Tag Archives: science

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


Eyes In the Sky and On the Prize

Kai was selected to participate as one of 19 student leaders on the National Center for Atmospheric Research Undergraduate Leadership Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. He entered Boulder unaware that he would leave transformed forever.

When I first heard about the Undergraduate Leadership Workshop (ULW), I was clueless as to just how much it could accomplish for me.

I had originally applied for the Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) summer program because I was looking for a longer summer research experience to occupy my summer. When I was informed that I did not receive admittance to SOARS I asked the director, Dr. Rebecca Haacker, if there were any other opportunities I might be able to apply for this summer. Initially I saw the ULW as a silver medal, a smaller version of the premier research program that would have allowed me to reach new heights in the atmospheric sciences research field. But I would soon discover that I was terribly, horribly, and irrefutably wrong.

Beginning with its inaugural launch in 2002, the ULW has continually played a crucial role in ensuring excellence and developing leadership within the scientific community at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). The ULW approach is twofold: (1) expose students to career opportunities and pathways in the atmospheric and Earth system sciences and (2) educate students on the definition of leadership while identifying innate characteristic traits of leadership and developing leadership potential.


Sneak peak of ULW coordinators (from left to right) Valerie Sloan, Tim Barnes, and Rebecca Haacker working to enhance the student experience at the ULW.

The ULW selected students nationally from over 100 different UCAR university affiliates, of which I would represent the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Despite our geographical differences, we had all entered this program with common interests: a freakish obsession with meteorological phenomenon, ambitions to meet prominent scientists and use modern technology in our field, and intent to learn about the possibilities beyond our undergraduate education.


ULW Group Photo exposing the creative and fun side of scientists-in-training. #scientistsgotswag

When I finally arrived to Colorado, what I first noticed was the landscape. Even from 5000ft above ground, I bore witness to the picturesque scenery that is definitive of the Great Plains region. The strong sense of environmental integrity set the scene for the contrasting conversations surrounding environmental pollution and global climate change science. Housed in Boulder, Colorado is the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the research center that would host our week long introduction into the lives of professional weather weenies. NCAR masterfully reflects the Boulder mission, as it promotes a research design centering on the complex processes that contribute to the climate as an Earth system while focusing on the interactions of the air, planet, and people.


The Towers of the MESA Laboratory at NCAR in all its glory.

The success of this program can be attributed to many factors, one of which the abundance of mentors in the scientific community at NCAR. In the short time span of one week, I was immersed in the company of leaders in science, industry, and business working at the forefront of climate sciences. These leaders were eager to converse, advise, and even laugh with us in the many one-on-one social interactions that the ULW forced upon us. I am honored that graduate panels, career panels, and even National Medal of Science winner Dr. Warren Washington could all be assembled together with the sincerest intentions to impart their years of sagely wisdom to our eager minds. I would stand in admiration of the brilliant minds before us, half listening while furiously writing down notes and half bewildered at the probability of these very moments. Some were even kind enough to permit us, armed with video recording devices, into their offices so that we might catch a glimpse of them in their natural habitat solving the scientific complexities they love.

A Clifford Hoang Production – the result from hours of following NCAR scientists like obsessive paparazzi

The other half of the ULW success equation was the synergy between the students. Everyone was open-minded and entertaining, with just the right amount of weird. There existed a direct relationship between the number of eccentricities within this group and the amount of time we spent together. The walls of our personal boundaries crumbled as we forged friendships that would last into and throughout our professional careers. We parted with plans for the 96th Annual American Meteorological Society Conference in 2016 in mind as our central hub for reunion. And as our GroupMe chat history continues to fill the air with talk of cloud walls in Pecan, TSA frisking, Barney Stinson, terrorizing crows and lost-and-found volleyballs, I have realized that our fates are now intertwined (and bound by candy law). This is not goodbye…

Group Hug

In the words of Heather Marie Zons from the book Winnie the Pooh, “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard”.

After all the professional development workshops and group bonding exercises, I found it necessary to detach myself from the context of the workshop in order to properly digest the information I had acquired. The ULW had innumerable lessons to teach our group, but a lesson in self-discovery was what my soul was longing for. Before I arrived at the ULW, I had been engaged in an internal conflict between my natural affinity towards literature and the human condition and my passion for scientific discovery. Dr. Jen Henderson was the savior that I needed. She was living proof that the synthesis of social sciences and the physical sciences was not as absurd of a reality as I had previously thought. She had authority on several academic fields but the most importantly she professed that we should follow our passions wherever they may take us. Of all the lessons I have learned in my time at the ULW, I found this to be the most precious of them all.

I am proud to have attended the ULW because without it, I would not have achieved a better understanding of myself and my aspirational goals. I emerged with a newfound vigor to find a career combining the two fields I care most about in a context that will address both the societal issues and the environmental impacts of climate change. I cannot wait to start the school year in the Fall and bring back all that I have learned to my home institution and the UW American Meteorological Society chapter. With my proclamation to apply to SOARS next year and the lasting ties of friendship sheltered in my memories, I leave Boulder awaiting my next return to this promised land.

Thank you ULW for changing my life!

Kai Wave

I wave not as a farewell to the past, but as greeting to the future and all that is to come.

Digital media sources credited to Clifford Hoang and Andrew Huang.