Student film highlights food insecurity, mass incarceration issues in South Madison

South Madison community works with UW students to expand urban farming program 

For The Daily Cardinal – April 18, 2017

MADISON, Wis. — What started as a capstone project for a class became two students’ mission to bring equality to South Madison residents.

After eight months of production, UW-Madison students Nyal Mueenuddinn and Mattie Naythons announced they were ready to share their documentary film with the student body. Last Friday, the pair held one of the first screenings of the film, titled “Break the Cycle.”

This project originated from a service-learning capstone course, Building Food Justice Capacity in South Madison. In this course offered by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, students were tasked with collaborating with South Madison community partners, including Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development and Neighborhood Food Solutions, to address the interconnected issues of food insecurity, racial inequality and urban agriculture.

In Fall 2016, Mueenuddin came into the course with a very distinct idea of how he would contribute to this project.

“There was one word in the syllabus which was ‘we’ll create some product’ and I saw that as an opportunity,” Mueenuddin said.

He believed that film was the perfect medium for communicating their message because “it’s able to break down barriers that exist between people by allowing people to share each other’s stories and voices with each other that you wouldn’t otherwise hear.”

Course instructors Alfonso Morales, a professor of urban and regional planning, and Dadit Hidayat, a doctoral student in environment and resources, quickly approved this idea and Mueenuddin started to work. He assembled a team of five other students, including Naythons, who were also enrolled in the course and they began to build the concept for the film.

In the following semester, both Mueenuddin and Naythons said they felt like their work was not quite finished. Ultimately, they decided to continue what they started as an independent study, in order to give the community something that they felt it deserved.

“My primary motivation was to give a voice to these members of the community that didn’t have a voice,” Naythons said.

Their ambition to expand this project manifested itself through investigations into two larger issues existing within South Madison: mass incarceration and food injustice.

This project partnership between Nehemiah and the Nelson Institute aims to tackle these issues by providing ex-prisoners an opportunity to build skills and earn wages while working in the urban agriculture industry. But the key feature is that this partnership simultaneously provides healthy, organic food for the South Madison Farmer’s Market, which hasn’t traditionally been available to this neighborhood.

For Naythons, it was vital to inform the public about the lack of food accessibility in South Madison.

“South Madison is a food desert and a lot of people don’t know that. We have Fresh Market and things like that, [but] that community down there doesn’t have anything like that,” Naythons said.

Both Mueenuddin and Naythons said they believe connecting the student body to the local community is an important next step to advance this project and continue their legacy.

The two said they publicized this film with the primary intention of creating awareness and generating discussion, not only within the university population but also between the Madison community and the university campus. Additional screenings and panels will be held on campus and throughout Madison.

The filmmaking process might be finished, but Mueenuddin and Naythons said the work to solve South Madison’s issues of mass incarceration and food justice is just getting started.

“We hope to just plant the seed and hope that people will reach out to each other and try to learn more,” Mueenuddin said.

Photo courtesy of Nyal Mueenuddin & Mattie Naythons


Driverless Vehicles Could Be In Widespread Use Within Next Decade, Experts Say

Human Drivers Should Take The Backseat To Autonomous Automobiles

For Wisconsin Public Radio – November 28, 2016

MADISON, Wis. — The race to an autonomous vehicle is on.

Companies such as Tesla and Google are working on the next innovation in the automobile industry: driverless cars. The self-driving technology is already in use by the companies in smaller capacities. And even though everyday drivers have yet to see access to such vehicles, driverless cars may be hitting the road in widespread use sooner than you think – within the next decade, said experts Hod Lipson, a mechanical engineering professor at Columbia University, and Melba Kurman, an author and technology analyst.

In their new book, “Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead,” Kurman and Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University, claim advancements in visual sensing technology and programming are putting driverless cars becoming the new normal for a variety of reasons, including safety.

There were 35,200 vehicle traffic deaths in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Some of these deaths are due to distracted driving, which can include activities such as texting, watching videos or talking to passengers.

