Class Act: Sam Schmitz – Big discoveries in little worlds

There are still some mysteries left in the world—even if, as Sam Schmitz has learned, you sometimes have to dive pretty deep to find them.

One place abounding with mystery is Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. Divided among four countries, it is the world’s second-largest, second-deepest freshwater lake. Its depth (4,820 feet) and relative calmness discourage water layers from mixing, and oxygen is scarce. But life perseveres, even thrives, in these conditions.

Schmitz, a senior majoring in microbiology and French (with an honors in research), has had the oppor- tunity to study this remarkable body of water without actually going there. As the recipient of an Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program grant from the American Society of Microbiology, Schmitz is analyzing water samples collected at Lake Tanganyika by UW–Madison limnologist Peter McIntyre and his team.

Using DNA sequencing, Schmitz has found that the deepest depths of the lake are home to incredibly diverse microbial communities. He and his fellow researchers have already identified numerous unclassified bacteria.

“The microbiome of the lake has not yet been thoroughly studied, so the lake may hold many more unique, undiscovered bacteria,” says Schmitz—a revelation that amazes him, given how much is known about other ecosystems. These same microbes, he says, may drive the processes that sustain life in the lake’s depths.

As his research project, Schmitz hopes to build on existing knowledge of the dynamics between microbial communities and their ecosystems. “I have always been interested in microbial communities and their interactions with the environment,” Schmitz says.

Such research comes at a time when the lake’s fragile ecosystems are most vulnerable, Schmitz notes. Climate change threatens to disrupt a natural order eons in the making. Better understanding the role of microbes in the cycling of lake nutrients could help us understand how Lake Tanganyika currently supports such abundant life, Schmitz says.

As a fresh graduate this summer, Schmitz plans to work in industry for a few years before returning to school—and his passion for research—to pursue a Ph.D.

Using DNA sequencing, Schmitz has found that the deepest depths of the lake are home to incredibly diverse microbial communities.
Photo credit: Sam Schmitz

Class Act: Timothy Guthrie

Biochemistry senior Timothy Guthrie knows that science and success are about small steps. It’s those tiny strides that drive him to excel both in the lab and in the pole-vaulting pit.

Last summer Guthrie, a student athlete, earned a summer Biochemistry Undergraduate Summer Research Scholarship and spent lots of time in the lab of biochemistry professor Judith Kimble. There he worked, and continues to work, on making different mutations in a protein important for stem cell renewal.

“When I finally get something right in the lab that I’ve been working on for a month or two, it’s a really satisfying feeling,” says Guthrie, who plans to apply to medical school this summer.

Guthrie’s work allows the lab to better understand the molecular mechanism behind stem cell renewal in a tiny roundworm species called Caenorhabditis elegans, used as a model because their stem cells are easier to study than those in humans. Stem cell renewal is essential for the organism to keep producing cells it needs to develop and reproduce. By making different mutations to a protein important to this process, researchers can work to determine the role of the protein.

“The ultimate goal of stem cells is for therapeutic use, but we’ve got to work to understand the stem cells first—and the only way to do that is piece by piece,” says Guthrie. “That’s what Professor Kimble’s lab is doing.”

Getting involved in undergraduate research has helped Guthrie gain critical lab experience and also helped build connections between what he learns about in class and the experiments he performs in the lab.

“Along with knowledge of lab techniques and research, I’ve gained a better appreciation for the scientific discoveries we’ve already made,” he says. “All of those big successes and drugs we’ve discovered were made up of small steps like the ones I get to be a part of in the lab.”

Timothy Guthrie, Biochemistry senior, works with data on stem cells research.
Photo by: Robin Davies/UW–Madison MediaLab at Biochemistry

Growing Veggies with City Kids

Natalie Hogan, a sophomore majoring in dietetics and Spanish, hopes to practice nutrition education in schools, teaching kids about healthy foods. This past summer she honed her skills by gardening and cooking with school-age children in the Young Scientists Club, a program run by the Milwaukee-based Urban Ecology Center. Most of the kids were of Latino and African American backgrounds, and many live in neighborhoods where fresh produce is hard to come by.

In addition to preparing dishes like whole wheat pizza with fresh veggies—a big hit, Hogan says—kids took part in lessons about nutrition, sustainability and climate change, including such concepts as sustainable agriculture and carbon footprints from farm to table.

Hogan and her project partner, sophomore Katherine Piel, developed their curriculum through a Wisconsin Open Education Community Fellowship, an award totaling up to $6,000 offered by the Division of Continuing Studies and the Morgridge Center for Public Service.

Hogan learned as much from the children as they learned from her. The kids at the Urban Ecology Center’s Menomonee Valley branch were excited about gardening— planting, watering, harvesting and even weeding—while kids at Washington Park loved to cook. Hogan and Piel tailored lessons to suit those preferences, recognizing that enthusiasm is a key ingredient in learning.

The experience led Hogan to broaden her career goals. She still wants to teach children, but she’d like to include families and the larger community. “The parents are the ones buying the groceries and cooking the meals,” says Hogan. “In order to make a difference, I must work to make an impact on parents, educators, policy makers—on all those who play a role in the health of our planet and people.”

