Citizen scientists wanted: SquirrelMapper project seeks Wisconsin contributors

SquirrelMapper, a citizen science project to gather information about the distribution of black vs. grey squirrels that originated in New York, is now active in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin portion of the project was launched this past March by Ben Zuckerberg, an assistant professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, with the assistance of Alyse Krueger, an undergraduate researcher in his lab. The duo are now actively seeking the support of citizen scientists to help gather data.

What will the information be used for? A good explanation can be found on the Zuckerberg lab webpage for Krueger, who is leading the effort to publicize the project and will use the data to answer a number of research questions:

My research will center around the melanistic, or black morph, of the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Historical accounts show that around 150 years ago, many more eastern gray squirrels were melanistic. At that time, old growth forests were much more common and provided shadowy refuges for melanistic squirrels.

Photo courtesy of SquirrelMapper website.

Photo from SquirrelMapper website.

Some research has suggested that now melanistic squirrels tend to be found only in urban communities, where the shadows from buildings and trees provide them a similar advantage over lighter-colored squirrels. In order to test this hypothesis, we will be studying known populations of melanistic squirrels around Wisconsin and the east coast and comparing the size of each melanistic population relative to the gray morph population, the size of the urban/suburban community, and the land cover types associated with these areas. I am also interested in determining whether or not the eastern gray squirrel is sensitive to forest fragmentation. In southern Wisconsin, our landscape consists mainly of vast agricultural lands interspersed with forest, providing us an ideal location to test for this sensitivity.

Want to participate? Just sign up for SquirrelMapper and start logging your squirrel sightings. Sign up is fast, easy and free:

It’s also easy to connect with Wisconsin’s SquirrelMapper team via social media. Krueger set up a SquirrelMapper WI Facebook Page and a SquirrelMapper WI Twitter account.

For questions, contact Alyse Krueger at

CALS labs field three Cool Science Image Contest winners

From among a record setting number of entries, three winners of the 2015 Cool Science Image Contest came from CALS laboratories. For information about the 11 winning images, read this UW news release or go straight to this Flickr album to view them.

The winning entries from CALS are:

A portrait of a leafcutter ant in the lab of bacteriology professor Cameron Currie, a photo taken by volunteer photographer Don Parsons.


A micrograph of thyme plant floral trichromes, taken by zoology graduate student Hilary Bultman, a member of Rick Lindroth’s lab in the Department of Entomology.


A time-lapse video of germinating seedlings, produced by Jackson Hetue of the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program in the Department of Plant Pathology.

The kits are back: Baby foxes seen emerging from campus den

It’s official: Adorable little kits have been spotted venturing from a campus fox den. The UW Urban Canid Project has been documenting this activity and sharing some great photos through their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Follow these accounts for updates as the kits grow and explore their surroundings.

Leaders of the project have a gentle reminder for fox fans: If you see the fox family on campus, please give them plenty of space, observing them from a distance to keep yourself and the foxes safe and happy.

The project’s social media accounts also contain informative photos showing the project’s fox and coyote trap-collar-and-release efforts.

coyote collaring with Marcus

Graduate student Marcus Mueller works to collar a coyote in February. Photo: UW Urban Canid Project

Exploring bugs and bioenergy: Gina Lewin’s path to the Currie Lab

For many college students, summer provides a chance to test-drive future career paths. When Gina Lewin took advantage of such an opportunity, her test drive hit the jackpot.

In the summer of 2009, Lewin participated in a National Science Foundation-funded program called Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), which invites college juniors and seniors to join research projects around the country.

At the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Lewin worked in the lab of chemical and biological engineering professor Brian Pfleger. She was tasked with coaxing a bacterium to produce diesel fuel compounds.

As summer progressed, Lewin’s interest in bioenergy and microbiology grew, but she also found herself falling in love with the big research campus of UW–Madison and the city that surrounds it.

“The REU was my first time doing microbiology research,” Lewin says. “I had been thinking about going to graduate school since the end of my freshman year, but being here definitely cemented that interest.”

