Research – On Wisconsin https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Mon, 17 Sep 2018 15:53:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 The Big Dig https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-big-dig/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-big-dig/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23640 Pulling a soil sample from frozen Wisconsin ground in January is not impossible, but it certainly isn’t easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Transforming Research https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/transforming-research/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/transforming-research/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23715 Blue, pink, and white painted rainbow

Shutterstock

The Trans Research Lab at UW–Madison is noteworthy for its specialized focus on health outcomes for transgender people. But for founder Stephanie Budge PhD’11, the lab is more than that: it’s an old promise made good.

As a PhD student, Budge interviewed a transgender man for her career-counseling course. After discussing his career path with her at a coffee shop, he told her, “I just spent a couple hours with you. Now you can do something for me — you need to make therapists better for trans people.”

“I took that ask very literally,” says Budge, now an associate professor of counseling psychology at the UW.

Budge’s lab, staffed by students and community members who volunteer their time or receive course credit, aims to fill a substantial gap in research on effective therapy for transgender individuals. The center recently completed a pilot study that documented one-on-one psychotherapy sessions for 20 transgender individuals. The preliminary results are promising: all participants said that they experienced positive change after the sessions.

Mental health outcomes for transgender people are staggeringly negative, underscoring the need for the lab’s work. Nearly 40 percent of respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported that they recently experienced serious psychological distress, often related to mistreatment or harassment. Two out of every five respondents also had attempted suicide in their lifetimes — nine times the rate of the general population.

A primary contributor to these outcomes, Budge says, is stress that is uniquely experienced by marginalized groups. It can come both externally — from discrimination, harassment, or rejection — and internally, with how one processes that mistreatment.

While the lab continues to analyze its results, Budge says the research — providing more than 200 hours of free therapy from culturally competent therapists — is already meaningful. “Maybe in a few years, if this is just the norm, it won’t feel like it’s that big of a deal,” she says. “But in this time and in this moment, it feels really poignant.”

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re thinking about leaving?”

“Yes,” Mike said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stem cells give us hope,” Jere said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Deadly Cold https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/deadly-cold/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/deadly-cold/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:09 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23722 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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Jessica Weeks https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/conversation/jessica-weeks/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/conversation/jessica-weeks/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:09 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23724 Head shot of Jessica Weeks

Jessica Weeks is fascinated by the “dark side” of international relations: dictatorships. But her award-winning research combats the black-and-white view of authoritarian regimes and democracies. Dictators at War and Peace, published in 2014, classifies regimes to better understand them: bosses/strongmen, with an unchecked personalist leader; juntas, with influential military elites; and machines, with influential political elites. Weeks, a UW associate professor of political science, spoke to members of the U.S. intelligence community in Washington, DC, last year as they grappled with how to contain North Korea.

How do authoritarian regimes differ?

Who is inside the regime really matters. Boss and strongman regimes have the stereotypical dictator, like Saddam Hussein, Mao, Stalin, Hitler. One person has a lot of power and, because of that, can make decisions without too much concern that people within the regime will disagree or try to get rid of him. But when you don’t have people helping you make a decision or [holding you accountable], that often leads to suboptimal outcomes. These leaders tend to fight really risky wars, start more wars, and lose a lot more frequently. … Machines, I argue, are the most peaceful kinds of regimes. These include the Soviet Union after Stalin and China after Mao. They don’t fight as many wars and tend to have much better outcomes when they fight. Juntas are more likely to [engage in war] because the military officers are more likely to see force as a viable option and policy tool. They end up falling in between the machines and the bosses.

According to your book, machine regimes are just as risk averse as democracies when it comes to initiating force — and are just as successful when they do go to war. Why?

It’s because of the risks that the leader would face if they undertook foolish foreign-policy decisions. A leader in a democracy needs to think about what the electoral consequences would be if they lost a war. You don’t pick wars that you can’t win. You have the same dynamic going on in these machines. The leader knows — they’re not thinking about the public, per se — but they know that if they start a war and it goes badly, then they could be ousted by the other top people in the regime. The accountability is coming from other people within the regime rather than the public at large.

How do nuclear capabilities fit into this discussion?

I have [research] that finds that boss and strongman regimes are more likely to pursue nuclear weapons than machines and juntas. It’s similar dynamics. These leaders face fewer constraints. When a country tries to pursue nuclear weapons, it often faces a lot of costs from the international community. But the leaders don’t really internalize those in the same way. So you end up seeing that the same regimes that fight a lot of wars are often also trying to acquire these weapons.

What did you think of the summit with North Korea?