And she relished the small victories, like getting 8-year-old Victorio to eat a radish. Initially he made a “yuck” face, but out in the garden, after being the first to spot the red tops, he took charge of harvesting, washing, cutting and adding them to a salad.

“When it came time to eat them, he described them as ‘crunchy and spicy, but still pretty good!’” says Hogan. “That was a positive experience because we could see his change in attitude. And he wasn’t the only one!”

Training to Make a Difference

People have around 40 productive years during adulthood to make a positive impact on the world, according to Howard G. Buffett in his book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.

It’s a concept that Kate Griswold BS’16, who graduated in May with a degree in life sciences communication, is keenly aware of.

Griswold was among 40 college students nationwide selected in 2012 to participate in the nonprofit Agriculture Future of America’s 40 Chances Fellows program. The goal of the four-year program, funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation’s 40 Chances awareness campaign, is to prepare young people to address global agriculture- and food-related challenges.

“I’m passionate about international food security and transparency in the American agricultural system,” says Griswold. “Thanks to my experiences, I feel excited and ready to go out into the workforce and help contribute to the conversations—and solutions—related to these important topics.”

Griswold and her cohort participated in leadership conferences, agricultural institutes, career mentoring sessions and professional development workshops. The program culminated in a two-and-a-half-week international experience—which, for Griswold and eight other students, meant going to Bolivia.

Guided by native Bolivians, the students visited processing plants and production facilities as well as farmers in various regions. Two of the country’s main crops are soybeans and quinoa, a small, gluten-free grain that is highly nutritious and growing in popularity worldwide. But according to Griswold, “Bolivia, which is one of the biggest producers of quinoa, is still one of the poorest countries in South America.”

A key lesson, Griswold says, is that education alone is not enough to change the standard of living and way of life in other cultures.

“The fact that there isn’t an easy fix to get people out of poverty is something I’ve learned to appreciate a lot more,” says Griswold. “I now have a much better understanding of the time it takes to implement change and the trust that needs to be built with the local people in order to do so.”

As a fresh graduate, Griswold is using the first of her 40 chances by joining John Deere as a marketing representative.

Photo Credit – Kate Griswold 

Class Act: Erik Sanson

Entomology might seem like an unlikely research area for an undergrad whose goal is medical school. But biology major Erik Sanson has clocked in many hours of lab time studying deer ticks—more specifically, Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacterium transported by deer ticks—because of its role in causing Lyme disease.

“Entomology sparked my interest as a young undergraduate because it deals with public health issues throughout the state of Wisconsin,” says Sanson, who works in the lab of entomology professor Susan Paskewitz.

His research on genotypes of Borrelia burgdorferi is a good example, he says. “Lyme disease is prevalent in the Midwest, and analyzing possible new strains of the disease can help alert physicians in the area. This would allow them to establish better treatment plans and prevention for their patients.”

Sanson’s been conducting research in medical entomology since his freshman year under the auspices of the Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS) program, which offers research positions to freshmen and sophomores from historically underrepresented groups on campus. Sanson now serves as a URS Fellow, a position in which he mentors a group of URS underclassmen in their projects.

That’s not his only service gig. He’s president of the CALS Student Association, a CALS Student Ambassador, and a mentor with the PEOPLE Program, offering support and guidance to a dozen freshmen throughout the year. Off campus, he has provided in-home patient care as a Certified Nursing Assistant and a Certified Phlebotomy Technician, and he has volunteered at Meriter and William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans hospitals.

Sanson hopes to continue that path of service as a physician.

“I’d like to pursue a career relating to research or public health in urban areas,” he says. “For research, I’m interested in pursuing an MD–Ph.D. dual degree, where I can focus on infectious diseases relating to human illnesses. If I choose the public health route, I’d like to focus on urban areas, working to reduce health disparities and promote health equity to all communities.”

Class Act: Keven Stonewall

Some researchers first find success late in their careers. And then there’s Keven Stonewall.

Now a rising junior majoring in biology, Stonewall made news with research he did while still in high school. A headline in the New York Daily News declared, “Meet the Chicago Teen Who May Cure Colon Cancer.”

Stonewall’s research, which he conducted as an intern at Rush University while he was a senior at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, revealed that an experimental colon cancer vaccine effective in younger mice did not work in older mice. Stonewall won numerous awards for his work and was selected as a finalist for the Intel International Science and Engineer Fair in 2013.

Stonewall, the child of two public school teachers, had always loved science, but while in high school, a close friend’s painful experience losing an uncle to colon cancer made Stonewall determined to fight the disease. “It motivated me to say, ‘Enough is enough, I want to step up and do something about it,’” he says.

More recently Stonewall’s interest has moved toward curing cancer in children. He spent his sophomore year as a student researcher in the lab of Christian Capitini, a pediatric oncologist with the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. There he worked with mice to study the use of natural killer cells to treat neuroblastoma, a cancer frequently seen in children.

“He has a very advanced understanding of immunology and the immune system,” Capitini says of Stonewall. “He understood the concepts of the project from the beginning, so he could get his hands dirty a lot faster than the typical student.”

