

Paul Barford, UW professor of computer sciences.

Thousands of miles of buried fiber-optic cables are located in densely populated coastal regions of the United States, connecting with data centers, traffic exchanges, and termination points to form the vast global information network. The cables are designed to be water-resistant, but unlike the marine cables that ferry data from continent to continent under the ocean, they are not waterproof. This critical communications infrastructure could be submerged in as soon as 15 years, according to Barford, who conducted the study with Ramakrishnan Durairajan MS’14, PhD’17 and Carol Barford, who directs the UW’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.

The researchers combined data from the Internet Atlas, a comprehensive global map of the internet’s physical structure that Paul Barford and others previously created, and projections of sea-level incursion from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The effects would ripple across the internet, says Barford.

Much of the infrastructure follows long-established rights of way, typically paralleling highways and coastlines. “When it was built 20 [to] 25 years ago, no thought was given to climate change,” he adds.

The findings of the study, Barford argues, serve notice to industry and government. “This is a wake-up call.”

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Parental POV https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/parental-pov/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/parental-pov/#respond Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:41 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23119 Ronald Reagan waves to supporters in front of plane with "Reagan '80" painted on side

The Reagan Era takes wing: Ronald Reagan waves to supporters at Van Nuys Airport before a set of presidential campaign rallies in the Los Angeles area in October 1980.

For the sake of learning — and with occasional family healing — a UW history course is asking students to turn their parents into historical subjects.

Professor Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s History 221 course, The History of Your Parents’ Generation (1970s–90s), tackles a tumultuous few decades through a generational lens, assigning students to interview their parents (“compelling figures in the drama of American life in their own right,” the syllabus states) about their upbringing and their memories of music, fashion, and historic milestones.

Responses have ranged from the stereotypical — dads waxing poetic about Bruce Springsteen, moms admitting to wearing disco sequins — to the unexpected. One student learned that her mother, a nurse, rushed to the front lines of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s to work at a specialized clinic. The mother cried as she recounted the death, terror, and antigay backlash she witnessed. Another student leveraged the assignment to ease tensions between a mother and grandmother who hadn’t spoken to each other in years. One student even found out about a half-sibling for the first time.

“It seemed to me that [the course’s approach] could get students to connect to history,” Ratner-Rosenhagen says. “History is nothing other than actual human beings in time and space having thoughts and feelings and being affected by their world.”

She challenges students to keep their parents’ answers in mind during the course’s traditional lectures and readings, which cover the cultural fracturing and economic upheaval — or the “great shift” — that defined the ’70s and ’80s. The course concludes as it started, with students conducting follow-up interviews with their parents and connecting them with subject matter from the course.

Lindsey Brugger ’18, who took the class in 2016, wrote her final essay on childhood nostalgia and its association with political identity. She posits that her father’s happy upbringing on an isolated farm may have contributed to his lasting fondness for Ronald Reagan, even though he can’t recall any of the former president’s policies or actions.

“A really great takeaway was getting to know my parents a little better and getting to understand how they came into a political awareness at the same time that I was discovering mine,” Brugger says. “I grew closer to my parents because of [it].”

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8 Lions of the Lecture Hall https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/8-lions-of-the-lecture-hall/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/8-lions-of-the-lecture-hall/#respond Fri, 03 Nov 2017 23:02:06 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=21680 Over its 17 decades, the UW has taught hundreds of thousands of students — some 600,000 have earned degrees, each one influenced in one way or another by at least one instructor. Some faculty members come and go; others stick around and become legends. According to the Secretary of the Faculty’s Office, eight current UW–Madison professors have served for more than 45 years. The odds are pretty good that you took a class with one of them.

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2 Who Got Away https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/2-who-got-away/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/2-who-got-away/#respond Fri, 03 Nov 2017 23:02:05 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=21672 UW–Madison is rightly proud of its faculty. Its professors include some of the world’s brightest minds. UW faculty have brought home an impressive collection of hardware over the years, including seven Nobel Prizes. Most recently, UW scientists contributed to UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, which won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. But the UW very nearly hired two others who were destined to win Nobels. Both of them slipped through the university’s fingers in a two-year period.

Milton Friedman (UW 1940–41, Nobel 1976)

Black and head shot of Milton Friedman.

In the first half of the 20th century, the University of Wisconsin had one of the nation’s leading economics departments. Under John Commons, UW economists wrote some of the most influential documents of the Progressive Era. Among other things, Commons’s disciples — including Edwin Witte 1909, PhD1927; Arthur Altmeyer 1914, MA1920, PhD1931; and Wilbur Cohen 1934 — helped to create the Social Security System. The “Wisconsin school” of economic thought helped to guide the New Deal.

