Research – On Wisconsin https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Tue, 13 Nov 2018 19:28:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 The Next Dimension https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/the-next-dimension/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/the-next-dimension/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:41:24 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24280 Graphic illustration of human heart being created using a 3D printer

Sorbetto/ISTOCK

3D printing seems like science fiction come to life.

“It’s kind of Star Trek–like,” says Dan Thoma MS’88, PhD’92, director of the Grainger Institute for Engineering, who has researched the technology for 25 years.

Remember when Captain Picard commanded the replicator on the Enterprise to make a cup of Earl Grey tea?

“Well, we can’t make the tea, but we can [print] the cup,” Thoma says.

There are several steps to 3D printing an object: convert a physical model into a virtual design, translate it into a software that reads the object’s surfaces and stores information about its shape, and then use a second software to divide the digital model into sections and instructions the printer can understand. Once the printer is set up, it reads the digital language and prints the object in layers — a cup would have roughly 10,000 layers.

The concept is simple enough, Thoma says. Conventional manufacturing methods cut components from blocks of material and sometimes weld multiple pieces together. But 3D printing builds an entire piece from the ground up, allowing users to create new materials and design internal structures.

“You get increased functionality that you can’t get any other way,” Thoma says.

Still, 3D printing has been overhyped, he adds. It takes training to use programming software, operate the machines, pick material, and choose from dozens of different printing techniques. The technology is also expensive and can’t produce high volumes. Extensive finishing and testing to control defects on a single part can cost thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

“Even if I’m [just] making a coffee cup, and I have hot coffee [in it], I don’t want the handle breaking,” Thoma says.

Whatever its limitations, the possibilities still seem endless. There’s hope in the medical industry for printing 3D organs.

“I don’t know what the next great idea is going to be,” Thoma says. “I just hope [it comes from] one of my students.”

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

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

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

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

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

Stem Cells 101

Illustration of sperm fertilizing an egg

1.

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

2.

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

3.

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

4.

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

5.

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

6.

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

Illustration showing multiple types of cells created through stem cells7.

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

Global reach

5
The number of original stem cell lines

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

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

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

UW–Madison IMPACT

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

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

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

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

Then and now

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

1998: Stem cell predictions

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

2018: Stem cell reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mind Games https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/mind-games/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/mind-games/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:15 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24252 Computer rendering of plant-like character alongside a chart listing different emotions

A video game designed by UW researchers to teach empathy has helped inform other games being submitted to the FDA for clinical applications. Center For Healthy Minds

At the age when kids first encounter anxiety, depression, and bullying, they’re also spending a lot of time with a game controller in their hands.

So a team of UW–Madison researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds and Gear Learning developed an experimental game for middle schoolers to study whether video games can be a force for good during this critical period of brain development.

In the game, players advance by building emotional rapport with aliens on a distant planet who speak a different language but have remarkably humanlike facial expressions. The researchers measured how accurate the youth players in Crystals of Kaydor were in identifying the emotions of the characters in the game, such as anger, fear, happiness, surprise, disgust, and sadness.

Before and after two weeks of gameplay, the team obtained brain scans from kids who played the experimental game as well as kids who played a “control” game. They looked at connections among areas of the brain, including those associated with empathy and emotion regulation, as well as how the kids performed on empathy tests during the scans.

Many kids who played the game showed greater connectivity in brain networks related to empathy and perspective taking. Those who improved at empathy tests also showed altered neural networks commonly linked to emotion regulation, a crucial skill that this age group is beginning to develop.

Tammi Kral ’05, MS’14, PhDx’20, a UW graduate student in psychology who led the research, says these skills are predictors of emotional well-being and can be practiced anytime — with or without video games.

