© 2009-2013 Ebling Library, UW-Madison
750 Highland Ave, Madison, WI, 53705-2221

call 608-262-2020 ask askebling at library.wisc.edu
hour hours | map map

home > news & events > top

research – News

UW center plays key role in finding Zika-transmitting mosquito in state  external link

Photo: Asian tiger mosquito on skin

A female Aedes albopictus mosquito obtaining a blood meal from a human host. Under experimental conditions the Aedes albopictus mosquito, also known as the Asian tiger mosquito, has been found to be a vector of West Nile virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Photo: James Gathany/CDC

The new Upper Midwestern Center of Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases, led by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, this week identified the Asian tiger mosquito, which can spread the Zika virus, for the first time in Wisconsin.

The center identified three individuals of the mosquito, Aedes albopictus, on July 17 from a trap set in Dane County in late June. A $10 million grant by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to a group of Midwestern universities earlier this year established the center and increased surveillance efforts over last year’s.

The identification of Aedes albopictus does not pose an immediate threat to human health, as multiple factors reduce the likelihood of local transmission of Zika in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Photo: Mosquito trap

A mosquito trap in Dane County in 2016. This style of trap, which collects eggs laid by mosquitos in a cup of water, was used to identify the Asian tiger mosquito in the county this year. Photo: Susan Paskewitz

“This summer we have a lot more capacity to do more sampling,” says Lyric Bartholomay, a UW–Madison medical entomologist and one of the leaders of the vector disease center. “We set traps all over the southern tier of Wisconsin. One of the traps we had set in Dane County produced this Asian tiger mosquito.

“This was possible because we have the people and capacity now to do more surveillance,” says Bartholomay, who is a co-director of the new CDC-supported center.

Aedes albopictus had previously been identified sporadically in Minnesota and Northern Illinois. Southern Illinois hosts one of the northernmost established populations of the mosquito. It is currently thought that cold Wisconsin winters help prevent this species from establishing itself in the state. The individuals identified this week might have arrived from interstate travel, possibly hitchhiking on motor vehicles, says Susan Paskewitz, a UW–Madison medical entomologist who leads the vector disease center with Bartholomay.

“As a result of the CDC grant, we were able to ramp up surveillance for many different things,” says Paskewitz. “We are doing more surveillance for West Nile virus as well as targeted surveillance for Zika vectors.”

The vector-borne disease center is designed to educate epidemiologists and to improve the surveillance of and response to vector borne diseases. In addition to vectors that can spread the Zika virus, the center carries out research and surveillance on mosquitoes that can spread West Nile virus, dengue and chikungunya, as well as ticks that spread Lyme disease.

Zika, which is linked to birth defects when acquired by pregnant women, is primarily spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which has not yet been identified in Wisconsin or neighboring states. Risks for infection with Zika in Wisconsin include travel to locations with active transmission or sexual contact with travelers.

Photo: Lyric Bartholomay

Lyric Bartholomay

Photo: Susan Paskewitz

Susan Paskewitz

So far in 2017, four travel-related Zika infections have been confirmed in Wisconsin, compared with 63 cases throughout 2016. There is no evidence of local transmission of Zika in the state.

“With the number of specimens we’ve found, it’s important to be alerted, but not cause for alarm. We’ve only found three,” says Bartholomay. “So far in the Midwest, Aedes albopictus has not been associated with transmission of Zika virus.”

With long-term support, the center will be monitoring how disease vector populations move throughout the region over time. Identifying trends can help the center mitigate health risks.

“This is a regional center,” says Paskewitz. “We’re now working much more closely with universities and public health partners in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan.”

“We will continue our surveillance into the summer for these vectors.”

© 2009-2013 Ebling Library, UW-Madison
750 Highland Ave, Madison, WI, 53705-2221

call 608-262-2020 ask askebling at library.wisc.edu
hour hours | map map

home > news & events > top

research – News

Degree program uses satellite, drone technologies to solve environmental problems  external link

Photo: Drone flying above natural area

A drone flying above the Arapahoe Bend natural area in Fort Collins, Colorado. Students in a new Nelson Institute degree program will learn how to integrate and synthesize vast amounts of data from drones and other Earth-observing technologies. PublicDomainPictures.net

Satellites, drones and other technologies are fueling a surge in detailed information about the atmosphere, oceans, land and wildlife. A new University of Wisconsin-Madison professional master’s degree will train students to put this wealth of data to work solving the world’s most pressing environmental problems.