In 1940, the UW’s prominence attracted a bright, young academic who was still finishing his doctorate at Columbia. Milton Friedman came west at the invitation of Selig Perlman 1910, PhD1916, one of the country’s leading labor historians.

It soon became apparent that Friedman was a difficult fit with the rest of the faculty. Steeped in statistics, he found Wisconsin’s emphasis on studying institutions and policy to be unsophisticated and unscientific. His UW colleagues, in turn, sneered that he was merely a mathematician.

In 1941, the conflict came to a crisis. Perlman nominated Friedman for an associate professorship. But Friedman had recently put together an informal assessment of the department, and it wasn’t complimentary. George Sellery, dean of the College of Letters & Science and a Wisconsin-school economist, objected to hiring Friedman. He warned Witte, the department chair, that Friedman would “arouse extreme bitterness in the department of agricultural economics and the School of Commerce,” according to a Daily Cardinal story that May.

When Friedman insinuated that the UW’s reluctance to hire him was due to anti-Semitism, the relationship was poisoned. He left Madison to work as a statistician for the War Department through World War II, then joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, helping to establish the Chicago school of economics, which is today one of America’s most influential. In 1976, he received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on consumption analysis and the history of money.

Richard Feynman (UW 1942, Nobel 1965)

Black and white photo of Richard Feynman standing in front of chalkboard.

In July 1942, the University of Wisconsin Press Bulletin — essentially a collection of press releases that the UW compiled for state newspapers — included a small blurb: “Two appointments were made to the department of physics,” it read. “Felix Adler and R. P. Feynman, now at Princeton university, will come to Wisconsin in the fall as assistant professors.”

Feynman would never take up the post, and the UW would not be able to send a press release explaining why. The university had granted him leave so that he could work on the greatest national secret of the age: the Manhattan Project.

As an undergrad at MIT, Feynman had made a name for himself as a brilliant nuclear physicist. Even before earning his bachelor’s, he was already developing the theories about the behavior of subatomic particles that would earn him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1965.

That reputation also drew the attention of Robert Oppenheimer, who recruited him to join the effort to build an atomic bomb. Instead of going to Madison, Feynman relocated to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and he spent the rest of the war solving problems in atomic fission.

In June 1945, an impatient Mark Ingraham, dean of the College of Letters & Science, sent Feynman a letter demanding that he return to campus and start teaching classes.

Feynman stayed in Los Alamos and, a month later, watched as the first atom bomb detonated. After the war, he easily found work with Cornell and then Cal Tech.

During the decades after the war, Feynman became a star in the field of QED, or quantum electrodynamics. His work was recognized by the Nobel Prize committee, which granted him a joint prize along with other QED pioneers Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga.

Years later, Feynman finally returned to Madison. “It’s great to be back,” he told the crowd, “at the only university that had the good sense to fire me.”

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Brain Trust https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/brain-trust/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/brain-trust/#respond Wed, 23 Aug 2017 19:28:36 +0000 http://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=20744 In April 2016, Tony Stretton’s lecture to undergraduate biology students began on an ordinary note, until members of the UW Varsity Band marched into the room with a surprise salute in honor of his 80th birthday. Stretton wiped away tears of joy as the class clapped and cheered, a wide grin on his face.

At an age when most professors have the word emeritus attached to their titles, Stretton, a professor of zoology, still relishes his work with students both in and out of the classroom. “I’m very lucky to have the job I have, and it’s tremendous fun,” he says.

This fall, Stretton is starting his 47th year of teaching at UW–Madison, using science as a vehicle to impart his unflagging love of learning and discovery. Yet he finds as much meaning in the people he encounters as in the pursuit of knowledge itself.

Stretton trained in his native England during the advent of molecular biology, and his list of colleagues is a Who’s Who of the biologists enshrined in textbooks. As a young scientist, he started working in the same lab as Francis Crick just a few years after Crick and James Watson reported the structure of DNA, work that would earn them a Nobel Prize.

Now Stretton is teaching students two to three generations his junior in one of the hottest undergraduate programs on campus — brain science. Student interest in neurobiology at the UW has steadily grown since it was introduced as an option for biology majors nearly 20 years ago. That interest supported the launch of a new neurobiology major last fall, which has seen rapid growth. More than 450 students enrolled in the first year.