She applied for graduate school and joined UW–Madison’s microbiology doctoral training program in the fall of 2010.

Lewin, the daughter of two lawyers, grew up in a semi-rural part of central New Jersey. One of her favorite childhood memories is attending summer nature camps at a nearby environmental education center where she learned to identify the bugs she caught in the woods and streams.

After graduating from high school in 2006, Lewin moved across the country to Pomona College, some thirty miles east of Los Angeles, where she was drawn to science and majored in molecular biology.

But it was not until her REU at UW–Madison that Lewin discovered a connection between her childhood interest in bugs and bioenergy research.

In the lab of GLBRC researcher Cameron Currie, Lewin now studies how insects use microbes to break down cellulose, the sugars found in the cell walls of woody plants, in order to procure nutrient-enriched food. Understanding the insects’ process for breaking down cellulose could ultimately inform GLBRC’s own efforts to convert biomass to ethanol and other biofuels.

Lewin’s particular focus is on the insects’ powerful ability to partner with a community of microbes.

“Scientists have long studied how a single microbe in a flask degrades cellulose,” Lewin says. “But in the environment, organisms don’t exist in isolation; they have evolved to be part of a community. Our goal is to apply the power of these symbiotic relationships to biofuel production.”


Gina Lewin and thesis advisor Cameron Currie present their research to then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Photo: Matthew Wisniewski

Leaf-cutter ants found in tropical rainforests are a particularly impressive example of these mutually beneficial relationships.

Living as a highly organized society in colonies that can grow large enough to be visible from space, the vast majority of leaf-cutter ants work to support their queen. In return, the queen maintains the colony by laying up to 20,000 eggs a day for up to twenty years in the lab.

What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is that the leaf-cutter ants are miniature farmers who have perfected their agricultural activities — deconstructing biomass and cultivating a fungus — over the course of ten million years. Humans, in contrast, have spent a mere 12,000 years developing and fine-tuning their agricultural expertise.

Leaf-cutter ants collect and degrade large amounts of fresh leaves that the fungus converts to food.

“The fungus makes a fuzzy pearl-like structure that contains the nutrients the ants need,” Lewin says. “The larvae and the queen only eat these fungal structures, while the adult workers also feed on leaf sap and fruits.” Some species of leaf-cutter ants even grow a bacterium on their body that protects the fungus from pathogens.

Each colony’s fungus farm consists of a garden, where the plant material is first deposited and partially degraded, and a dump, a dedicated waste management site that may be located under- or aboveground, depending on the ant species.

“Seventy percent of the leaves’ cellulose is carried to the dump for final degradation. It turns out that the dump’s microbial community is much more efficient at degrading cellulose than any individual strain we have studied thus far,” Lewin summarizes her dissertation findings.

Currie, Lewin’s advisor, is as pleased with these results as with Lewin’s success in obtaining external funding for her work.

“I teased Gina that the offer letter for the National Science Foundation’s predoctoral fellowship [dated around April 1, 2012] was probably an April Fool’s joke,” Currie recalls. “These fellowships are incredibly competitive. I’ve never even heard of anyone getting one in their second year.”

Graduate school clearly suits Lewin well, whether she peers through the microscope, gathers fungal samples in Costa Rica, or applies for a research fellowship.

“In college, I had to choose between ecology and molecular biology,” Lewin remembers. “When I decided to major in molecular biology, I was a little sad to leave behind the outdoor activities we did in the ecology classes. But graduate school has allowed me to bring those two interests back together.”

Last but not least, Lewin has also contributed significantly to GLBRC’s education and outreach efforts.

In the summer of 2011, Lewin worked with high school science teacher Craig Kohn from Waterford, Wis., who participated in GLBRC’s Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program. Together they designed a classroom activity that adapted Lewin’s lab assay for demonstrating the breakdown of cellulose for a high school level.

“We figured out that Craig could make a cheap growth medium for microbes by mixing Miracle Gro fertilizer from a garden center with tap water,” Lewin explains.

