Health and medicine – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Mon, 17 Sep 2018 15:53:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Big Dig Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 Pulling a soil sample from frozen Wisconsin ground in January is not impossible, but it certainly isn’t easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Mend Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:10 +0000 Ferguson the donkey is pictured wearing a prothetic leg

Bryce Richter

Ferguson the miniature donkey got a hand — actually a leg — from the School of Veterinary Medicine recently to replace a deformed hoof. The procedure was a first for the UW’s large animal hospital: amputation with a prosthesis is complex and rare for creatures such as horses or donkeys, who bear more weight in their front limbs. See more images.

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Deadly Cold Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:09 +0000 A chimpanzee sits among green leafy plants

Richard Wrangham

It wasn’t poachers or predators who killed some of the wild chimpanzees living in Uganda’s Kibale National Park — it was the common cold.

UW researchers made the startling discovery when investigating a 2013 outbreak of severe coughing and sneezing among a community of 56 chimps. Five of them died from the human cold virus known as rhinovirus C, including a two-year-old whose body was quickly recovered and autopsied after her death.

“It was surprising to find it in chimpanzees, and it was equally surprising that it could kill healthy chimpanzees outright,” says Tony Goldberg, a professor in the UW’s School of Veterinary Medicine who for years has worked in Uganda tracking viruses in animals. Goldberg was featured in the spring 2017 issue of On Wisconsin.

The findings, says Goldberg, are a cautionary tale about human interactions with wild apes. In Africa, people encounter chimpanzees and other apes when human settlements expand into habitats and when the animals leave the forests to raid crops.

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Calling All Docs Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:08 +0000 Photo of healthcare worker in scrubs holding a baby


More than one-third of Wisconsin’s 72 counties do not have an ob-gyn physician.

Through the development of its Rural Residency Program, UW–Madison’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology is working to build up this workforce, says Jody Silva, program manager. The program, which is beginning its second year, is the nation’s first to offer specific resident training for rural women’s health.

The shortage, as documented in a 2014 report from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, is the result of several factors, such as rural hospitals closing obstetrics units and the number of retiring physicians outpacing the number of new physicians.

“Ultimately, what that means is a lot of rural women are having to drive really long distances just to seek [obstetric] care,” Silva says.

The department’s Rural Residency Program recruits residents with a commitment to rural communities and helps them gain the confidence they need to work in settings that typically do not have the same resources as urban and academic health centers.

The program offers a four-year training track and accepts one resident per year, with that resident spending about 20 percent of his or her time practicing in rural Wisconsin. Its inaugural resident, Laura McDowell MDx’21, was one of more than 100 applicants. She says her first year in the program has given her a realistic idea of what to expect while also affirming that she wants to work in a rural community.

“I feel really blessed and humbled to be the first one,” McDowell says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better residency match.”

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Bucky on Parade Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:08 +0000 Bucky Badger had a busy summer. By metamorphosing into 85 six-foot-tall, brightly decorated statues, the beloved mascot posed across Dane County from May to September. The free public-art event, Bucky on Parade, was produced by the Madison Area Sports Commission, with support from the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau and in partnership with UW–Madison, the UW Department of Athletics, and the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association. It took 64 artists to complete the Buckys — from Bucky Alvarez to Celestial Bucky — and some of the statues will be auctioned off in September, with proceeds supporting charities such as Garding Against Cancer, a campaign spearheaded by UW men’s basketball coach Greg Gard and his wife, Michelle, to support the state’s cancer research.

Can you match these Buckys to their titles?

America’s Badgerland
Baller Bucky
Blooming Bucky
Bucky Alvarez
Bucky come se Picasso
Celestial Bucky
Dream Big Bucky
Flamingo Bucky
Graduation Bucky
Leckrone’s Stop at the Top
Visible Bucky


Bucky statue wearing basketball uniform

Baller Bucky


Bucky statue painted with celestial design

Celestial Bucky


Bucky statue painted to show exposed anatomy including muscles, and organs

Visible Bucky


Bucky statue painted with patchwork suit showing different illustrations

Dream Big Bucky


Bucky statue painted to resemble Barry Alvarez

Bucky Alvarez


Bucky statue painted with Picasso-like abstract designs

Bucky come se Picasso


Bucky statue painted with cow on front

America’s Badgerland


Bucky statue painted green with flowers and pink flamingos

Flamingo Bucky


Bucky statue painted to wear UW marching band uniform

Leckrone’s Stop at the Top


Bucky statue painted with bright pink flowers

Blooming Bucky


Bucky statue wearing graduation uniform

Graduation Bucky


Bucky statue painted with sunset colors and silhouette of Terrace chair


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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parental POV Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:41 +0000 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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Badgers of Influence Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:07 +0000 Portrait of J.J. Watt

J. J. Watt x’12 AP/Aaron M. Sprecher

“Every few years, a professional athlete touches the heart and soul of a city in a way that has nothing to do with athleticism,” Houston mayor Sylvester Turner wrote in a TIME magazine tribute to NFL star J. J. Watt x’12 (above), who raised more than $37 million following Hurricane Harvey. Watt was one of three Badgers named to the magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2018. The others include Ann McKee ’75, an expert on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, who has studied more athletes’ brains than any other neuropathologist, and Virgil Abloh ’03, artistic director of menswear for fashion house Louis Vuitton.

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Shilagh Mirgain Fri, 03 Nov 2017 23:02:37 +0000 Shilagh Mirgain holding a bucket with notes taped to the sides.

Shilagh Mirgain wants you to create a bucket list. She first wrote hers long before the hit movie of the same name arrived in 2007 — and the UW Health psychologist has been encouraging people to develop their own ever since. Bucket lists, she says, are about more than traveling the world. They can contain childhood dreams, things you’d like to learn, and what you want to be remembered for.

Bucket lists can seem very light-hearted. What’s their value?

In the business of life, it’s easy to just get on autopilot. Over time, you can lose touch with those deeper yearnings, those curiosities, those longings that may have been with you in childhood. Reflecting on a bucket list helps us get back to the core of who we are and what really helps make our life meaningful. I think about bucket lists as a North Star to guide your life. What do we tend to remember at the end of our life? It’s not work, usually.

How can we follow through on our bucket list items?

Coming up with an actual list can be really fun. I really recommend having it someplace visible, where you see it regularly. We can’t do it all at once, and there are some things that the you today can’t achieve, but that the you 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, can achieve. It’s what matters to you, not to anyone else. … I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro a year and a half ago. The climb was very hard, and near the end I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it — but that sense of “this is on my bucket list” allowed me that extra oomph to get to the top and achieve it.

How do you feel about the rise of bucket lists on social media?

I can imagine that those are definitely post-able moments. However, I think there’s probably a downside, like, “Oh, everyone else is achieving this and it looks easy.” I think it’s impor- tant to keep believing in yourself, keep listening to what’s right for you, and know that these things don’t happen overnight and that’s okay.

Can you explain the psychology of bucket lists?

There will be naysayers, so I think you want to be a little protective of who you share it with. People who bring to your awareness all the reasons why it’s not going to work or why you don’t have what it takes — those would not be the people to share it with. There will be obstacles. Right before we achieve it, we’re tested. So we have to reaffirm our commitment to it.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Madeline Heim x’18

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10 Most Popular Names Fri, 03 Nov 2017 23:02:06 +0000 Small dog being held by veterinarian.

Buddy visited UW Veterinary Care in 2015. Nik Hawkins


*During the last five years. Since 1983, 252 patients have been named Bucky or Badger.

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