I think the U.S. [needs] to be extremely cautious about any promises [from] North Korea. … If Kim [Jong-un] made a promise and then went back on it, there are going to be no domestic consequences for that — because there’s no one to criticize him. It’s the quintessential boss regime.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Preston Schmitt ’14

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At the Movies https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/at-the-movies/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/at-the-movies/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:08 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23701 Crazy Rich Asians change representation on the big screen?]]> A scene from the movie "Crazy Rich Asians" where two women and a man wearing formal attire converse with one another

Q: It’s been 25 years since a majority Asian cast played on the big screen, with The Joy Luck Club. Will Crazy Rich Asians change Hollywood?

We probably won’t see another movie like this anytime soon, says Lori Kido Lopez, a UW associate professor of communication arts and an expert in Asian American media representation. Hollywood holds assumptions steeped in racism, she says, namely that mainstream audiences aren’t interested in Asian American stories. Because studios invest millions into movies up front, the industry tends to be risk averse and gravitates toward “safe options.”

When minority filmmakers move from independent cinema to the mainstream, they’re often forced to make compromises to appeal to white audiences, such as adding white characters or de-politicizing plotlines. In recent years, Asian Americans have used Twitter campaigns to spark a national conversation. For example, #whitewashedOUT criticized Hollywood for casting white actors in Asian roles. Lopez notes that Asian Americans have campaigned for greater representation for decades, and progress is slow. “The way the movie industry came to those assumptions is just something that’s so deeply baked into our culture that one movie is not going to shake it,” she says. “But this movie could be a stepping-stone for other big changes.”

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Agriculture by Air https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/agriculture-by-air/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/agriculture-by-air/#respond Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:42 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23064 Illustration of drone flying over farmland

John Miller

Right now, cranberry growers who suspect that pests have invaded their crop have two options: hunt around in the beds themselves, examining each individual plant, or spray the entire field and risk wasting costly resources.

But agricultural engineers at UW–Madison are trying to change that by experimenting with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, that could take a more comprehensive look at cranberry plants that might be infected.

They fitted a UAV with two special cameras that capture temperature and other information. Unhealthy plants exhibit signs of stress that the device can detect, including how leaves reflect light patterns.

Healthy plants are key for Wisconsin, which has 21,000 acres of cranberry marshes in 20 counties and grows more than half of all the cranberries in the world. Cranberry country lies east of the Wisconsin River, beginning at the Wisconsin Dells and stretching north.

The ultimate goal for Brian Luck, an assistant professor of biological systems engineering, and his research team is to use machine-learning technologies, much like facial recognition on Facebook, to predict what exactly is wrong with diseased plants. But for now, the research is in its primary stages as they collect baseline data in greenhouses and move out to cranberry beds this summer for real-world deployment.

As with any new technology, there are a few hurdles to clear before the practice can be widely implemented. Though UAVs are commercially available, the cost is high. And to fly one for commercial purposes, a farmer must be licensed through the Federal Aviation Administration.

Still, researchers say the potential benefits for farmers are exciting. “The more precise data you have on the field, the more precisely you can manage it, which can lead to more efficient and sustainable agriculture,” says Jessica Drewry PhD’17, a postdoctoral assistant on the project.

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Monarch Guardians https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/monarch-guardians/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/monarch-guardians/#respond Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:41 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23164 Monarch butterfly perches on orange flower

A Monarch butterfly dines on the nectar from a colorful hillside planting of orange Tithonia (Mexican sunflowers) along Observatory Drive. Jeff Miller

UW–Madison’s Arboretum is participating in a nationwide effort dedicated to researching monarch butterflies, conserving their habitat, and educating the public about these charismatic insects. Arboretum director Karen Oberhauser ’81, a leading monarch researcher, cofounded the Monarch Joint Venture while at the University of Minnesota. The UW’s is the first arboretum to join the more than 70 institutions involved in the effort, and Oberhauser says the new partnership recognizes efforts already under way at the Arboretum. Projects include establishing habitats friendly to butterflies and other pollinators and identifying threats to monarch populations.

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Origins https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/exhibition/origins/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/exhibition/origins/#respond Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:07 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23105 UW–Madison researchers in South Africa are at the heart of work that is unraveling the mysteries of the universe, determining when and how life on Earth began, and identifying the origins of humankind. A team from University Communications — videographer Justin Bomberg ’94, photographer Jeff Miller, and science writer Kelly April Tyrrell MS’11 — traveled to Johannesburg to capture those stories in words and images that now appear in a vivid project published at origins.wisc.edu. The journey begins at one of the world’s largest optical telescopes, which gazes into the dark skies over Sutherland, South Africa (pictured above), to help astronomers understand how planets, stars, and galaxies form and behave. It continues with geoscientists looking at rocks to find the earliest signs of life on Earth. And it concludes with a closer look at anthropologists who have unearthed some of our earliest known human ancestors. The takeaway: the beginning can be the most captivating part of a story.

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