To see if an environmental sample, such as a scoop of cow manure, contains microbes capable of growing on a piece of cellulosic filter paper, Kohn’s high school students put the sample, the paper, and the fertilizer in a test tube. The students then quantified cellulose degradation by counting the days until a complete tear was observed in the paper.

The following two summers, Lewin and John Greenler, director of GLBRC’s education and outreach program, presented the activity to teachers attending the Bioenergy Institute for Educators. And in the fall of 2014, the activity was expanded for UW–Madison freshmen and used in a First-Year Interest Group (FIG) course in bioenergy.

“In today’s world, just being a great researcher and doing teaching assistant duty for one semester is no longer enough to become a successful faculty member. Gina is a poster child for the importance of translating her research into engaging classroom material,” Greenler says.

“In the six years since her REU, Gina has grown into a real spokesperson for GLBRC,” Greenler adds.

The GLBRC is one of three Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers created to make transformational breakthroughs and build the foundation of new cellulosic biofuels technology. For more information on the GLBRC, visit

Unpuzzling diabetes: Alan Attie tracks the internal mechanisms behind a fast-growing disease

The body makes it seem so simple.

You take a bite of supper, and the black-box machinery of metabolism hums into life, transforming food into fuel and building materials. It’s the most primal biology: Every living thing must find energy, and must regulate its consumption.

But for an alarming and ever-increasing number of people, the machinery breaks down. The diagnosis? Diabetes.


Alan Attie; Banner photo above: This pancreatic islet contains healthy beta cells (stained red for insulin). It also contains a high number of cells producing glucagon (stained green), which raise the concentration of glucose in the bloodstream—indicating diabetes.

Alan Attie, a CALS professor of biochemistry, has been peering into the black box for two decades now, trying to identify the pathways in our bodies by which the disease is formed. “You can’t find a better excuse to study metabolic processes than diabetes,” he says. “It’s very, very rich.

Type 2 diabetes, caused by an inability to produce enough insulin to keep the body’s blood glucose at normal levels, is a global health crisis that has accelerated at a frightening speed over the last 20 years—roughly the same time Attie has been studying it.

It’s an enormously complex disease driven by both genetics and the environment. A DNA glitch here, an external variable there, and the body slides irretrievably out of balance. But only sometimes. Most people who develop type 2 diabetes are obese, yet most people who are obese don’t actually wind up diabetic.

Tracking this riddle has led Attie and his lab to several major discoveries, chief among them identifying two genes associated with diabetes: Sorcs1 and Tomosyn-2. Through years of elaborate experimentation, Attie and his team teased them from the genetic haystack and then relentlessly deciphered their role in metabolic malfunction.


Why do some mice become diabetic when they are obese—like the mouse on the left—and others not? This pair carries a mutation in determining genes, such as Tomosyn-2 and Sorcs1, which Attie’s lab identified.

Science has uncovered more than 140 genes that play a role in diabetes, yet genetic screening still has little value for patients. As with any part of a large and complicated puzzle, it’s hard to see precisely how Sorcs1 and Tomosyn-2 fit in until we have more pieces. The biology of diabetes is so complex that we can’t be certain what the discoveries may ultimately mean. But both genes have shed light on critical stages in metabolism and offer intriguing targets for potential drugs.

Attie need not look far to replenish his motivation. His own mother suffers from diabetes, and she used to quiz him weekly about when he would cure her. “The painful answer is that translation of basic research into cures takes a long time,” Attie once told the American Diabetes Association. “The most important clues that can lead to cures do not necessarily come from targeted research or research initially thought to be relevant to the disease.”

Continue reading this story in the Spring 2015 issue of Grow magazine

Chris Hittinger names newly discovered yeast for Bucky Badger

When you discover a new organism, you get to name it — but not for yourself. There are rules to the naming business in biology. You can, however, name it for the sponsor of your research. When Chris Hittinger and his group of yeast researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found a rather aggressive yeast, it was natural to name it for the fierce carnivore that is the mascot of his home institution: Bucky Badger.

