Catch up with … Signe Brewster BS’12 Life Sciences Communication

Whether it’s artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robots, 3-D printing, drones or space exploration, Signe Brewster’s got it covered. Brewster puts what she learned during her undergraduate education at CALS to use every day as a freelance science and technology journalist based in St. Paul, Minn.

“I write about emerging hardware, which is anything that’s on the fringe, and I think about if it’s going to be a viable technology that can impact the world,” says Brewster, explaining how she chooses stories. “The Department of Life Sciences Communication really prepared me to write about these topics. In my professional life, everyone does a double take when they hear there is a degree combining science and writing.”

During her time in LSC, Brewster took a slew of classes that covered science writing, photography, marketing, communication theory and risk communication. Along the way she picked up skills and theories she now applies to every word of her writing. After graduation, she traveled to Switzerland to intern for six months at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, writing about physics. She then held a fellowship at the popular tech publication Wired, putting in her time on the West Coast. From there she became a staff writer at Gigaom, a technology research and analysis firm, before becoming a full-time freelancer a little over a year ago.

What are some LSC classes that you feel really benefited you? 

In Shiela Reaves’s photography class, I really enjoyed the class discussions and critiques from my peers. It was just so beneficial being in a place like LSC surrounded by so many others who shared my interests. I still do a lot of photography and go back to those class concepts.

Ron Seely’s science writing class was my first formal training in how to translate technical science and technology issues for a general audience. Having someone watch over my science writing and give feedback was something no one else could provide. I now write for publications such as MIT Technology Review, Wired, Symmetry Magazine, New Scientist and TechCrunch, among others.

What about theory classes in LSC? 

I really learned a lot about communication theory from Dominique Brossard’s risk communication class, as well as from Dietram Scheufele’s “Science, Media and Society.” Learning about risk and communication theory gives me insight into how others think and talk about science.

What makes LSC special to you? 

I knew I wanted to be a science writer since I started writing about stem cell research. Life Sciences Communication educated me in skills and theories that I was able to apply at the Badger Herald on campus, my numerous internships and now my freelance career. The Department of Life Sciences Communication is just a unique place that gave me exactly what I was interested in.

Catch Up With … Gary Brown BS’84

Gary Brown BS'84 Landscape Architecture

Gary Brown BS’84 Landscape Architecture

As director of Campus Planning & Landscape Architecture at UW–Madison, Gary Brown BS’84 is in charge of places that hold cherished memories for just about every Badger alum. In addition to overseeing campus master planning activities on the 936-acre campus, Brown serves as director of the 300-acre Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Brown, a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, also serves as the chair of the UW–Madison Landscape Architecture Alumni Advisory Board.

Currently Brown is spearheading the latest Campus Master Plan, a vision for the physical campus that is updated every 10 years.

• Is there an overarching goal you’re aiming for in this iteration of the Campus Master Plan?

This time around, rather than focus on the building capacity of the land, we are specifically looking at the spaces in between our buildings—the campus landscape. As a landscape architect, I find these spaces as important to me as the buildings, and in some cases, more so.

When we ask alumni about their favorite places on campus, they often mention Bascom Hill, the view from Observatory Hill out over Lake Mendota (and “traying” down that hill in the winter!), or the Memorial Union Terrace, some of our most iconic landscapes. We want to make sure all of our campus landscapes support the mission of the university and provide respite, rejuvenation and places for faculty, staff and students to gather outside in the warmer months. In winter, views out to great landscapes can help promote the wellness of our staff and the learning potential of our students. Landscapes and views to them are inherently important for our long-term health and well-being.

• Can you offer any specifics yet?

The plan includes adding new courtyards and open spaces as redevelopment occurs in the south campus, south of University Avenue. We are also looking at significant changes to the area between North Charter Street and Henry Mall, north of University Avenue, as that area redevelops over time.

• Where do you find inspiration for a task like this?

I rely on my landscape architecture colleagues around the country who provide inspiration in their work on campus landscapes. Some say the physical campus soon won’t be needed, with the expansion of online learning. I disagree. The physical campus and all that it stands for—the life of the campus, the heart and soul of the great universities—are in their campus landscapes. It’s what makes each university unique, offering a “sense of place” created by the university’s own history and its part of the world.

• What’s the hardest thing about your job?

Getting people involved and excited. Facilities planning can be pretty dull for some people. I want people to feel free to share their ideas and concepts about how the campus should look, feel and function in 20 years. It’s nice to stop and gaze into the crystal ball every now and then to predict the future. You never know what actually can come true. Look at Alumni Park, the East Campus Mall, a reinvigorated Memorial Union Terrace and the new State Street Mall—all great examples of amazing ideas and visions for our campus landscape that have been, and will prove to be, iconic for years to come.

For more information and to share your ideas, please visit

Catch Up With … Shannon Strader BS’14 Biology

Shannon Strader BS’14 is no stranger to pain. At age 8 she lost her twin sister, Lauryn, to complications arising from cerebral palsy. Strader herself suffered from an excruciating condition that was eventually diagnosed as posterior nutcracker syndrome, a rare kidney disease where the renal vein is anatomically displaced and compressed by the spinal cord and aorta.