Environmental Observation and Informatics (EOI), an option within the Nelson Institute’s Environmental Conservation M.S. program, will integrate cross-cutting Earth observation technologies and “big data” analytics with professional leadership. The 15-month program combines hands-on, in-person training with distance learning.

Photo: Annemarie Schneider

Annemarie Schneider

“Individuals and organizations now have access to unprecedented amounts of data and world-class geospatial tools and cloud computing resources,” says Annemarie Schneider, an associate professor of environmental studies and EOI chair. “At the same time, some of the most pressing environmental and sustainability challenges remain unsolved and unanswered. We need to train a new group of professionals with the skills to tie all this together.”

Schneider says graduates of the EOI program will know how to synthesize big data in creative ways, bring together the right information with the right questions to solve problems, and communicate their outcomes to decision-makers.

The program will focus on three major components: remote sensing and integrated technology; modeling and analysis; and innovative leadership and strategic thinking.

Schneider sees a rapidly expanding market for these skills across a broad range of environmental challenges, citing examples like monitoring sea ice as the climate changes; conducting wildlife surveys and tracking poachers; mapping floodwaters; monitoring environmental conditions for public health; and many other applications.

Photo: Satellite view of fires in Utah

A NASA satellite collected this image of wildfires in Utah with a sophisticated imaging instrument. NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz

Janet Silbernagel, the Nelson Institute director of professional programs, says EOI students will learn how to integrate and synthesize Earth-observing technologies, interpret vast amounts of data, and gain leadership skills to help organizations and agencies respond to environmental change at local, regional and global scales.

“With the explosion of new technologies in Earth observation and big data, our goal is less to teach students every technology, but rather to build student capacity to identify and integrate these different technologies toward solutions for the environmental challenges we face today,” says Silbernagel.

Photo: Janet Silbernagel

Janet Silbernagel

The program is designed for early- to mid-career professionals from around the world who aspire to become project or program managers, senior analysts, or hold positions of similar rank, and it aims to get them back on the job as quickly as possible after completion of the degree.

Applications to the program are now being accepted. Learn more.

© 2009-2013 Ebling Library, UW-Madison
750 Highland Ave, Madison, WI, 53705-2221

call 608-262-2020 ask askebling at library.wisc.edu
hour hours | map map

home > news & events > top

research – News

DOE selects Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center for next-phase funding  external link

Photo: Switchgrass growing in a field

A plot of switchgrass grows in the Great Lake Bioenergy Research Center’s fields at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station in Arlington, Wisconsin. Matthew Wisniewski, GLBRC

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has selected the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) for an additional five years of funding to develop sustainable alternatives to transportation fuels and products currently derived from petroleum. Already the recipient of roughly $267 million in DOE funding, GLBRC represents the largest federal grant ever awarded to UW–Madison.

In this next phase of funding, GLBRC scientists and recently recruited experts will conduct research that enables the sustainable production of specialty biofuels and bio-products using dedicated bioenergy crops such as switchgrass, poplar trees and sorghum. These bioenergy crops will be grown on marginal — or non-agricultural — land, a shift from GLBRC’s previous mission of producing biofuels from crops grown on agricultural land.

Established by the Biological and Environmental Research program in DOE’s Office of Science in 2007, GLBRC is based at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Wisconsin Energy Institute and includes a major partnership with Michigan State University (MSU). The cross-disciplinary center draws on the expertise of biologists, chemists, engineers and economists, and employs over 400 researchers, students and staff conducting foundational bioenergy research.

Photo: Tim Donohue

Tim Donohue, GLBRC director and UW–Madison professor of bacteriology. Matthew Wisniewski, GLBRC

“Collaboration has been at the core of GLBRC’s efforts from day one, and it will continue to drive the goals of this new center and help us realize our vision of developing bio-based sources of fuels and chemicals,” says Tim Donohue, GLBRC director and UW–Madison professor of bacteriology. “We are in a unique position to not only address a major societal challenge, but to create new revenue sources and economic opportunities for farmers, rural communities and a new generation of bio-refineries, as well as to create new, locally produced and cost-effective products for consumers.”