And this summer he’s interning with AbbVie, a research-based biopharmaceutical company, at its North Chicago headquarters.

Stonewall is in cancer research for the long haul, and he wants to pursue it as a physician. “My goal is to go to medical school, and I am thinking of going into pediatric oncology afterward,” he says.

Class Act: Hardwood and Soft Skills

When CALS sophomore Logan Wells tells you he spends his spare time sawing logs, he doesn’t mean he’s catching up on sleep. He’s actually out in the woods, running logs through his portable sawmill, making lumber for clients—and making money to help cover his college expenses.

Wells’s Smock Valley Timber is more than a business—it’s part of his education. He started it as a hands-on project for the National FFA Organization, the youth program focused on agricultural and natural resource careers, while he was still in high school. Wells enjoyed working the wood and growing the business so much that he opted to enroll in CALS as a forest and wildlife ecology major with an eye toward a career in forestry or forest products.

While practicing and studying forestry keeps Wells busy, the program that sent him into the woods in the first place keeps him even busier. Logan is a state vice president in the Wisconsin FFA Association, representing 24 FFA chapters in Dane, Rock and Green counties.

Much of that work involves going out to middle and high schools, where he encourages FFA members to get active in the program and talks with them about the importance of “soft” skills—a positive attitude, good work habits, teamwork and other traits that can put them on the path to success.

His own high school FFA project helps them understand where a good idea and a good attitude can take them. His timber enterprise paid off in more than money. It earned a top prize in a national FFA competition, which in turn earned him a spot on an agricultural exchange trip to Costa Rica featuring visits to banana, coffee and cacao plantations, whitewater rafting and trips through the rainforest on zip lines and suspension bridges—all very exciting stuff for students to hear about.

“I get to tell them my story and inspire them to do something like that for themselves,” Wells says.

Class Act: Finding Community

Kendra Allen’s curiosity about science was sparked by an episode about oceanography on the children’s TV show, Arthur. She pursued that interest through an upbringing that involved attending about five different elementary schools on Chicago’s South Side.

“Did you ever see Waiting for Superman?” she asks, referring to the documentary about getting into a charter school per lottery. “That’s how my parents were, trying to get me into whichever school was better and closest to where we lived.”

Allen’s father had a high school diploma and her mother, an associate of arts degree in accounting. They were thrilled when Allen was selected for Posse, a program that sends promising students from urban high schools to top colleges in small groups. Posse Scholars receive full scholarships, and the group acts as a support system to ensure that each member graduates.

Allen found other communities on campus. She learned about biological systems engineering from CALS assistant dean Tom Browne and tried some classes. “I just fell in love with the atmosphere, the students and, most important, the teachers,” she says.

And she served as president of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS) and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), for whom she raised a record-breaking $95,000 for a regional conference. Allen also volunteered with after-school science clubs and other youth groups, hoping to encourage minority kids, especially girls, to enter science professions.

For nearly two years Allen worked as a research assistant and a McNair Scholar in the lab of chemical engineering professor Daniel Klingenberg on biofuel applications for corn stover. She earned her bachelor’s degree in May and is setting her sights on a PhD, most likely in bioengineering.

She speaks enthusiastically about advancements in creating artificial organs and other devices that can be implanted in the body to improve and save lives. “That’s really where my passion lies,” she says. And wherever she goes, Allen plans to continue building supportive communities for students coming in behind her.

Class Act: Thinking big

For Ron Crandall, the study of genetics is personal. He wants to learn more about what causes cancer, a disease that has plagued many members of his family.

“In high school I started looking for treatments and to help get them into clinical trials,” says Crandall. “And from there I started to take some genetics classes and found I really liked it.”

Crandall is committed to that investigation for the long haul and wants to earn a dual MD/PhD degree in medical genetics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “I hope it will prepare me to go out into the community and make a difference, not just in treating people who have cancer but other genetics-related diseases,” says Crandall, whose academic honors include a WALSAA Outstanding Sophomore Award and the Wallace Award for Genetics.

Crandall’s desire to serve takes him out of the lab and into the worlds of communication and campus leadership. In elementary school he began teaching himself computer programming and web design, drawn mostly by the challenge, he says, of finding easy-to-understand ways to convey complex information. He now heads his own web development and design business, SSII Designs, and also works as the website administrator for the Department of Genetics.

When he’s not studying or working, Crandall engages in student activities. He is a CALS Ambassador, charged with offering prospective students a peer’s view of CALS. He’s also president of the CALS student council and last semester was elected to the student services finance committee of the Associated Students of Madison (UW–Madison student government). There he plans to focus on a “metacouncil” initiative to create a much-needed representative body for all the student councils on campus, he says. Another project: to create a software enhancement to make DARS, the Degree Audit Reporting System students use to track requirements, easier to understand and implement.

One can’t accuse Crandall of not thinking big. The mystery is how he finds time for it. “A lot of sleepless nights,” he laughs. “I have this interesting schedule of doing 20-hour days. I’ll stay up until 4 a.m. or so, get a few hours’ sleep and then continue. And then on weekends I have huge naps.”