“I never knew what it was like to not be in pain,” Strader says. “I never went a day without a stabbing pain in my lower back and abdomen. I never knew what it was like to eat without feeling nauseated. I never knew what it was like to have a functional body.”

A series of surgeries alleviated her suffering, but not before Strader had reached college age. From her anguish, two dreams arose. One was to work with pioneering stem cell researcher Jamie Thomson in his regenerative biology lab at UW–Madison’s Morgridge Institute for Research. Another was to found a nonprofit that would provide emotional support and financial assistance to college students coping with disease or disabilities.

Strader was successful on both counts. She worked in Thomson’s lab all four years, and for her capstone project as a CALS biology major conducted research involving DNMT3B, a gene that plays an important role in embryonic development.

And—with help from the Thomson lab, the McBurney Disability Resource Center, and fellow students Lauren Wilmet, Harris Sinsley, Kym Ludwig, Al Ritger, Jamie Holt and Matt Anderson—she founded Bella Soul, a nonprofit that in just over one year of operation has provided scholarships to six students and support to countless others.

• Why is Bella Soul needed?
Before Bella Soul, out of the nation’s 1.5 million nonprofits, there was not one directed toward helping college students confronting chronic illness or disability through scholarships and/or emotional support that wasn’t limited to a specific illness. Bella Soul does not favor a particular disease. Another cool thing is that 100 percent of our donors’ money goes to scholarships. We pay for our printers, paper and fundraising galas through corporate donations. We do not pay our “employees,” either.

• What kind of feedback have you gotten?
Individuals who read our stories online say they have been blown away by what some young adults persevere through every day while working hard to accomplish their dreams. Every story and scholarship application we have received I have cried over and really been touched by.

• Can you share a few examples?
In this last scholarship round, we were going to give out one scholarship. Instead we ended up giving out four. How do you decide between Sarah, who has to deal with the difficulties of cerebral palsy financially and emotionally, and Cheyenne, who recently was diagnosed with cancer? We ended up giving a scholarship to both of them, along with two others.

• You’ve just started medical school in Tennessee. What are your long-term hopes for Bella Soul and your career?
Our plan is to start Bella Soul chapters at other universities and provide resources for hospitals to share with teenagers transitioning to college. As for my career, I hope to someday establish my own cerebral palsy clinic as well as be a principal investigator in an embryology/developmental research lab.

Learn more at

Catch up with … Kifle Gebremedhin

As a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Cornell University for more than three decades, Kifle Gebremedhin MS’75 PhD’78 is in a prime position to offer young people advice about the field. His contributions have been wide-ranging, particularly in the areas of animal thermal stress physiology and design of post-frame buildings. Two of his findings have become the basis for national standards set by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

But Gebremedhin is in a good position to offer life lessons as well. He recently visited the CALS campus to give two technical presentations—and one, for BSE students, that served to inspire. His talk, titled “Be the Best You Can Be,” emphasized hard work, persistence and flexibility—values that have served him well through many challenges.

Gebremedhin grew up on a family farm in Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa. Although he was gifted academically, his parents could only afford to send him to a vocational high school rather than a university prep school because it offered room and board. That put him on track for a diploma program rather than a more prestigious degree program in college, which he attended in Ethiopia. An uncle who had earlier settled in Wisconsin helped him relocate and eventually attend the University of Wisconsin–Platteville, where he earned a B.S. in civil engineering. For graduate study at UW-Madison, however, he was able to get financial support only if he switched to agricultural engineering—a field for which he developed a great passion.

What made you fall in love with biological systems engineering?
It was through my research. I was working with animals in the Biotron [a controlled environment facility for biological research]. I raised three calves from their first week to eight weeks of age inside a chamber I’d built, measuring how much heat they produced. It was from that relationship that I came to love biological systems—the interface between the biological object and the engineering becomes very interesting. I’m still working on thermal stress physiology of animals.

You have some pretty funny stories about your first day in Wisconsin.
I came here in January. I had no idea about snow. The only thing I knew was hail. When I was leaving the plane, the flight attendant said, “You can’t go out like that. It’s cold outside. Why don’t you take a blanket and throw it around you?” I said, “Don’t worry.” When I got out, it was so cold, I went back to get the blanket. The flight attendant said, “I told you so.”

How does it feel to be back here?
So many firsts happened to me in Wisconsin. My first experience with snow, I got married here, my first child was born here, I got my first degree at UW–Platteville, my master’s and Ph.D. at UW–Madison, and I started my academic career here. So this is my second home. I have a fond relationship with Wisconsin.

Your talk for students emphasizes global challenges (adequate food, water and energy supplies, clean air, soil health, etc.). Why?
I want them to think globally—and to think about how biological systems engineers can help meet those challenges, from the smallest to the largest ecological systems.