Today, DOE announced four Bioenergy Research Center selections for fiscal year 2018, with plans to provide five years of funding. Specific funding amounts for 2018 and beyond will be finalized as part of future federal budget processes.

The center will conduct research that enables the sustainable production of specialty biofuels and bio-products using dedicated bioenergy crops such as switchgrass, poplar trees and sorghum.

Over GLBRC’s 10-year history, it has built academic and industrial partnerships that have yielded more than 1,000 scientific publications, 160 patent applications, 80 licenses or options, and five start-up companies.

“Transforming the results of scientific research into new commercial products is a complex process,” says Marsha Mailick, UW–Madison vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “But when universities and companies work in tandem to push the frontiers of knowledge, they become a powerful engine for innovation and economic growth. GLBRC is an excellent example of university researchers and industry working closely together to generate new knowledge and maximize the social and economic benefits of these new ideas.”

Photo: Scientist extracting bacteria sample

GLBRC assistant scientist Kim Lemmer extracts a bacteria sample in the center’s labs at the Wisconsin Energy Institute. James Runde, Wisconsin Energy Institute

“The GLBRC is prolific in its partnership, disclosing dozens of new technologies to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) over the last few years,” says Erik Iverson, managing director of WARF. “These inventions have resulted in several licensing agreements. We are delighted this federal grant will continue this cycle of innovation.”

Building on past accomplishments, GLBRC’s next phase will focus on producing dedicated bioenergy crops on non-agricultural lands, maximizing the production of specialty fuels and bio-products from those crops, and building a comprehensive understanding of the field-to-product pipeline to maximize the sustainability and economic benefits offered by a future cellulosic bio-industry. Together, these efforts have the potential to spur a new bio-refinery industry equipped to create valuable products from as much of a crop’s biomass as possible.

As a university-based DOE Bioenergy Research Center, GLBRC will continue to benefit from the resources, strategic partnerships and world-class research programs at UW–Madison and MSU.

“We are in a unique position to … create new revenue sources and economic opportunities for farmers, rural communities and a new generation of bio-refineries, as well as to create new, locally produced and cost-effective products for consumers.”

Tim Donohue

“GLBRC’s selection demonstrates UW–Madison’s continued excellence in clean energy research,” says UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “Our broad expertise in areas such as plant sciences, microbiology, economics and engineering is enabling the development of new and innovative technologies that can bring about American energy sustainability while also strengthening the economy right here at home.”

“MSU has driven much of the sustainability focus of the GLBRC, and we are proud of the many areas of expertise we contribute,” says MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon. “The research center provides exciting opportunities for us to collaborate across campuses and disciplines, tackling the challenge of bio-based energy solutions with an integrated approach.”

Additional university collaborators include the University of British Columbia, Texas A&M University and Michigan Technological University.

© 2009-2013 Ebling Library, UW-Madison
750 Highland Ave, Madison, WI, 53705-2221

call 608-262-2020 ask askebling at library.wisc.edu
hour hours | map map

home > news & events > top

research – News

Advance furthers stem cells for use in drug discovery, cell therapy  external link

Since highly versatile human stem cells were discovered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison nearly 20 years ago, their path to the market and clinic has been slowed by a range of complications.

Both embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells are valued for their ability to form any cell in the body.

This week, a UW-Madison team reports in Nature Biomedical Engineering that they have jumped a major hurdle on the path toward wider use of stem cells.  Using an automated screening test that they devised, William Murphy, a professor of biomedical engineering, and colleagues Eric Nguyen and William Daly have invented an all-chemical replacement for  the confusing, even dangerous materials, now used to grow these delicate cells.

“We set out to create a simple, completely synthetic material that would support stem cells without the issues of unintended effects and lack of reproducibility,” Murphy says.

Stem cells respond to chemical signals that trigger their development into specialized cells in the brain, muscles and blood vessels. In the lab, researchers use a “substrate” material that anchors the cells in place and allows the necessary signaling. Matrigel, currently the most popular of these substrates, is a complex stew derived from mouse tumors. “Matrigel can be a very powerful material, as it includes more than 1,500 different proteins,” says Murphy, “and these can influence cell behavior in a huge variety of ways. Matrigel has been used as a Swiss army knife for growing cells and assembling tissues, but there are substantial issues with reproducibility because it’s such a complex material.”

