The summer vegetables sag in the wake of the first frosts. But the low October sun still warms the fields of the Eagle Heights Community Garden as Devon Hamilton BS’17 and Kristin Fischer BSx’22 walk out to a large plot next to the F.H. King Student Farm on the north end of campus.
“Want to dig some carrots, Kristin?” asks Tom Bryan BS’13 MS’15, as they hike up to the plot. “Yeah!” responds Fischer, a first-year resident in the GreenHouse Learning Community. GreenHouse is a residential learning community at UW–Madison dedicated to teaching and living the practice of sustainability in its many forms.
The food order for the day: 15 pounds of carrots, 10 pounds of yellow potatoes, 10 pounds of sweet potatoes — and whatever else looks good. Bryan, the program coordinator for GreenHouse, is taking the day’s harvest to a University Dining team that will prepare a community meal for residents the following evening. Tending the garden and sharing its produce are keystone experiences for GreenHouse residents.
Hamilton is preparing to speak at the dinner about his work with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, where he teaches sustainable growing practices to farmers and educates students about food justice. An alumnus of GreenHouse, Hamilton can also be found around Madison volunteering on local boards, learning to cook soul food, and serving up community meals with the aid of his hardwood charcoal smoker.
Since coming to UW–Madison from Los Angeles, Hamilton has carved out a space for himself at the intersection of South Central Los Angeles food culture and southwestern Wisconsin farms, using food and sustainability as a way to connect to his own roots and encourage reflection and action in others.
“Trying to make those connections has been an important part of my work,” says Hamilton as he bundles stacks of collard greens, “and also what GreenHouse helped foster within me.”
A Small-College Feel
CALS supports three residential learning communities on campus: GreenHouse, BioHouse, and Women in Science and Engineering, better known as WISE. The university’s 10 learning communities offer students from across campus — primarily freshmen — opportunities to enhance their academic and social transition to college by organizing small seminars, providing frequent interactions with faculty, and centering residence life on common interests. With fewer than 100 residents in each CALS-supported learning community, they also create a small-college feel on a large campus.
Learning communities at UW–Madison have a philosophical foundation dating to the 1920s, when Alexander Meiklejohn, the former president of Amherst College, founded the Experimental College on campus. In Adams Hall, students shared living quarters with faculty and pursued the broad goal of education day and night through readings and self-guided discussion.
“Their learning wasn’t confined to the classroom,” says Cindy Holzmann who, as assistant director of residence life at the Division of University Housing, oversees the residential learning communities. Meiklejohn’s ideas were ahead of his time, and the Experimental College closed after a few years.
Nearly 70 years later, the College of Letters & Science and University Housing founded the Bradley Learning Community to create the experience of a liberal arts college on a growing campus. The next year, in 1996, CALS, the College of Engineering, and University Housing created WISE in the Waters Residence Hall, which at the time was for women only. GreenHouse followed in 2013, and BioHouse was founded by the Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement (WISCIENCE) in 2014.
John Klatt, assistant dean in the CALS Academic Affairs Office, says college backing for these learning communities comes from a “desire to support strong student communities.” The college provides $5,000 per year in direct funds to each community, with additional support through faculty advisors, graduate and undergraduate mentors, program coordinators, and wide-ranging programming. Much of that programming centers on connecting students with professors.
“One of the key things in our learning communities is that students get to know a faculty member in their first year,” says Holzmann.
Wisdom for Women in Science
Over plates of Thai curry, students pepper Chris Seroogy with questions about her path to the table they share. Seroogy, a professor of pediatrics at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, shares her long journey through industry, medical school, fellowship, and research labs in her pursuit of understanding the body’s immune system. Her connection to her hometown of Green Bay briefly diverts conversation to the Packers before it returns to her research and travel goals.
Seroogy is one of 13 faculty members distributed around as many tables in the Carson Gulley Center for one of WISE’s regular dinner seminars. At the meals, students connect with professors over shared interests and receive advice on navigating their first years in science. The mood is casual and collegial, helping to break down barriers between women at the start and the height of their careers.
Since its founding in 1996, WISE has served well over 1,000 women. After Waters Hall opened to men in 2006, WISE moved to other residence halls. But in 2016, WISE returned to Waters Hall — on a women-only floor — which has coincided with a surge of interest among incoming students. In response to demand, WISE is slated to expand considerably in the fall of 2019, from 81 to more than 130 residents.
Close connection with women faculty and business leaders is a core component of WISE. Following fall seminars led by dozens of faculty members, WISE’s spring seminar series features women from science and engineering companies around Madison. They come to campus to provide residents with networking opportunities and insight into private enterprise.
At the dinner, senior neurobiology major Colleen Krueger oversees the discussion as it ranges from the students’ research interests to the different farming practices in France and the U.S., which Seroogy studies as part of her work. As an undergraduate mentor, Krueger, an alumna of WISE, facilitates conversation between the residents and professors during these seminars.
“I’m four years deep into WISE,” says Krueger. “WISE is probably the reason I stayed on the STEM path.”