A driverless vehicle, capable of sensing the environment and traversing the roads with no human controls, could lead to safer roads and allow people to do all of these things while commuting to work or home without touching the wheel.

To Lipson and Kurman, the bottom line is there is a price to pay for human autonomy over automobiles. The two argue humans are dangerous drivers and giving up our autonomy to artificial intelligence may offer a solution to a fatal problem.

But the technology isn’t perfect and is being developed to account for numerous scenarios autonomous vehicles can encounter such as severe weather conditions or crashes. Companies are testing the technology on the open road and collecting more data in order to perfect the driving performance. Once performance levels reach an exceptional level, human controlled cars could very well become an antiquity of the past.

“You asked about whether we can make it foolproof,” Lipson said. “That bar is too high. We have to remember that human drivers are far from perfect. … It doesn’t have to be foolproof, it just has to be a little bit better than the average human driver.”

Lipson and Kurman are looking at a future with fully autonomous cars, requiring no assistance from any human counterparts in order to drive. To contrast, driver-assisted technology – cruise control, lane keeping, and automatic brake assists – are partially autonomous, but split the automobile control between human and machine.

“The core idea that we feel strongly about is that humans and software should not take turns driving. That’s not safe,” Kurman said.

“Taking over manual control is actually a dangerous thing,” Lipson added. “… This idea that the human will take control at certain points, in an emergency or a malfunction, is really, it’s something we call split responsibility and it doesn’t work.”

Whether within the next decade or 50 years from now, driverless cars will be in our future and drivers won’t be putting even a finger on the wheel, Kurman said.

Photo: Department for Transport (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Scientist, Artist Unite To Preserve Ancient Rock Art In Southwest Wisconsin

Experts concerned over threats to rock art from vandalism, theft

For Wisconsin Public Radio – October 20, 2016

MADISON, Wis. — Whether it’s on the Boundary Waters along a cliffside or on the forest trails inside of a cave, rock art can be found on open rock exposures in Wisconsin. These ancient symbols mark the historic communication and artwork of the Native Peoples of America and many are scattered throughout Wisconsin, most notably in the Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin. However, the disappearance of rock art has become a growing problem as people continually vandalize or steal the rock art. Geri Schrab, a watercolor artist, and Robert “Ernie” E Boschardt, the former associate director of the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center, have teamed up to combine their individual talents as artist and scientist in the hopes of saving these sacred rock art sites.

What Is Rock Art?

According to the Arkansas Archeological Survey, “rock art” is any type of image, painting, drawing or carving that is imprinted onto a immovable rock surface. A majority of the rock art found is “petrogylphs,” or carvings, that were fashioned into the wall by ancient tools like bone or antlers. The “pictographs,” or paintings, are made by using pigments from minerals like iron or charcoal mixed with animal fat to create a paste that could be applied to the wall.

Most rock art is contained in the Driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin because there is a higher concentration of sandstone and limestone exposures there. In the most recent glacial period of North America, known as the Wisconsin Glaciation, the northern and eastern parts of the state were covered with glacial sheets which smoothed out the terrain of those regions and left less rock exposures. Though there are still some rock art sites in other areas, as Boschardt reminds us that “where rock is exposed, you will find rock art.”

History, Culture & Meaning

Rock art is inexplicably tied to the cultural history of Wisconsin’s Native Peoples.

“It’s a representation of the past, in order to appreciate and understand our heritage and the Native American communities that lived here and continue to live here,” said Boszchardt.

It is a cultural practice to leave tobacco as an offering at rock art sites to honor the manidoo, or spirits. This act is an expression of respect for the sacred connection that rock art holds to many Native peoples. Schrab said that the sites are considered sacred, believed to be expressions of dreams, connections to the spirit worlds, or possibly even communications to the generations that are forthcoming.

There is still, however, much left to understand about rock art and the meaning of many of the individual symbols we see in the rock art are still unknown.

“I don’t think there’s anything really about rock art that’s self-explanatory … or maybe is obvious as it appears on the surface,” said Schrab.

Boszhardt said that about 80 percent of the symbols we see in rock art that we know of is abstract symbols, but the other 20 percent is recognizable figures like buffalo, deer, and birds.