The brain represents a worthy challenge for anyone looking to push the boundaries of human understanding. And with technological advances in recent decades, “you’re able to ask questions that were inconceivable when I was a kid,” Stretton says.

His own research focuses on how tiny but abundant bits of protein, called neuropeptides, work in the nervous system to drive behavior. He is spurred on by the puzzle of figuring out how many complex pieces fit together to add up to the wonder that is a living creature, even a simple worm.

“He’s just so curious about everything,” says Jennifer Knickelbine ’10, PhD’17. She joined his lab as an undergrad to help prepare for medical school, but was so taken with the process of inquiry — and Stretton’s contagious excitement about it — that she ended up staying after graduation. This spring she earned her doctorate, likely as Stretton’s final graduate student.

His lab has at times become a refuge for students struggling to find their place. Joanne Yew PhD’03 joined Stretton’s research group midway through graduate school, when she faced serious doubts about her future in research. “I thought about quitting science,” she says.

Stretton was on Yew’s graduate committee and offered her space in his lab to regain her footing. “I said I’ll try it out, but I might quit after a year,” Yew recalls. “But he had this great humanity about it: life is complicated, people change, and he was willing to deal with that complication. I always felt like he wanted the best for me.”

Yew now runs her own lab at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.

“He believes in the best possible version of each person,” she says. “And that makes the person live up to that version.”

That genuine, compassionate interest in people shines through in all his interactions. “All of his mentoring extends beyond the lab and beyond coursework,” Knickelbine says. But his guidance is powerfully nonjudgmental and always based on “you could” rather than “you should.”

“It’s tremendous in a mentor, that whatever you say, you know you’re not going to disappoint him,” she says.

For students willing to put in the effort, Stretton creates opportunities to succeed, from extensive office hours in campus cafés to “second chance” exams that offer opportunities to boost grades. He received an Undergraduate Mentoring Award in 2016, bolstered by more than a dozen glowing letters from alumni.

Yet Stretton would say he has gained as much from his students as they have from him. He estimates that he’s taught some 20,000 undergraduates, in addition to a couple dozen graduate students and several postdoctoral trainees.

“In science, you always have to be ready to abandon what you think you know,” Stretton says, before launching into a story about witnessing Crick become ecstatic upon learning his pet theory had just been disproven by another scientist, and how powerfully it influenced him as Crick’s young colleague. “You have to have an open mind and be prepared to entertain all sorts of things. And that’s certainly true of my interactions with people. I love interacting with people who have all different backgrounds and assumptions.”

Reflecting on his days as a young researcher, he chuckles at his own naïveté. “I’m probably still immature, but I feel I’m more mature than I was then,” muses the 81-year-old. “I think I have a little bit more perspective. And I thank my students for that.”

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Great Fall of China https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/great-fall-of-china/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/great-fall-of-china/#respond Mon, 22 May 2017 17:47:46 +0000 http://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=20102 More than 6,000 miles from his home country, the People’s Republic of China, Fuxian Yi receives messages on social media from panicked women. All have differing versions of a similar dilemma.

They’re pregnant. Illegally.

One woman, concealing the pregnancy of her second child from her employer, fears that officials will subject her to a forced abortion if she’s found out. She could lose her baby, her job, her relationships, and her home.

Yi offers the best guidance he can: Take prenatal vitamins. Seek out sympathetic doctors. Reach out for help to lawyers and journalists — there’s a short list he trusts. Be brave; carry the pregnancy to full term.

A physician by training and a senior scientist at UW–Madison’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Yi has for years been a vocal advocate for abolishing the one-child policy in his native country. Beginning in 2016, China offered couples the right to ask for permission to have a second child, but even as the population-control policy relaxes, Yi continues to call on the Chinese government to scrap it altogether.

Yi treats China like a patient: he’s spent 17 years evaluating and diagnosing the world’s most populous nation, and what he’s found has turned him into a dissonant and powerful voice in the debate about its one-child policy. And according to his calculations and projections, his patient’s outlook isn’t promising.

“The policy is associated with some of the most severe human rights transgressions in the world today,” Yi says. “From an OB/GYN perspective alone, it is directly or indirectly responsible for some of the six to 14 million abortions in China annually.”

For the last four decades, authorities across China have been accused of intimidating women, as well as practicing forced abortions, even in late-term pregnancy at eight months and beyond. This alone draws deep international criticism, but equally startling is Yi’s research, which concludes that not only will population growth slow — which is precisely the aim of the policy — but the trend will accelerate and cause China’s population to fall into steep decline.