“You get to meet so many different people who are doing research here, and it gives you lots of opportunities to join them,” first-year genetics major and WISE resident Hailey Thurston BSx’22 says of the dinners. “And being able to know the people who are conducting these experiments is a very quick way to get into research.”
The programming at WISE is designed to introduce residents early on to research opportunities, which are vital for women pursuing advanced degrees or careers in science and engineering after college. In addition to direct connection to potential faculty advisors at the dinners, WISE organizes lab visits to show research in action. In the spring, three awards help departing residents take on funded research for the summer.
This strong emphasis on academic opportunities is supported by social experiences that help WISE residents find their place on campus, says Anna Christenson BSx’22. A genetics major and first-year WISE resident from Bayside, Wisconsin, she chose WISE for its mix of academic and social elements.
“I really like WISE because it connects me with a whole bunch of other students who are interested in the same things as me,” says Christenson, who recently began research on genes linked to autism in the Peter Lewis lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. “WISE really did push me to find the research opportunities I’m looking for.”
Behind much of the social and cultural programming is Suzanne Swift, the program coordinator for WISE. In the minutes before the dinner seminar begins, Swift and a small army of undergraduate peer mentors sweep into the room. The team quickly lays out tokens of appreciation for visiting faculty, sets out resident name cards, and distributes copies of What the Eyes Don’t See, Mona Hanna-Attisha’s account of her research uncovering dangerous lead levels in water in Flint, Michigan.
“I spend a lot of my time thinking about how we can create lifelong engagement in STEM,” says Swift.
Engagement includes sharing science with others. WISE residents routinely participate in Saturday Science outreach events at UW–Madison’s Discovery Building and staff tables during the Wisconsin Science Festival on campus.
Among its most important mandates, WISE also provides support for students as they join fields where, in many cases, women remain underrepresented. Earlier in the fall, a workshop addressed “imposter syndrome,” the all-too-common false sense of fraudulence at work or in school. Beyond formal training, every WISE event — social outings or outreach events, company tours or campus concerts — emphasizes how the residents belong. At the dinner set for more than 100, every scientist, student, and mentor, from freshman to full professor, is a woman.
“[WISE] prepare[s] you for knowing that you do belong there,” says Thurston. “They do a lot to make sure you feel empowered, important, and prepared for your field of study.”
The Full Breath of the Biosciences
Bill Karasov joined the faculty of UW–Madison in 1985, but he had yet to teach a first-year class when, in 2015, the opportunity arose to become faculty director of BioHouse. The position would have him serve not just as a teacher to residents but as a mentor, helping them explore the full breadth of the biological sciences on campus. Excited to get outside his comfort zone and share a passion for biology with students, he signed on.
Now, more than three years later, Karasov has been leading BioHouse for most of its time on campus. He sees research as a crucial experience for students studying the life sciences, and much of his BioHouse curriculum centers on helping students feel comfortable seeking out these opportunities. That starts with the fall seminar.
“I bring in a dozen faculty members to talk about research,” says Karasov, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology who studies how animals process energy in their natural environments. In the spring, Karasov invites BioHouse residents to his home for monthly dinners. The casual atmosphere helps him get to know the students better and connect them with advisors who suit their interests.
The biosciences, broadly defined, encompass some three dozen majors on campus — and they are among the most popular. Nearly 8,000 students are pursuing life sciences-related majors, making up more than a quarter of the undergraduate population. Biology alone is the third-most-popular major on campus, with more than 1,100 declared students.
BioHouse serves 66 of these students each year, bringing them together in Cole Hall. Despite the immense diversity in the life sciences, the students remain connected by a common curiosity: How do living things tick? The breadth of disciplines is surveyed in the first-year seminar to help students explore and decide on a major.
“Sometimes students learn about areas of biology they’ve never heard of,” says Karasov.
In the minutes before professor of integrative biology Monica Turner begins speaking about her work studying wildfires in Yellowstone National Park, Adriana Golding moderates student discussion of an article about Turner’s ecological research. In this BioHouse seminar, students are seated at tables in the Frank Holt Center, each group led by graduate student mentors like Golding.
“Were you aware this is a field and this goes on at UW?” asks Golding, a Ph.D. candidate who researches cellular changes during wounding and cell division in the lab of Bill Bement, a professor of integrative biology.
For many students, this is their first exposure to ecology. First-year genetics major Caitlin Kestell BSx’22 links Turner’s work to her species extinction class. She discusses with Austin Yeung, a neurobiology major, how more frequent fires could change not just the landscape but also species distribution.
In BioHouse’s first year, Golding joined as a graduate student mentor to facilitate discussion before, during, and after the weekly seminars. Although she long ago fulfilled the teaching requirement for her degree, she has remained with BioHouse throughout graduate school.
“It’s a nice way to continue having relationships with students,” says Golding. She fondly recalls mentoring residents on the transition to college, helping them identify resources for writing and studying or providing tips for living in a crowded dorm. Her mentoring work has reinforced her goal of remaining in higher education and staying involved in teaching.