And so Blastobotrys buckinghamii emerged from the soil of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to become one of approximately 1,500 known species of yeast. “It was the most aggressive of the eight new species we found,” Hittinger says, “and we thought it was appropriate to name it for Bucky Badger, as it reminded us of Bucky charging down the field.”

Bucky yeast Sylvester

Kayla Sylvester was first author of a new study that identified Blastobotrys buckinghamii, a yeast named for the UW-Madison mascot Bucky Badger. As an undergraduate, Sylvester was instrumental to a survey that retrieved more than 80 species of yeasts, including eight unknown ones, for identification. Banner photo: Yeast cultures being grown in the Hittinger lab; both photos: David Tenenbaum

The badger became UW-Madison’s football mascot in 1889 but went nameless until about 1950, when a contest christened him Buckingham U. Badger. As best as can be determined, B. buckinghamii is the first organism named in Bucky’s honor, says Cindy Van Matre, trademark licensing director at UW-Madison.

Finding eight new species in one project was a fine haul, says Hittinger, an assistant professor of genetics, noting that this represents about one-half percent of all known yeast species. His new study is now online in the journal FEMS Yeast Research. (For more on Hittinger’s yeast work, see the cover story in the Spring 2015 issue of Grow magazine.)

Although it was lab manager Amanda Hulfachor who retrieved B. buckinghamii, Hittinger credits Kayla Sylvester, who started working in his lab as an undergraduate, as “our most prolific wild yeast hunter. She’s really gotten excited about pushing the boundary of what we know about yeasts in the wild, and has been exceptional in setting up and taking over the wild yeast sampling program.”

Sylvester, a native of Sussex, Wisconsin, admits she “didn’t give much thought to where yeasts came from until I came here. It’s hard to tell people you work with yeasts. They think of beer, bread or a yeast infection. They don’t think it would be found outside, but where else could yeasts come from?”

Avid collectors are only the first necessity for finding new yeasts, Hittinger adds. “Specialized enrichment and high-speed genetic sequencing were also key.” Enrichment starts by excluding other organisms, then growing pure colonies of the remaining yeast. Genetic sequencing solves a longstanding problem: yeasts vary little in appearance, even when they have radically different genes.

The lab work can be tedious, Sylvester admits, “but if you’re passionate, it’s very easy. If you are not passionate, it’s very hard. I am very passionate about what I am doing, making my job very enjoyable.”


Chris Hittinger

Like the other fungi, yeasts specialize in decay, so yeast prospectors tend to sample dirt, rotting wood and bark. “A lot of early yeast collectors looked for fermenting sap,” says Hittinger, “but with appropriate enrichment, yeasts can be isolated directly from soil and rotting wood, without directly observing yeasts in the field.”

Yeasts are creative chemists. Hittinger notes that a single subphylum called Saccharomycotina contains more genetic diversity than all the vertebrate animals. That diversity gives them the ability to do more chemical transformations on the materials they consume.

The Saccharomyces yeasts metabolize sugar into alcohol, a compound that is poisonous to competing microbes. The alcohol makes wine, beer and the biofuel ethanol, while the carbon dioxide released raises bread.

Other yeasts have their own useful chemical tricks. “Some yeasts can accumulate half of their dry weight in oil, and that has more potential as a more advanced biofuel than ethanol,” Hittinger says.

Sylvester, who has graduated and is working in the Hittinger lab until she starts graduate school, says her experience has unleashed her curiosity. “Discovering eight new species is pretty cool. Everywhere you go, you sample. You start to develop all these questions: Does it matter what kind of tree you’re searching under? Does it matter if it’s close to a lake?”

Aside from Saccharomyces, most yeasts are poorly understood, Sylvester says. “You do the sequencing and get the genetic information. What makes this yeast species interesting? Once we get a big enough database, we can look for associations. Pattern-finding is fun; you can ask endless questions. That’s what I like. You can’t stop asking questions.”

This story was originally published on the UW-Madison News website.


Top beer from student competition to be sold at Terrace this spring

Spring is on the way, and so is a new UW-Madison student-designed beer that will be sold at the Memorial Union Terrace.