 

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Bug Bites https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/bug-bites/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/bug-bites/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:14 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24297 Illustration of insect perched on edge of smoothie

Jane Webster/Début Art Ltd

More than two billion people around the world regularly consume insects — a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. UW–Madison researchers have documented, for the first time, the health effects of eating them. Their clinical trial, which had participants eat crickets ground up in breakfast shakes, shows that consuming the insects can help support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Researchers also found that eating the insects is not only safe but may also reduce inflammation in the body. “Food is very tied to culture, and 20 or 30 years ago, no one in the U.S. was eating sushi because we thought it was disgusting, but now you can get it at a gas station in Nebraska,” says Valerie Stull PhD’18, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher with the UW’s Global Health Institute.

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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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Hard Truth https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/hard-truth/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/hard-truth/#respond Fri, 02 Nov 2018 18:44:07 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24324 Over the summer, Chris Borland ’13 attended the largest athletics fundraiser in Lawrence University’s history. He was an odd fit. There among players, coaches, and boosters was the “most dangerous man in football,” a nickname the former Badger star earned from ESPN after his unprecedented decision to leave the NFL over the long-term risk of brain trauma.

Borland made the trip to Appleton, Wisconsin, to support his new friend Ann McKee ’75, the night’s keynote speaker, whose brother was a star quarterback at Lawrence in the ’60s. To a stunned and largely unsuspecting audience, the foremost researcher on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football and other contact sports laid out her decade-long body of research on the degenerative brain disease that’s linked to minor, repetitive hits to the head.

Audible gasps interrupted the room’s silence when McKee projected side-by-side scans of healthy brains and brains riddled with damage. One had belonged to a 17-year-old high school football player who died by suicide and showed signs of CTE. “I’m not sure I’m giving the right speech for this crowd,” McKee confessed beforehand. By the time she was done, the night felt less like a celebration of sport and more like a cautioning of it.

As Borland was leaving, an attendee approached him. She wanted a picture to text to her partner — a huge football fan. “It’s ironic to me,” Borland says later. “Everyone tells me, ‘I loved watching you play at Wisconsin.’ And then they will say, ‘I really commend your decision [to leave football].’ ”

 

When you meet Borland, the unassuming history major sticks out more than the football player, with the wisdom and receding hairline of a man well beyond his years. His smile is welcoming; his tone is soft, reserved, and polite. He speaks with equal parts curiosity and conviction. Each word is carefully considered. He’s read hundreds of books since he left football. His word choice — from “disequilibrium” to “abyss” in a seamless sentence — bears it out.

Borland was born in Kettering, Ohio, a midsized suburb of Dayton. He was the sixth of seven active kids, with the oldest, a daughter, followed by six sons. They excelled in many sports growing up, except one: football. “I begged my dad to play every fall,” says Borland, who watched Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and the Green Bay Packers religiously.

Jeff Borland, who owns an investment advisory firm, played college football briefly at Miami University of Ohio. He was adamant that none of the boys would play organized football until high school. “I can’t say my concern was concussions — that would be too easy,” Jeff says. “It was more [broadly] head and neck injury based on the lack of form and technique.”

Borland fell in love with the game within five minutes of his first freshman practice. He took quickly to running back and receiver. On defense, his coaches designed a play for him — called “Badger” — to roam the field and target any player he saw fit. Once, he jumped and somersaulted over the offensive line, piledriving the running back into the ground in a single motion. It was violent — and it went viral.

 

The college recruiting process was brief. Borland’s dream school was always the UW. His grandfather, Henry Borland ’52, was an alumnus, and his father grew up in Madison. Most colleges projected him as a linebacker, even though he had never played the position formally.

Borland outperformed modest expectations and higher-rated recruits at his first two summer camps. His only preparation had been 20 minutes in a gym with his father, who relayed what he could remember from playing the position decades prior. By the end of a three-day camp at the UW — “When I showed up, they didn’t know who I was,” he says — head coach Bret Bielema saw enough potential to offer a scholarship. Borland jumped for joy — literally. He did a backflip in the Camp Randall parking lot and accepted the offer within an hour.