Essentially, China’s family-planning policies will undermine the country’s social stability and sustainable development right at the peak of its economic boom.

Yi’s population research and predictions differ from those of the Chinese government, and his accuracy has made him controversial. His first book on the topic, Big Country with an Empty Nest, was banned from mainland China after its publication in 2007 in Hong Kong due to its strong criticism of the one-child policy, the policy’s history, and, by inference, the government’s tight grip on family planning.

Fearing punishment if caught on Chinese soil, Yi didn’t travel to his home country for 10 years. But international communication, accelerated by blogs and social media, are transforming his public image from traitor to truth-seeker. Now Yi and his views are slowly becoming more mainstream, thanks to gradual, changing attitudes in China. In recent years, he has regularly shared his opinions and data with 140,000 followers on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform in China. Some of his articles have racked up more than 10 million hits online.

In 2010, Yi returned to China. He didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome — the one-child policy was still in place — but he was invited to give 13 lectures at the country’s top universities. He discreetly attended a talk featuring a leading proponent of the one-child policy and original author of the “open letter” in 1980 that set that policy in motion. That official spoke disparagingly about Yi’s ideas.

“After the lecture, I followed him to the hallway,” Yi says. “I needed to talk to him because he drafted the open letter, and I wanted to know why he and other officials have secret meetings on this topic. He told me he would go to the bathroom first.”

Thirty minutes passed. The official didn’t return. Yi later learned the official snuck out of the building’s back door. Yi heard from a friend soon after that the police were supposedly searching for him. Sensing he should leave immediately, he fled by train to Shanghai.

All Yi wanted to do was discuss the facts.

The Doctor Is In

When talking about his family — his parents, siblings, wife, and three children — Yi flashes a sprightly smile and expressive eyebrows behind brown-rimmed glasses. He jokes about how simple his needs are: a green landscape, like Madison’s in the summer, which reminds him of the lush scenery of the village he grew up in. And personal freedom, something he feels should be a right for all people.

As one of seven children growing up in rural Hunan, Yi was isolated by mountainous terrain. China’s enormity and diversity leave it decentralized and often shaped by the interpretations and agendas of provincial and village leadership, making his home more tolerant of dissent, but also miles away from electricity and modern medicine.

When Yi was an adolescent in the 1980s, he and his family were shocked by the sudden death of his sister-in-law.

“I wanted to save her life — even as a high-schooler. I felt very sad,” Yi reflects. “Life is so short. Her son, my nephew, was only a couple of years old.”

The tragedy inspired Yi to drop his focus in economics and enroll at Hunan Medical University, an institution cofounded by Yale University in 1914 to improve people’s lives.

Over time, Yi’s optimism for general medicine evolved into a passion for medical research, increasing the number of lives his work could affect. He swapped his stethoscope for a microscope and pursued a master’s degree and PhD in pharmacology from the same university.

In 1999, postdoctoral positions at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities and the Medical College of Wisconsin brought Yi to the United States. By then, his wife had given birth to his oldest child, a girl. The couple relished being free from the one-child policy; they had two boys in the following decade.

Yi’s reputation as a skilled researcher landed him a position at UW–Madison, in a lab focused on improving health outcomes of women and their babies. In 2002, he began studying preeclampsia, a medical condition that causes hypertension in pregnant women and puts the health of mother and baby at risk. He’s become one of a handful of experts who are proficient in using biological dyes to track preeclampsia-related dysfunction at the cellular level, looking at what happens when blood vessels over-constrict. Under Ian Bird, professor and vice chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Yi is a part of a team developing drugs that repair hormonal signals needed to make blood vessels function properly.

Bird had no idea about Yi’s extracurricular activity.

“A scientist working with a Chinese colleague of mine said to me, ‘You do know Fuxian is famous, right?’ This was four years after he started working with me,” says Bird, whose support for Yi expands beyond the lab bench. “He has millions of followers in China. I tell him that when he gets his Nobel Peace Prize, I want to carry his bags.”

Taking Vitals

To understand the health of their patients, doctors typically gather vitals: pulse, body temperature, blood pressure, respiration, and family health history. Similarly, Yi has adopted a biology-inspired framework to study China as though it were a living, breathing organism. He explores how several complex inputs can lead to flourishing or decay.

“If some disease has an effect, I want to understand it,” he says. “My philosophy for analyzing China’s population is looking at education, GDP, cost of living, housing, daycare, childbearing age, infertility — all the markers of health of a society, just like the health of the human body.”