The beer—a red lager that will be called “Inaugural Red”—was selected this past Thursday during a competition held in food science professor Jim Steele’s fermented foods and beverages laboratory class. Six student teams participated in the contest, each presenting a red lager beer of their design to an expert panel of judges.

The top honor went to “team #3,” composed of Andrew Lefeber, Sean Hinds and Elizabeth Wolff. And it’s quite an honor indeed. The team’s beer will now go into full-scale production at the Wisconsin Brewing Company (WBC), which partnered with the UW-Madison food science department to create this unique, hands-on learning experience for students.

“We couldn’t imagine a better way to inspire new generations than combining our brewing experience, expertise and facilities with the exceptional minds and laboratories of the UW,” said WBC president Carl Nolan in a news release about the partnership. “It’s a win-win for students, CALS, WBC—and future generations of Wisconsin beer-drinkers.”

IMG_20150305_131148444_HDR 2 CROP

Kirby Nelson sits with the judging panel and addresses the students before judging begins. From L to R: Rob LoBreglio, Kirby Nelson, David Ryder, Lance Baldus and Rob Gretzlock.

Steele’s students were informed about the competition early in the semester and given a clear charge: to create a red lager with less than 5.5 percent alcohol by volume. How exactly to do that, however, was less straightforward. Students were free to be creative and add different kinds and amounts of malt and hops to make a drinkable, enjoyable beer.

After weeks of experimentation, the teams presented their “final draft” beers last Thursday to an impressive panel of experts, including Kirby Nelson, vice president and brewmaster of WBC; David Ryder, vice president of brewing and research at MillerCoors and adjunct professor in the Department of Food Science; Rob LoBreglio, co-owner and brewmaster at the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company; Rob Gretzlock, manager of Memorial Union Terrace; and Lance Baldus, associate director of restaurant operations at Memorial Union.

One by one, the beers were introduced by a student brewer and presented to the judges. After smelling, swirling and tasting each one, the judges deliberated and discussed their favorites.

“I want to congratulate all of you because these beers were good,” said Ryder, after tasting all six beers. “You took risks using different types of hops and malts, and we like to see that.”


The judges deliberate after tasting the beers.

At the end of a close competition, team #3 came out on top. Their beer will go into production at WBC starting on March 15, and all of the students in Steele’s class will have the opportunity to see and help with the full-scale production. “Inaugural Red” will be available at the Memorial Union Terrace starting in May and then at other locations after that.

In an unexpected twist, another team—Nate Elliot, Adam Bartling and Katherine Habbel—will have the opportunity to see their beer produced. LoBreglio was so intrigued by the beer made by team #5, his personal runner-up, that he offered to brew the beer at the Great Dane.

The competition is part of an ongoing effort to develop a fermentation sciences program at UW-Madison, which is being moved forward with the support of both on- and off-campus partners.

“The dream is to make UW-Madison the top college when it comes to the fermentation sciences,” said Ryder, who helped facilitate MillerCoors’ donation in 2008 of the pilot-scale brewing system used in Steele’s class.

That key donation has enabled many good things already—the new student-made “Inaugural Red” beer the most recent among them—and there’s more to come.

“This beautiful little brewery is capable of making something great – small batches of beer that you can really learn something from and then scale up,” said Nelson, who will oversee the production of “Inaugural Red” at WBC.

UW-Madison helps train aspiring farmers enrolled in ‘the MBA of dairy’

Considering the average age of a Wisconsin farmer is upwards of 56 years old and the state has been losing around 500 dairy farms per year in recent years, experts say it’s important to prepare young people to step into farm roles to help keep the state’s $88 billion agricultural economy strong into the future.

But making the transition into dairy farming is complicated, and aspiring farmers often don’t have the capital — or the experience — to take over an established operation.

The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) program is working to address the issue by providing support for young people interested in becoming dairy farmers. Started in 2010, the first-of-its-kind program is administered by the Wisconsin-based non-profit GrassWorks, Inc., with the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a key partner.

Earlier this month, DGA received $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The funding will enable organizers to improve and expand the program in Wisconsin, as well as explore the possibility of rolling it out to other dairy states.