Vandalism & Theft

Ultimately, time will cause the ancient rock arts to fade away. Natural erosion and chemical weathering will slowly degrade the quality of rock art. But a much bigger threat to the existence of rock art is vandalism and theft.

Both Schrab and Boschardt warn against the threat of rock art vandalism. Graffiti spray painted over pictographs and initials carved alongside the ancient petroglyphs on rocks contribute to the disappearance of rock art.

Schrab said, “I think there’s a lack of awareness of what rock art is. They may not recognize it as an ancient historical expression, and so then they add their own initials.”

Additionally, some people have taken to the business of theft in rock art, selling rock art on antiquities markets for profit. But these historical attempts to steal the rock art led to legislation passed to protect the rock art sites of Wisconsin.


Both Schrab and Boschardt are committed to preserving the rock art sites that they work with. Their most recent effort in the fight to protect rock art is the publication of their newest book “Hidden Thunder: Rock Art of the Upper Midwest,” in which they report their personal experiences at 11 rock art sites in Wisconsin.

In their book, they say their biggest tool to combat the cultural destruction of rock art is education. By teaching the teachers in educational settings, awareness and understanding can be built for these historical Wisconsin artifacts.

“Hopefully, through the education efforts, when someone comes upon a rock art site they won’t harm it, and if they see someone harming it, that they will report it,” said Schrab.

Photo: Joshua Mayer (CC-BY-SA)

Student researcher uses art and music to understand, teach science of astrobotany

Rasmussen believes integrating artwork into website helps make information more accessible

For Badger Herald – May 2, 2017

MADISON, Wis. — As a child, University of Wisconsin student Kai Nakano Rasmussen had big dreams of becoming an astronaut one day.

He now lives out his dreams, but in a very different way — by sending plants into space and educating others about the science behind it. With rap music and graphic design, nonetheless.

Rasmussen is a biology major who works on a NASA-funded research project studying the effects of spaceflight on plant biology.

Rasmussen pipetting in a fume hood

Last February, he decided to launch a website in an effort to increase awareness and educate the public about the history and science of astrobotany — the study of plants in space.

The website expectedly provides explanations for scientific terms specific to astrobotany like gravitropism and spaceflight stress, but it also shines a spotlight on astrobotany-inspired pop culture and art.

Additionally, the website features interactive art designs centered around a thematic astrobotany resource page. Users can visit pages like “the shed” to learn about the tools of astrobotany research or “the garden” to track the progress of plant species sent into space.

Astrobotany garden of plants grown in space

Rasmussen has always appreciated how art can spark interest in an issue, so he decided to make his own illustrations to accompany the scientific knowledge.

This message, however, is not always easy for scientists to share, Rasmussen said. As an emerging research botanist, he was disappointed by the lack of information available on astrobotany research.

He said integrating artwork into the website helps to make the information more accessible, which can be difficult for a lesser-known subject like astrobotany.

But Rasmussen has found an even more creative solution to craft a successful scientific narrative — rap music.

He released a rap song titled “Young Mark Watney” last October, making his debut at the 2016 American Society for Gravitational & Space Research Conference in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Rasmussen wrote this rap in reference to Mark Watney, the fictional protagonist of the popular novel and film “The Martian.”

People often compare his research to the popular film, he said, which provides him an opportunity to open a dialogue about astrobotany.

Rasmussen said his interests in botany began after taking an introductory biology class taught by Simon Gilroy, a UW botany professor. Gilroy said he’s seen Rasmussen’s raps in action, engaging nonscientists.

“People who are not scientists kind of get into it,” Gilroy said. “But, the scientists that listen to [Rasmussen’s] rap just go, ‘Wow, this is kick-ass! This is absolutely fantastic!’ so it bridges the gap.”

But Rasmussen did not originally intend on working in a botany laboratory before entering college. He was more interested in the space research of the Gilroy laboratory group.

Rasmussen has since worked with the Gilroy laboratory for over a year, in which he learned the historical role plants have played in shaping planetary land features.