Not all of Yi’s methods are entirely novel to the field; rather, it’s his holistic approach that’s brought him notoriety and controversy. When Yi released his first book, one of the claims he tackled was from the country’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, which stated that without family planning, China’s population would surge to 4 billion people by 2050. Yi’s research suggests the claim lacked validity and can be viewed as good intentions gone awry.

Yi knew as an MD that the infertility rate in China had increased by tenfold in the previous 30 years. Now one in every eight couples is physically infertile. Then there are social factors to consider, including a growing middle class with equally growing appetites for wealth and comfort, increasing costs of raising children, delayed childbearing, and the country’s aging population. By using multiple diagnostic indicators, Yi argues that had the population control policy been scrapped completely in 1980, China’s population would have peaked at about 1.6 billion — not 4 billion — and then gradually declined, meaning no population-control policy was necessary to accomplish what the government set out to achieve.

When Yi first began to share his research with demographers and officials in the early 2000s, they figured his conclusion was the outlier, not theirs. But after Yi began blogging about his experiences, interest spread until his posts and articles reached millions of people. Media calls poured in, focusing on the consequences of China’s rapidly aging population.

In 2013, a new edition of Yi’s book was released by a publisher under the Chinese State Council and was picked as one of the 10 best books by Xinhua News agency, China’s largest official press agency. The government, institutions of higher education, and libraries have all requested copies for their collections.

Then came invitations to regional and global conferences. Yi has spoken at the 2016 Boao Forum for Asia, an event for thought-leaders in government (including China’s prime minister), industry, and academia. And he has been interviewed by hundreds of media, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and the British Broadcasting Corporation. He has submitted research to peer-reviewed journals in China and sent copies to almost every member of the national parliament, many of whom expressed support and began submitting policy proposals based on his work.

Yet it’s unlikely the government will publicly support Yi. Instead, he has noticed that official predictions are tweaked each year and are gradually matching his findings.

“Some officials in the family-planning committee reached out to me by email but didn’t want the public to know,” Yi says. “One person said, ‘I totally agree with you,’ but later on TV, he had to make a speech emphasizing the importance of the one-child policy.”

Symptoms (and Systems) of Control

Yi considers China’s family-planning policies symptomatic of a political culture that’s still averse to dissent and entrenched in control. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development put an end to the concept of population control and prohibits all forms of quotas, coercion, and violence. But even though China relaxed its limit to two children in 2016, it is still imposed in the form of quotas, and it’s unclear whether the policy will continue to support forced abortions, coercion, and violence.

Such threats hit close to home for Yi in 2006, when a relative conceived a second baby by chance and went into hiding during her last trimester to avoid detection. Eventually, she was detained, hospitalized, and slated for a forced abortion. Yi was able to arrange her escape. But another relative was not as fortunate. Yi says local authorities boasted about her forced abortion as a “political accomplishment.” The relative’s name was made public to deter others considering an illegal pregnancy.

Jiaxian Huang, Yi’s wife, says many of his critics don’t understand that speaking out against the policy poses risks, even thousands of miles away. “He is doing something they can’t understand,” she says. “He focuses on the whole country and the future of the world.”

In 2015, Yi was blocked by China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) from publishing his third and fourth books. In recent months, Yi’s blogs and social media accounts hosted by companies in China were also shut down at NHFPC’s request. But he says that severing his access won’t stop the movement. As the data pile up, the prognosis for China’s population isn’t good.

Jonathan Song, a friend of Yi’s, remains inspired by the lengths Yi has taken to stay connected to the issue and save lives.

“Even being far away in the U.S., he has a sense of responsibility and cares about people and the pressure they face,” Song says. “The government shouldn’t push its hand into the body.”

On Borrowed Time?

Despite China’s expansion of the two-child policy, the majority of couples still aren’t buying it. And, Yi fears, it might be too little, too late.

It comes down to Total Fertility Rate (TFR), or the average number of children birthed by one woman. In order for populations in developed countries to maintain themselves, the TFR needs to be around 2.1, where each couple has around two children to replace them. But not all children grow up to have children of their own. Because China’s infant mortality rate is higher than in other developed countries, it needs a higher TFR (around 2.2) in order to replace its population. Yi says the forces that drive the rate are similar to the kinetic energy and momentum that govern an object when it rolls off a cliff: if it slips below replacement rate, a country’s population could fall into decline.

There are several inputs that factor into the equation, only one of which is a government’s decision to implement population-control policies.