“It’s a meat-and-potatoes program that really takes people up to the level where they can own and operate their own dairy,” says DGA director Joe Tomandl. “It’s the MBA of dairy.”

DGA participants complete 4,000 hours of paid training over two years, most of it alongside experienced dairy farmers, and work their way up from apprentices to Journey Dairy Graziers and Master Dairy Graziers. While the majority of hours are spent in on-the-job training, there’s also a significant requirement for related instruction. That’s where UW-Madison comes in.

As part of the program, apprentices attend a seminar about pasture-based dairy and livestock through the UW-Madison School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (WSBDF), which is co-sponsored by the university’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the Farm and Industry Short Course. The seminar involves a 32-hour commitment, which is generally fulfilled in a distance education setting.

“We believe in the Wisconsin Idea and want to make sure our classes are accessible to people who want more education, but preferably close to where they live and work,” says Nadia Alber, an outreach coordinator for WSBDF, who helps organize the seminar and also serves on the DGA board.

In 2009, GrassWorks, Inc. turned to WSBDF director Dick Cates for guidance and access to well-respected educational curriculum to help get the DGA up and running, and the WSBDF team has been involved ever since.

“We were just this little non-profit with this very small budget trying to compete for a big federal grant,” says Tomandl. “For us, it was important to have UW as a strategic partner.”

As part of the most recent round of funding, DGA’s UW-Madison partners will lead an effort to quantify the broader impacts of the program.

“They have already proven that participants are moving along to their own farms after the apprenticeship, so they have an established track record that way,” says Alber. “This new study will look at some of the program’s other impacts, including economic, environmental and social.”

The DGA program is a formal apprenticeship program approved by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development — Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards.

For more information about the program, visit:

Spring lambing season at Arlington ARS

UW-Madison is home to two distinct flocks of sheep, both of which are used to enhance the research, teaching and outreach missions of the college. The flock located at the Spooner Agricultural Research Station is composed of dairy sheep, the types that Wisconsin farmers raise for milk production. The other flock, kept at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station, includes breeds that play a more traditional role in the production of wool, meat and breeding stock.


Todd Taylor holds a new member of the flock.

CALS photographer and reporter Sevie Kenyon recently paid a visit to the Arlington flock to take some photos and record a podCALS episode with shepherd Todd Taylor. Taylor explained that the Arlington flock is about 300 ewes (female sheep), three-fourths of which will give birth to two, three and sometimes four lambs each during the spring lambing season. “The ewes are made to take care of two lambs and some of them will care for three,” says Taylor. “Lambs the ewes can’t care for get milk replacer.”

Spring lambing starts as early as January, peaks in late February and early March, and is over in April. Lambs arrive in a cold, well-bedded barn and are moved into a nursery shortly after being born. Once Taylor and the staff are certain everything is fine, the lambs and ewes are moved to group housing in a larger barn nearby. Four breeds make up the Arlington flock: Hampshire, Polypay, Rambouillet and Targhee.

16557599936_3adc8c46f1_k“While we do some research, we’re geared a lot toward teaching and extension work,” explains Taylor. “We furnish sheep for numerous classes across the animal science department, and vet students come out and use us quite extensively as well.”

UW-Madison sheep are well known on the show circuit. In fact, everything that goes into showing sheep on a professional show circuit is turned into opportunities for UW-Madison students to get hands-on experience. The presence of the flock also works as a recruitment tool for the Department of Animal Sciences and for UW-Madison around the country.

For more, listen to the podCALS episode featuring Taylor and check out these adorable photos.


Dave Nelson helps found—and fill—the new Madison Science Museum

Generally it’s a bad thing to be called a “hoarder.” In Dave Nelson’s case, however, his pack rat tendencies are for a good cause—and will soon come to a very good end.