Borland went on to become one of the UW’s most dependable tacklers of all time. His aggressive, hard-nosed style on the field — combined with a school record for volunteer hours off of it — endeared him to fans. “You will be hard pressed to find a more genuine, empathetic human being,” said Kayla Gross ’15, community relations coordinator for UW athletics, in 2013.

Borland helped lead the UW to three conference championships, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009 and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. His 420 career tackles rank sixth in school history.

During the 2014 NFL Draft, Borland’s reputation reigned. “He’s too short. He’s too slow. I don’t care — he can play,” proclaimed NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock, describing Borland (endearingly, if later ironically) as a “thundering hardhead.” The San Francisco 49ers agreed, selecting him in the third round and signing him to a $2.9 million contract.

Coach Jim Harbaugh spoke glowingly of his middle linebacker throughout the year, telling reporters, “He’s so physical. You can see when he takes on the lead blocker that there is some rattling of fillings.” By season’s end, Borland led the 49ers’ top-five defense in tackles, was named to the All-Rookie Team, and was selected as an alternate for the Pro Bowl. He was just 24.

And then he walked away from it all.

 

Borland began looking into CTE during training camp of his rookie season. He had never given head injury serious thought until he ran head first into a nearly 300-pound fullback in practice. He almost certainly suffered a concussion, but he didn’t report it to the team, fearing that missing time could jeopardize his place on the roster.

Borland felt increasingly isolated in the 49ers’ locker room as he read A League of Denial. The book revealed the NFL’s resistance to acknowledging the link between football and CTE. When teammates and coaches were around, he hid it within another book’s cover.

Borland learned to compartmentalize. “I was living a very binary life, out of necessity,” he says. During practices, games, and training, his focus was remarkably singular. But in the back of his mind, he was thinking of his long-term brain health. And he was learning that with each collision he was compromising it.

Borland wrote a letter to his parents and handed it to them after a preseason game. It outlined his concerns and suggested that he might not be long for football. (Earlier in the summer, he had jotted down his career goals, including playing for at least 10 years.) They were surprised — and then relieved. Jeff Borland thought back to the UW days. His cousin, cheering emphatically, once remarked that the parents’ section at Camp Randall felt oddly quiet and dull. “What you’ve got to understand,” Jeff told her, “is we want them to do real, real well — and we want the team to win. But mostly we want them to be able to walk off the field at the end.”  

Borland started with simple Google searches, then research papers, then books. He learned of the tragedy of “Iron Mike” Webster x’74, a star center for the Badgers who retired in 1990 after a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. Legendary for his durability and toughness on the field, Webster later experienced chronic pain, dementia, depression, and homelessness. He died in 2002, becoming the first former NFL player diagnosed with CTE.

Borland went straight to the source: researchers. That’s how he met McKee, who leads the world’s largest brain bank at Boston University. She’s analyzed several hundred brains of former football players — far more than anyone else. She told him the hard truth.

By the end of his rookie season, Borland had seen, read, and heard enough. He was leaving football to preserve his long-term health. He informed the 49ers in March 2015, to the shock of teammates and NFL fans alike.

“It’s essentially heresy to walk away from football in America,” Borland acknowledges. Extreme fans called him, in the nicest of terms, soft and weak. Wrote one on Twitter: “All due respect to Chris Borland, and head injuries are no joke, but what a p – – – – .”

But to others, like David Meggyesy, Borland’s decision was a courageous act. Meggyesy would know: 50 years ago, he also walked away from the NFL in his prime. An outspoken civil rights advocate and Vietnam War critic, he was benched for silently protesting during the national anthem. He retired and released Out of Their League, a scathing account of racism, sexism, and abuses of power he witnessed in the NFL. After hearing Meggyesy speak at the UW in 2013, Borland picked up a copy of his book and consulted with him during his rookie season.