“TFR declines as socioeconomic level increases,” says Yi. “Even if China did not implement family planning, TFR would decline spontaneously with economic development.”

This is why China is far from alone in facing population decline challenges. The United States (where TFR is 1.84), Russia, Japan, and South Korea are also projected to experience population declines, albeit at slower rates. These declines will gradually shrink these nations’ workforces and economies.

China has already been pushed off the metaphoric cliff with its population decline, says Yi. What’s unique about China’s decline compared to other countries is its speed. Survey data suggest that China’s TFR was as low as 1.05 as of 2015. It might, under the two-child policy, temporarily rise to 1.3 in 2017, but the population will still decline in the long run.

Having just one or no children at all has become the social norm in China. For decades, China’s economy has catered mostly to one-child families, creating greater demands (and prices) for commodities such as housing and education.

With little time to adjust, the coming labor crash could send economic shockwaves throughout the global marketplace. China wanted fewer people in an effort to alleviate its fear of overpopulation. However, Yi believes, its policies will cause China to lose economic vitality and increase instability. It will lose the ability to adapt.

A couple decades from now, Yi thinks the world, China included, will look back on China’s population-control policy and wonder why humans made such a stupid choice. He wonders if we’ll look back to reflect on the loss of life and potential, both personal and societal, of those negatively affected by the policy — a policy he thinks wantonly violates morality, both individually and collectively.

“Beauty is life,” he declares, “and every life is different. Every human has a different idea.”

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Danielle Evans https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/conversation/danielle-evans/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/conversation/danielle-evans/#respond Fri, 24 Feb 2017 14:18:46 +0000 http://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=19649 _DSC0893

Danielle Evans is no stranger to praise. During her 33 years, the UW assistant professor of creative writing has graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, been featured in The Paris Review, and published a wildly successful 2010 short story collection about race and coming of age in 21st-century America, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. The northern Virginia native is finishing her debut novel.

Washington, DC, and northern Virginia play an important role in your writing. What makes this region unique?
There’s a certain kind of weirdness to being in a place that is in constant flux. People move in and out of that whole area, and even if they stayed there a long time, [they] will say they might leave. That transience is interesting to write about. I have learned to be interested in movement. A lot of characters that I write, they’re not putting down roots.

You also write about millennials. What are some of the main struggles they face?
There is something happening generationally where a lot of the things sold to us as “adulthood” don’t exist in the way they did. Knowing when you have settled [down] isn’t true in the way that it would be if you expected to buy a house, get married and have kids, or have the same job for 20 years. We don’t believe that there is necessarily a future out there that — if we did the right things — we could get.

How do you conceptualize race in your work?
There are stories where the characters’ racial identity is really central — and part of the story is a negotiation of that — and there are stories where the characters are given a racial identity but the conflict is something else. I think both of those kinds of stories are important. One of the things about racial identity is that it, for a lot of people, includes a constant awareness that, at any moment, what’s not about race could become about race. That anxiety about when race can come into your life is part of identity. It’s part of how people move through the world, even on days that are not about conflicts that explicitly involve race and racism.

Why did you come to teach at the UW?
What brought me here was feeling how special this department was, and seeing what the students coming into this program were doing. There are a lot of great people here. I wanted to be in a space where I could help students [become] full-time writers and where we could recruit and compete for the top applicants.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Riley Vetterkind x’17

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Potato, Interrupted https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/potato-interrupted/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/potato-interrupted/#respond Fri, 04 Nov 2016 18:00:06 +0000 http://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=18733 Americans love their potatoes. We enjoy them baked and mashed, and as chips and fries, to the tune of 140 pounds per person per year. Potatoes anchor our holiday meals, our summer picnics, and our fast food indulgences. They are savory perfection.

In most ways, at least.

The potato has an Achilles’ heel. Most of our commercial varieties need help standing up to pests and pathogens, including late blight, the fungal disease that caused Ireland’s potato famine in the mid-1800s.

“Every variety in this country, almost every one of them is susceptible [to late blight],” explains Jiming Jiang, a UW–Madison professor of horticulture. This includes Atlantic, Red Norland, Yukon Gold, and Russet Burbank of McDonald’s french fry fame.

To protect their crops from late blight, U.S. farmers spray around $77 million worth of fungicides each year. Even so, the disease takes a toll, causing some $210 million worth of crop losses annually. What if there was a better way? Globally, hardier potatoes could prevent thousands of tons of chemicals from being applied to the earth each year.