Catch up with . . . Beth Zupec-Kania

THE SPECIAL DIET SHE WAS USING ON CHILDREN WITH EPILEPSY WAS CHANGING LIVES—but Beth Zupec-Kania BS’81 didn’t know it would change her own until she got a call from Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams back in the mid-1990s.

As a dietitian at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee, Zupec-Kania and her team had been using the ketogenic diet, a high-fat, low-carb diet—think Atkins—shown to greatly reduce or eliminate seizures. And writer/producer Abrahams (Airplane!, The Naked Gun), whose young son Charlie had been saved by the diet, wanted to partner with her to spread the word.

Charlie had begun having seizures at 12 months, and after going through a half-dozen medications and brain surgery still was having up to 200 seizures a day. “He lived in a car seat,” says Zupec-Kania. “It was the only safe place they could put him because he would have a seizure and just collapse.”

Through his own research Abrahams learned about the diet and took Charlie for treatment at Johns Hopkins, one of relatively few hospitals that offered it. Almost immediately the boy stopped seizing and after a few years was weaned off the diet.

Abrahams formed The Charlie Foundation to promote access to the diet and soon heard that Children’s Hospital in his native Milwaukee had been another early adopter. Abrahams reached out to Zupec-Kania and her team to help them scale up use and start training physicians, nurses and dietitians at other hospitals.

Zupec-Kania found that work so rewarding that eventually she joined The Charlie Foundation full-time, where she writes journal articles and develops online support materials about the diet along with training healthcare professionals. Her work takes her all around the United States and much of the world, including Saudi Arabia (see photo), the Dominican Republic and Germany.

No one knows why this diet works or why it has permanent effects, right?

That’s right, no one knows why the diet affects seizures. But many scientists are trying to solve this mystery—they believe that a healing occurs in the brain. At UW–Madison, physician Carl Stafstrom has done research on this and he’s also treating patients with the diet.

Is the ketogenic diet just for kids?

No. We are finding it works in adults as well. The problem with adults is that compliance with any type of diet is

Why is the diet still not a treatment of first resort?

It’s much easier to prescribe a medication, and if clinicians are going to use the diet, they need to have a team in place—a neurologist, a nurse and a dietitian—to initiate and manage it. The diet is not started at home, it’s started in the hospital under medical supervision. Also, there isn’t a treatment code for the diet, so insurance reimbursement is really poor. That’s been a barrier as well.

When you first met Jim, did you feel at all starstruck?

I did! I remember sitting there when he called, thinking “Is this Hollywood producer really talking to me?” But the more I talked to him, the more he seemed like just a regular guy from Milwaukee because he has that familiar accent. He is the nicest man—the most warm, kind, caring person.

More information at

Catch up with . . . Richard Wagner

TO THE DAIRY BORN— that’s one way to describe Richard Wagner, who “grew up on top of a cheese factory,” he says, in rural Waupaca County (his father was the factory operator). His family later founded Weyauwega Milk Products, which Wagner joined after earning a degree in industrial engineering. Wagner helped run the company for decades that included a merger and, later, a renaming as Trega Foods, which was sold in 2008. Along the way Wagner became a licensed cheesemaker and a leader in numerous dairy organizations, including serving as a member of the governor’s Dairy 2020 Council. • Nine years ago Wagner began doing some of his most creative and satisfying work. He and his family purchased a 500-cow dairy located next to their farm and transformed it into a 2,200-cow operation that serves as a showcase of environmental innovation. Quantum Dairy, located just outside Weyauwega, includes an anaerobic manure digester, 7,000 feet of underground heat piping and state-of-the-art stormwater runoff and leachate control.

• You frequently open your farm for public tours. Why?

I feel the need to help people understand that a dairy farm may need to expand in order to be able to afford to adopt the best known practices and best technology to efficiently produce food and minimize use of water and loss of soil. Other benefits of expanding are to improve employee working conditions, to improve cattle health and treatment and to minimize the cost of manure handling while protecting our surface and ground water. I really like to point out that an operating dairy helps synergistically sustain the beautiful open countryside so that it can continue to exist for the enjoyment of Wisconsin’s residents and tourists alike.

• How would you compare farming when you started to farming today? Does it feel like a new profession?

For more than 100 years, farming in Wisconsin has been involved in a slow paradigm shift that is nowhere near over and that has resulted in far fewer farms. These farms are more productive and larger, yet most still rely on a family unit for their management. Dairy farming is definitely a new profession that requires less physical labor but more management of employees, contractors, consultants, risk, finances, new technology adaptation and succession planning. Today’s dairy operator has the option of planning for much more free time. The result is an exciting profession that is competing for the brightest and best rather than continuing to cause flight from the farm.

• What advice would you give future farmers?

I would advise future farmers to embrace change. There is nothing that can’t be done if two generations of a family farm, or an older farmer and a young person, decide to do something together. It is important that the older person defer to the younger person as soon as possible. Of course, education is the key to the future. It can be helpful to buy land when it is available, even though it is always too expensive and never available at the right time. If you are trying to decide whether an idea is a good one or not—if it breaks down walls between people, it’s a good idea. If it builds walls between people, it’s a bad one.