“When Chris retired, he had a lot of influence because he had such integrity and perspective about what he was saying,” says Meggyesy, who later worked for the NFL Players Association. “It was believable for a lot of people. He really loved to play the game. He was a hell of a player.”

 

If Borland had any lingering doubt, it disappeared in July 2017. McKee and her team at Boston University’s CTE Center had finished analyzing the brains of 111 former NFL players, ranging from ages 23 to 89. All but one showed signs of CTE.

The condition’s degenerative (and currently untreatable) nature means that the damage doesn’t cease even when the collisions do. CTE isn’t diagnosable in the living, but the symptoms often arise later in life, sometimes decades after the exposure to contact. The most common symptoms are memory loss, dementia, and behavioral changes such as aggression — similar to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, but with different lesions and indicators in the brain.

Ann McKee holding cross-section of human brain

TIME named Ann McKee as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2018. McKee’s work was central to Borland’s decision to retire, and “she may have saved my life,” he wrote in the magazine. Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The research points to a numbers game. The more blows to the head, the more likely the disease. Notably, these include minor — or subconcussive — impacts. Because players rarely feel or show pain at the time of small, indirect hits, the damage is easy to ignore. But they add up to much more than the occasional big hit. Twenty percent of those with CTE never suffer a diagnosable concussion, according to McKee.

Critics are eager to point out the limitations of McKee’s research. Her work relies on donated brains. Families are more likely to donate their loved one’s brain if they had noticed signs of cognitive decline, and McKee readily acknowledges this selective sample.

But she returns to the numbers game. Some 1,300 former NFL players died over the eight-year span of her study. She has proof that 110 had CTE. Even in the unlikeliest event that not a single one of the other 1,190 former players developed CTE, the prevalence of the disease would still be close to 10 percent of all players. “That’s a public health problem,” she says.

When discussing her research, McKee oscillates between a rigorous scientist consumed with the hard data and a concerned citizen visibly affected by the human toll of CTE. To avoid preconceived notions, she analyzes each brain without knowledge of whom it belonged to. Afterward, for statistical comparison, she sets out to learn as much as she can. For hours on end, she listens as family members’ memories and stories turn to grief and anger. When McKee presents her research, she feels compelled to show more than the subjects’ shocking brain scans — she shows their smiling faces, too. McKee, like Borland, no longer watches football. A lifelong Packers fan, her breaking point was Donnovan Hill in 2016. At age 13, he broke his neck and was paralyzed from a head-first collision while playing youth football. At age 18, he died from complications stemming from his injury. “That hit didn’t just cause paralysis,” McKee says. “He had tremendous brain damage.”

The current strategies to make football safer — better helmets, lower tackling, improved concussion protocols — might reduce some harm. But these ideas are rooted in a misguided focus, perpetuated at the very top of athletics, McKee says.

“The NFL has decided that this is a concussion issue, which it is not,” she continues. “It’s about the subconcussive, repetitive hits that happen with every collision.” Framing the issue around concussions, which can be managed and treated without fundamentally altering the sport, is a strategic choice.

According to McKee, the way to reduce the risk of CTE is to reduce collisions. In football, that’s no easy task. Collision is intrinsic; linemen surge together and crash helmets nearly every play. Fewer collisions translates to fewer practices, fewer plays, fewer games.

Ultimately, when Borland and McKee are asked how to make football safer, their answer is simple: football — at least the sport as we know it today — cannot be safe.  

Borland insists that he’s not anti-football. He’s pro-information. He wants players — many of whom remain “willfully ignorant,” he says — to learn the risks and to make informed decisions.

“I don’t [subscribe] to the notion that football is inherently evil or that there’s this impending doom and the game needs to go away,” Borland says. His primary concern is youth football, which often has the least regulated contact rules of all levels.

Earlier this year, he testified in support of the Dave Duerson Act, a proposal to ban tackle football for children under the age of 12 in Illinois. Those who started playing contact football before age 12 began to show signs of CTE an average of 13 years earlier compared to those who started playing later in life, according to McKee’s research.