As it turns out, a hardier potato does exist. Back in the mid-2000s, Jiang and colleagues developed a series of potatoes that could survive late blight without sprays. But the improved plants never made it to the commercial market — they were made using genetic engineering (GE), and at that point, no GE vegetables had yet been approved. And public opinion wasn’t favorable. It still isn’t.

“You’re powerless, and you accept it,” says Jiang. Genetically engineered foods have been part of the American diet for 20 years now, and there is strong scientific consensus that they are safe to eat. This was confirmed in a recent report on GE crops produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which took into consideration nearly 900 scientific publications and other evidence and testimony on the topic.

“We found that there have been no cases of GEs causing problems for human health,” says UW–Madison biochemistry professor Richard Amasino, who served on the committee that wrote the report.

And yet, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, only 37 percent of the general public feels it’s safe to eat GE foods, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as they’re often called. Yet eat them we do.

There are currently 10 GE crops grown commercially on 170 million acres of American farmland. The main ones are GE cotton, which we wear, and GE corn and soybeans, which we eat — in great quantities. They show up in cornmeal, cornstarch, corn syrup, dextrose, soybean oil, and many other ingredients in the processed foods we consume. And then there’s the meat we eat — the animals are largely fed on GE grains.

“For many of us, we’re eating transgenic food daily, probably with every meal,” says Irwin Goldman PhD’91, professor and chair of the UW–Madison horticulture department. “Unless you are extremely careful with ingredients, it is very difficult to avoid.”

Concerns about GEs go beyond food safety, including a general unease about possible long-term health or ecological impacts. There are also environmental issues, such as gene drift and the expansion of monoculture cropping systems, the corporate ownership of seeds, and the expansion and consolidation of farms. People’s opinions aren’t based on science alone, but incorporate political, economic, philosophical, social, and ethical factors.

And, notes Goldman, there’s just something special about food: some people feel a deep cultural or spiritual connection to their food, and genetic engineering crosses a line for them.

“As a scientist, I look at it and I think [some GE crops] are extremely innovative, providing creative solutions to complex problems. … I have no problem with them at all,” says Goldman. “But at the same time, I’m sensitive to those arguments that people make about what they want to eat and what they don’t.” Potato farmers had some tough years in the early 1990s, with climatic conditions just right for late blight: a wet spring followed by a cool summer. And then 1994 hit.

That year, the late blight pathogen, or Phytophthora infestans, mutated, becoming even more virulent. The existing fungicides didn’t work against the new strain, no matter how much of them farmers applied. Potato fields across the northeast United States were decimated, including the potato test plots at the UW’s Hancock Agricultural Research Station.

“The potato industry was caught by surprise because they never had such an issue. They were worried that it was going to wipe out the whole industry,” says Jiang, who was hired in 1995 to help develop a solution.

Jiang teamed up with John Helgeson PhD’64, who was a UW professor of plant pathology at the time, to explore the one silver lining to the devastation at Hancock station: a wild potato plant from Mexico had survived in the test plot, suggesting that somewhere in its genome it possessed a resistance gene to the late blight pathogen.

Jiang and Helgeson immediately started trying to “cross” the resistant plant with popular commercial varieties, pollinating one with the other. But the Mexican plant proved to be a little bit too wild. “You cannot make it cross. It’s not possible,” explains Jiang.

At the same time, the two researchers started looking for the gene responsible for the resistance. They finally found it in 2003, named it RB, and used genetic engineering to put it into a cultivated potato.

“The potato has a very high level of resistance. You still see some little symptom here or there, but it’s going to keep greening and you really don’t have to spray,” says Jiang.

Jiang and Helgeson published their findings in 2003 and later inserted the RB gene into other popular commercial potato varieties using agrobacterium-mediated transformation, the most popular genetic engineering technique of the time.

The technique capitalizes on a type of bacteria that infects the roots of plants and inserts its own DNA into the plant’s genome. Scientists figured out how to piggyback on this functionality to insert desired genes into a plant’s genome at random locations. Then, as the plants grow, the researchers look for healthy ones that also express the new gene. Scientists started developing GE technology for plants in the 1980s, and the first commercial genetically engineered crop — the Flavr Savr tomato — showed up in grocery stores in 1994. The product didn’t last long, as consumers found the tomatoes didn’t have much flavor to savor. Over the next couple of years, the first varieties of genetically engineered corn and soybeans were released.