In the lab of William Murphy at UW-Madison, these six experimental samples are substrates that were evaluated for their ability to support stem cells. The samples, each 1 millimeter in diameter, and contain subtle chemical and physical variations, affecting such factors as hardness, speed of breakdown, and points for cellular attachment. Inset shows a network of blood vessels generated for the new Nature Biomedical Engineering paper, based on stem cells that grew on one particular substrate. Credit: William Daly, Eric Nguyen and Mike Schwartz, UW-Madison

And given its biological origin, Matrigel can carry pathogens or other hazards.

In an advance that has already been granted two U.S. patents, Murphy’s group has developed new substrates for:

  • Raising stem cells for a wide variety of uses in regenerative medicine. Because the substrate is produced entirely from chemicals, the danger and confusion caused by the mouse proteins in existing substrates are eliminated, and
  • Growing veins and arteries from stem cells, which can serve as a test-bed for evaluating drug toxicity or discovering drugs that influence blood vessel growth (such as drugs that “starve” tumors by blocking vessel growth). The widespread toxicity of drugs to developing blood vessels is one reason why so many drugs cannot be used by women who may become pregnant. Blood vessel cells derived from stem cells could also provide a new method to screen environmental chemicals for vascular toxicity, which explains why the Environmental Protection Agency has funded Murphy’s work, alongside the National Institutes of Health.

To find an improved chemistry that would hold and support stem cells as they change into specialized cells, Murphy used robotic instruments to squirt arrays of more than 100 materials on a glass slide. “We developed a process that allowed us to test an array of materials — each one slightly different in terms of stiffness or ability to attach to stem cells — on a single slide,” he says. “It was automated, using a liquid-handling robot, and we could screen hundreds of materials in a month; which we can now do in a week.”

In the “olden days,” Murphy says, each experiment would only be able to screen about 10 materials, which means that their current weekly screen would have taken years.

A UW-Madison spinoff called Stem Pharm has licensed patents for the materials from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and is starting to sell the system to pharmaceutical companies and scientific institutes, says Murphy, who is Stem Pharm’s co-founder and chief science officer. “Increasingly, pharmas are externalizing innovation, because internally they don’t have as much capacity to innovate as before,” Murphy says. “A number of companies have expressed a strong interest in moving away from Matrigel, and our vascular screening product has already been successfully beta tested at multiple locations.”

Finding a better growth substrate for stem cells may seem less sexy than identifying the cells in the first place, but it’s one of the roadblocks that must be cleared so these ultra-flexible cells can realize their potential, says Murphy, who is co-director of UW-Madison’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center. “The next step in delivering on the promise of human stem cells involves more effectively manufacturing the cells themselves, and the tissues they create. We have shown that simple materials can serve as the chisels and hammers of stem cell manufacturing.”

© 2009-2013 Ebling Library, UW-Madison
750 Highland Ave, Madison, WI, 53705-2221

call 608-262-2020 ask askebling at library.wisc.edu
hour hours | map map

home > news & events > top

research – News

UW team in South Africa to share ‘origin stories’  external link

A team from University Communications has traveled to South Africa to tell important UW-focused stories about origins: from the galaxies to life on Earth to the birth of humankind.

© 2009-2013 Ebling Library, UW-Madison
750 Highland Ave, Madison, WI, 53705-2221

call 608-262-2020 ask askebling at library.wisc.edu
hour hours | map map

home > news & events > top

research – News

Study reveals interplay of an African bat, a parasite and a virus  external link

Photo of a forest bat netted in Uganda. The bat hosts a parasite – a large wingless, eyeless fly – that in turn seems to be host for a newfound virus. New work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison is helping unravel the ecological interplay of important pathogens and their hosts. After testing, the bat was released unharmed. (Courtesy Tony Goldberg)

A forest bat netted in Uganda. The bat hosts a parasite – a large wingless, eyeless fly – that in turn seems to be host for a newfound virus. New work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison is helping unravel the ecological interplay of important pathogens and their hosts. After testing, the bat was released unharmed. (Courtesy Tony Goldberg)

If there is anything scientists are certain of when it comes to bats and their supposed role in causing human disease, it is that they still have a lot to learn.