“I actually went into his office hours and I said, ‘How do I become a astronaut?’ and Simon just kind of laughed,” Rasmussen said.

From the creation of an oxygen-rich atmosphere to the development of agriculture, Rasmussen learned that plants were an essential component in development of life on Earth and the advancement of civilization.

Photos courtesy of Kai Nakano Rasmussen

UW scientist believes there’s no ‘time to waste’ to find cancer cure

Melissa Skala studied breast cancer, participated in Stand Up To Cancer summit before moving forward with research

For Badger Herald – May 2, 2017

MADISON, Wis. — For Melissa Skala, patience was never a virtue.

Skala, a cancer research investigator in the Morgridge Institute for Research, likes fast-paced learning and collaborative environments. She believes this is especially valuable in scientific research, where progress can move very slowly, she said.

But after attending the 2017 Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) summit, she found it refreshing to quickly advance her hypothesis to laboratory testing in under 24 hours.

“The cool thing about this conference is they incentivize you actually doing the thing you talk about,” Skala said. “All you got to do is write 250 words. If it’s a good idea, [SU2C] will give you the money to do it. Rather than just dreaming away in your office, you actually get stuff done. It’s the way science should be.”

SU2C announced last Monday that Skala was one of four recipients of the Phillip A. Sharp Innovation in Collaboration Award this year. Skala shares the $250,000 award with MIT biology professor Matthew Vander Heiden, with whom she collaborated on her research proposal exploring the interactions between pancreatic cancer cells and regular cells surrounding tumor tissue.

The Sharp Award encourages “innovation in collaboration” for the purpose of advancing cancer research, and therefore requires researchers to work together on a submission proposal to be eligible for the award. Skala, however, had only met Vander Heiden once before partnering with him on this project.

“I actually didn’t know who he was the first time I met him,” Skala said. “He’s published the seminal papers in this area and I realized that after we got the grant I thought, ‘Oh man, I hit the jackpot with this guy.’”

Skala found it engaging, and even inspiring, to work with Vander Heiden to brainstorm novel approaches and technologies to combat cancer.

More importantly, she was able to secure funding for the execution of a high-level research project through this competition, a step she doesn’t appreciate in the grant-writing process.

“You don’t have to do all the administrative forms and budget and that stuff. It’s just soul-sucking,” Skala said. “You get to do the science. It was actually very little pressure because it’s fun.”

Skala said that while she benefitted from receiving an award for her scientific vision, the important part of research is actually executing the idea. The real challenge is to prove the science in the lab, and she has no time to waste with a disease like pancreatic cancer.

Skala had a background in breast cancer research originally, but she began to change her research interests after a conversation with the surviving spouse of a cancer victim.

“I knew everybody died from pancreatic cancer, but I didn’t put two and two together that there’s a lack in advocacy in research because there’s just fewer people alive who have the disease who are banging their fists on the table saying ‘You need to study this, we need to make progress on this deadly disease,’” Skala said.

According to a 2013 United States Cancer Statistics (USCS) study, in the United States pancreatic cancer has a 5-year survival rate of 8.2 percent overall, which is significantly lower than higher-incidence cancers like breast, 89.7 percent, and colorectal, 64.9 percent.

As she continued to learn more about pancreatic cancer, Skala said the statistics convinced her that she needed to participate in this area of research.

“There’s such a great need for progress in pancreatic cancer because 90 percent of the people die who are diagnosed with this disease,” Skala said. “We’re actually making great progress in most cancers except for [pancreatic cancer]. It’s the next big need and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Skala echoed her earlier sentiments that scientific research moves slowly, but she believes her advancements in medical imaging and processing can eventually create a breakthrough in medicine.

Her recent award is already assisting in her mission to develop a technique to help patients now, so they can have a better quality of life with pancreatic cancer.

“It’s a huge win if you take something from the lab and actually affect standard care for cancer patients,” Skala said. “If they’re going to go through therapy and they’re going to go through that psychological and physical stress, I want the drug to work. If we can get there, that’s huge.”

Photo courtesy of Melissa Skala