During one fall seminar class, Amber Smith teaches students the skills they need to find and secure research opportunities. Smith is the director of mentor and mentee training for WISCIENCE, the principal partner in BioHouse. In her class, Smith explains how to develop a mentor network, where to look up faculty profiles, and how to master the art of the professional email. Most importantly, she gets students reflecting on their curiosity.
“I really advocate that students take some time to figure out what they’re curious about,” says Smith, pointing out that a good intellectual fit makes the inevitable frustrations of research much more manageable.
WISCIENCE’s sponsorship also helps the residents focus their experiences on outreach and the effect they could have on the wider world with their research. One seminar assignment has students communicate biology to the general public by writing articles or producing videos or podcast episodes.
“We encourage students to think about how biology relates to modern society,” says Karasov.
As a first-year student, BioHouse resident Morgan Blaser got connected to Fola Arowolo, a graduate student working in the lab of Dhanansayan Shanmuganayagam BS’97 PhD’06, an assistant professor of animal sciences. Now a senior majoring in biology and psychology, Blaser has been researching fat metabolism in swine models with Arowolo and Shanmuganayagam ever since.
Blaser has worked on several projects during her tenure in the lab, including using stem cells to develop a 3D model of pig intestines and feeding trials to explore the effect of dietary lipids on pig health. Blaser has presented her research at conferences and is a co-author on a research paper being prepared for publication. She plans to apply to medical school after earning a master’s degree.
“Throughout my experience and time at UW doing research, I’ve come to find that the people I work with are a huge reason that I continue to do what I do,” says Blaser, who credits BioHouse with introducing her to the realities of research.
“I also just love to learn,” says the Rhinelander, Wisconsin, native. “Research is something you can’t predict. Each day can be something different. I really like that ability to think on your feet and roll with the punches.”
Living Leopold’s Legacy
In the garden, Bryan, Hamilton, and Fischer reminisce about the season’s earlier harvests while digging up carrots, snapping off the tops, and tossing them in collection bins. For four community meals in the fall, GreenHouse will send University Dining some 1,000 pounds of produce. They have already harvested 1,000 pounds of potatoes alone.
“That’s day one of some people’s GreenHouse experience, coming out here and digging potatoes,” says Bryan.
The extra produce is stored in a pantry in Leopold Hall, where all GreenHouse residents live, and is accessible to any of them. With a commercial-scale kitchen in the basement and smaller kitchens on every floor, cooking is a source of community.
“It always smells good on our floor,” says Fischer, an environmental sciences major from Hudson, Wisconsin, whose specialty is curry. “I’ve always been super passionate about sustainability. I’ve always loved the outdoors and nature. So when I heard about GreenHouse, I thought, ‘sounds like the perfect fit.’”
In addition to the garden, the learning community fittingly boasts a physical greenhouse on the roof of Leopold Hall. Residents use the facility to start seedlings for their garden. Planted each spring by departing students, the garden is managed by student workers over the summer, and its harvests feed the next generation of GreenHouse residents the following fall.
“It continues the theme of sustainability in our learning community, because it’s the previous generation taking care of the present,” says Bryan as he harvests richly colored bitter greens.
Han DePorter BS’18 took the garden’s sustainability message to heart. After growing seedlings for the GreenHouse’s garden, DePorter started working at the F.H. King Student Farm, which led to a job in the lab of horticulture professor Irwin Goldman PhD’91. In 2017, DePorter and Goldman started the UW Campus Food Shed, where, to reduce food waste, extra produce from plant breeders like Goldman is stashed in two refrigerators on campus for anybody to take.
“Living in GreenHouse really sparked my love even more for environmental issues,” says DePorter, who is now pursuing a law degree at the University of Denver.
Although most GreenHouse residents hail from Wisconsin, their familiarity with Aldo Leopold and his writings varies when they arrive. The founding chair of the precursor to the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, Leopold is regarded as the forefather of modern environmental thought. He provides not just his name to the learning community’s residence hall but a foundation for their seminar.
Residents read Leopold’s philosophy in A Sand County Almanac, hear from his successors at the university, and visit his farm-turned-inspiration and famed shack in Sauk County. These experiences and reflections all steep the students in UW–Madison’s unique legacy of environmentalism.
Part of that legacy is grounded in the physical campus the students now inhabit. In the early part of each fall semester, GreenHouse faculty director Tim Van Deelen invites campus historian and cultural resource manager Daniel Einstein to join the students at Picnic Point, where they start to absorb the historic context of the studies they’re beginning.
“He talks about everything from the glacial history of this place to the mound-building cultures to early Madison and what the campus was like to give them a sense for place, which is an important part of sustainability,” says Van Deelen, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology who has been faculty director since 2017.
That sense of place is apparent in the garden, as Hamilton, Fischer, and Bryan dig into the autumn soil and consider the spice of mustard greens or the earthiness of carrots they pop in their mouths. Here, the garden’s cycle of taking and giving back captures the core concept of GreenHouse.
“You’ve reaped the rewards,” says Bryan. “And now you need to pay that back.”