Borland also volunteers for nonprofits dedicated to brain injuries in sports, including the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the After the Impact Fund. He travels and speaks frequently at conferences, and occasionally chats with players (including former UW receiver Jared Abbrederis ’13, who retired from the NFL in January) about his decision to leave football. Only a handful of NFL players have followed in Borland’s footsteps. That likely won’t change until CTE is more visible and can be traced in the living — which could be as soon as five years from now, McKee estimates.

The advocacy does not come naturally for Borland, who notes that the sport has afforded him lifelong memories and friendships. “I think the advocate struggles with [the question], ‘How much do I owe?’ ” Jeff Borland says. “As a parent, I would say I’m not sure he owes any more than he’s already done.”

While occasionally tempted, Chris Borland believes scaling back now would be a betrayal. “I’ve had wives of players tell me, ‘I wish he was dead, because he’s not the man I married, and I’ve just become a full-time caregiver for the last two decades.’ I can’t imagine saying no to someone who asks for something from that world,” he says.

 

In addition to the truth, Borland is searching for peace. The conversation surrounding safety in football provides anything but that. “The irony that I quit not to deal with this and [now], at least intellectually, deal with it every day isn’t lost on me,” says Borland. “And it’s tiring.”

Perhaps unintentionally, his favorite activities since leaving football share a common thread of escape: both physical, with traveling, surfing, hiking; and mental, with yoga and meditation.

Borland’s foray into mindfulness and meditative practice began when his brother-in-law gave him a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which prompted him to meditate “pretty clumsily.” Soon after, a mutual friend connected him with Richard Davidson, founder of the UW’s Center for Healthy Minds and a leading researcher on how meditative practices can affect emotional health and the brain.

Borland was immediately struck by Davidson’s candor and scientific rigor (something he particularly appreciated after being approached for endorsements of “concussion-curing” pills and other pseudo-therapies). For years, Borland had learned to train his physical body to prepare for the next play, but never his mind to prepare for what’s next in life.

The difficulty of transitioning from the intensity of professional sports to the slog of everyday life is well documented. Similar to military veterans, retired athletes can struggle with the sudden loss of structure, camaraderie, serviceable skills, and even a sense of identity. Daily meditation has helped him to work through personal anxiety and depression, and more simply, to relax and clear his mind. He thought it could help others, too.

Last spring, Borland and Chad McGehee, an instructor for the Center for Healthy Minds, collaborated on a first-of-its-kind meditative program for former NFL players. Seventeen participants met in Madison over a span of two months. McGehee taught them a new meditative practice each week and assigned a training plan for home. Although some of the former players were initially skeptical — particularly when they were handed a recruiting brochure titled “Love and Compassion Cultivation,” Borland says, laughing — many of them later reported that the practices helped them to sleep better and to manage stress and physical pain.

“One guy talked about how he trained as a football player at 1,000 miles an hour, maximum effort, all the time,” McGehee says. “But that same tenacity at all times didn’t serve him well [after] football. The way he put it is that [mindfulness] felt like a way of deprogramming some of those [tendencies], to become aware that they were there.”

Encouraged by the success of the pilot, Borland continues to collaborate with the UW’s center and also works with the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which teaches a mindfulness curriculum originally developed at Google. He’s facilitated meditative programs for teams at the UW, Michigan, and West Point, aiming to help active athletes cope with pressures on and off the playing field.

“The mindfulness [work] has been such a release valve for me,” says Borland, who now lives in Los Angeles. “It’s such a pivot to positivity and to optimism.”

When he meets former players, Borland pays special attention to how they introduce themselves. Some who have been retired from the NFL for as long as four decades will start with their name immediately followed by their past team or position.

“There’s a cliché that athletes live two lives: athlete and former athlete,” he says. “I don’t think it has to ring true. But it takes work to create a new identity.”

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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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