These crops — and others — tend to feature one or both of two traits that are popular with farmers. Genetically engineered crops with the Roundup-Ready trait, a herbicide resistance gene, allow farmers to spray fields of corn, soybeans, and cotton with the weed killer glyphosate, a.k.a. Roundup, to keep weeds down without harming the crops. The Bt trait, however, helps to reduce the need for spraying. When crops have that trait, which produces an insecticide, pests die when they start eating the plant — no sprays needed.

“The seed companies make transgenic versions of their best varieties, and so farmers are buying them. Farmers really like the technology,” notes Goldman.

By the time Jiang and Helgeson’s late blight–resistant GE potatoes were ready, however, the crisis had passed. First, the weather changed, and then the chemical industry caught up with new, more powerful fungicides. Farmers also had more sophisticated disease management systems in place. All of this enabled them to stick to their tried-and-true varieties — spraying their crops, as needed.

“The situation was not desperate enough. That’s what I believe,” says Jiang. “If things had kept getting worse, I think the growers would have considered embracing [the GE potato].”

Jiang and Helgeson also managed — using some laboratory techniques — to fuse the cells of the wild potato with those of conventional varieties, and then used traditional plant breeding from that point on. It took 10 years, but they managed to produce a number of conventionally bred, late blight–resistant potato varieties as well.

But industry wasn’t interested. For Jiang, it was a second blow, though he took some comfort in the fact that he and Helgeson weren’t the only potato breeders to have tried and failed.

Russet Burbank, the nation’s most popular variety, has been in production since the early 1900s. It accounts for almost half of the potatoes grown in the country. Its many positive characteristics — including its shape and size, good flavor profile, and long storage life — make it McDonald’s top tuber. Plant breeders just can’t seem to beat it.

“The potato in many ways is like a wine grape. You have a variety, a cabernet or whatever, it’s like 400 or 500 years old. [Vintners] don’t want to change that,” explains Jiang. “The potato … is like this. Burbank, it’s a terrible variety [in some ways]. It’s susceptible to every disease. However, McDonald’s wants [Burbank].” We can expect a deluge of new genetically engineered products in the coming years with the growth of new techniques, particularly the cheap, easy gene-editing approach called CRISPR. (See sidebar below.) The potential seems nearly limitless, and many plants will have traits that consumers value: more healthful vegetables with more phytonutrients; crops that don’t turn brown as fast after they have been cut, reducing waste; crops that fix their own nitrogen, so they don’t require much fertilizer.

“We certainly have the capability to drastically alter genomes. At this point, we’re only limited by our understanding of plant biology, how things work inside plants,” says Amasino.

Genetic engineering can even save crops from extinction. Before the GE Rainbow papaya, for instance, Hawaii’s papaya industry was on track to be wiped out by papaya ringspot virus, a viral disease spread by aphids. A similar problem is unfolding in Florida right now, where citrus greening disease is destroying the state’s orange groves. GE appears to be the only recourse. But there are also challenges associated with genetically engineered crops. The Roundup-Ready trait may be contributing to the phenomenon of Roundup-resistant “super weeds.” Gene drift has been documented, so farmers need to take precautions to avoid contaminating nearby fields of conventional and organic crops.

In this evolving environment, groups are moving forward with GE crop development. The small seed company Simplot, for one, believes that the time has come for the GE potato.

Simplot, headquartered in Boise, Idaho, has developed GE potatoes that utilize the gene that Jiang and Helgeson discovered. These potatoes — known as second-generation Innate potatoes — could help farmers reduce fungicide applications to control late blight by 25 to 45 percent annually, according to academics consulted by the company. Based on these estimates, Simplot calculates that if all Russet Burbank potatoes in the U.S. contained this gene, farmers could cut the equivalent of one fungicide application over 495,000 acres.

In a separate project, scientists at the International Potato Center, a nonprofit research organization, are developing genetically engineered versions of popular local potato varieties that contain the UW–developed gene for Uganda and other African nations. The goal is to help the bottom line of smallholder farmers in the area, who spend the equivalent of 10 to 25 percent of their crop revenue on sprays.

Jiang hopes that these late blight–resistant potatoes — along with other GE crops — will find a way to succeed.

“We’ve all been doing the same thing for 125 years. You’ve exhausted your options; you’ve crossed everything with everything,” he says. “If we want to work on nutritional value, flavor, tuber quality — those are very tricky, complicated traits. For these, we’re going to need to rely on more precisely manipulating specific genes, rather than just going and blindly doing crosses.”

Ultimately, consumers will decide the fate of Jiang’s potatoes and all other genetically engineered crops.

“We’re in a capitalist system,” notes Amasino. “The public is going to have to want it.”

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