Nelson, an emeritus professor of biochemistry and defacto CALS historian, has been collecting old scientific instruments, books, papers and other scientific artifacts from the UW-Madison and around Wisconsin for the past 45 years. He has amassed a collection that now fills three rooms on campus—two in the Biochemical Sciences Building and one in the Old Dairy Barn. Soon, however, many of these items will be sent to the home of the new Madison Science Museum, a non-profit museum that Nelson helped found and hopes to see open this coming fall.

Dave_Nelson_pic 2

David Nelson with a cast iron Babcock centrifuge and an aluminum one, two of over 100 instruments in his collection.

“The reason I’ve saved my collection all these years is exactly this,” says Nelson. “I want it to be where people can see it and touch it and maybe even use it.”

The museum will occupy the sixth floor of the Madison Area Technical College’s downtown facility, just a stone’s throw from the Madison Children’s Museum, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and the Wisconsin Historical Museum.

“The museum will pull together in one place much of the exciting science and engineering that’s been done around here in the last century,” says Nelson. “Wisconsin has a wonderful history of research, and it desperately needs to be told.”

When Nelson joined the UW-Madison faculty in 1971, he took over the laboratory space previously occupied by biochemistry professor Marv Johnson. It was the perfect spot.

“Marv had kept all of his old instruments, protecting them so they didn’t get thrown away, so I walked into a lab that was already full of 50-year old instruments,” says Nelson, who hung on to everything—and soon started adding his own pieces to the collection.

“When somebody had an instrument they didn’t need anymore, I grabbed it, and I began to watch for these things at SWAP,” he says. “And then when eBay opened up, I began to get really serious about buying instruments. Usually they’re not very expensive. For instance, a Babcock centrifuge costs maybe $50 or $75, which seems like a good deal for a real piece of history.”

16512054782_14d5014c0e_z 2

Nelson with an early apparatus to separate RNA molecules.

Over the decades, Nelson’s collection grew to fill one room, then two, then a third. It features a lot of turn-of-the-century pieces, including early instruments to measure weight, quantities of light, hemoglobin in blood, and blood glucose levels for diabetics. Highlights include the ultraviolet light that Harry Steenbock used in his experiments with rickets and vitamin D; the analytical balance that Karl Paul Link used in his studies of warfarin; and the light microscope that Joshua Lederberg used in his Nobel Prize-winning work on bacteria.

Now these instruments—and the stories that go along with them—will have the opportunity to be shared with the public at the Madison Science Museum. Exhibits, which will be geared toward middle schoolers, high schoolers and adult learners, will highlight early scientific discoveries. They will also show how those initial findings led to important subsequent discoveries, medical and/or technological advances and commercial applications.

“There are more than 150 biotech spinoffs in the Madison area, and some of them are multi-million dollar businesses. We want to show these accomplishments, too, and really all of the aspects of the state’s science and engineering enterprise,” says Nelson.

Exhibits will rotate, giving museum visitors a reason to come back again and again. One of the first exhibits will explore imaging technologies of all kinds—from microscopes to CAT scans to weather satellites.

Nelson, along with UW-Madison Biotechnology Center outreach director Tom Zinnen and others, spent many years searching for a home for the science museum. Initially the goal was to site the museum on the UW-Madison campus, but Nelson came around to the MATC location after considering the many benefits. There are plenty of parking spaces, bus routes and museum-goers in the area.

Nelson’s goal is to open the museum, which will operate 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, in time to be a part of this fall’s Wisconsin Science Festival.

While the museum has some funding secured, more is still needed. To encourage emeritus faculty from UW-Madison to donate, Madison Science Museum board member Thomas “Rock” Mackie, an emeritus professor of biomedical engineering, has established a matching grant program that will match 100% of donations from emeritus faculty up to a grand total of $50,000.

For more information about the museum, visit the Madison Science Museum website, download this MSM_two_pager vision document and/or read this article.

On a related note: The newly-formed CALS History Work Group invites all emeritus and active faculty and staff of the college to a meeting on Monday, February 23 to discuss ways that CALS’ rich history can be preserved and celebrated. The meeting will be held at the UW Credit Union (3500 University Avenue) at 2:00 pm on Monday February 23. David Null from UW Archives will talk about ways the Archives can help in this effort.