Aside from well-established things like rabies virus, SARS coronavirus (the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome) and Marburg virus (an extremely dangerous but rare hemorrhagic fever pathogen), bats appear to carry a plethora of other germs with unclear, if any, effects on human health.

And even some commonly believed bat paradigms may be incorrect. For example, some speculate that bats play a role in the transmission of Ebola simply because Ebola and Marburg are related pathogens. But scientific evidence to support such speculation is scant, at best.

A lack of evidence that bats are key reservoirs of human disease has not prevented their vilification or efforts to exterminate bat colonies where threats are presumed to lurk.

“The fact is that they provide important ecosystem services — insect control, pollination and seed dispersal, to name a few — and we want them around,” says Tony Goldberg, a University of Wisconsin-Madison epidemiologist and virus hunter. “But bats are also increasingly acknowledged as hosts of medically significant viruses. I have mixed feelings about that.”

Photo of Tony Goldberg

Tony Goldberg Photo: Bryce Richter

To better understand the dynamics of bats and potential threats to human health, Goldberg and his colleagues explored the relationship of an African forest bat, a novel virus and a parasite. Their work, described in a report published July 13 in Nature Scientific Reports, identifies all three players as potentially new species, at least at the molecular level as determined by their genetic sequences.

Many viral pathogens often have more than one or two hosts or intermediate hosts needed to complete their life cycles. The role of bat parasites in maintaining chains of viral infection is little studied, and the new Wisconsin study serves up some intriguing insights into how viruses co-opt parasites to help do the dirty work of disease transmission.

The parasite in the current study is an eyeless, wingless fly, technically an ectoparasite. It depends on the bat to be both its eyes and wings. And it plays host to a virus, as the current study shows. For the virus, the fly plays the role of chauffeur. “From a virus’s perspective, an ectoparasite is like Uber. It’s a great way to get around — from animal to animal — at minimal expense and effort,” Goldberg explains.

The bat in the study belongs to the megabat suborder. It is a fruit bat and was trapped, tested and released by Goldberg’s colleague and study co-author Robert Kityo of Uganda’s Makerere University in Kampala.

The bat fly, according to the new study, was infected with a newly discovered rhabdovirus dubbed Kanyawara virus, a distant relative of the rabies virus. “These things were chock-full of the virus,” says Goldberg, a professor of pathobiological sciences at UW-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine. That said, he adds that “we don’t know if this virus is transmitted beyond the ectoparasite. We couldn’t find it in the bat. Maybe it is an insect virus.”

However, it is well known that ectoparasites transmit disease, says the Wisconsin epidemiologist, noting that things like ticks and fleas harbor important pathogens like typhus, bubonic plague, Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

“Bat flies bite people if given the chance,” Goldberg says of the parasite, which he described as “shockingly large, leggy and fast — a parasite from hell.”

The report published this week notes that rare cases of human infection with bat-associated viruses remain enigmatic. The study cites the 1969 case of a British dockworker bitten by an unknown insect while unloading peanuts from Nigeria, and who was subsequently infected by Le Dantec virus, a relative of the virus Goldberg and his colleagues found in abundance in the bat flies they sampled. “Was the dockworker bitten by a bat fly? We’ll never know.”

The subtext of the research, according to Goldberg, is Ebola and the ecology of disease. Scientists are beginning to understand that serious pathogens like Ebola and SARS don’t come out of nowhere. They are already lurking in the environment, and the leap from an animal to a human can be just a matter of time and an organism’s ability to shift from one host to another.

“The big picture relevance of the research is that if we’re going to understand the diversity of viruses in the world, we need to look in unusual places,” Goldberg says. “We have a lot to learn about the basic distribution of species on the planet.”

—Terry Devitt, (608) 262-8282, trdevitt@wisc.edu

This work was funded in part by United States National Institutes of Health grant TW009237 as part of the joint NIH-NSF Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases program, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the National Geographic Society, and by the University of Wisconsin-Madison John D. MacArthur Fellows Program. This work was also supported in part through Battelle Memorial Institute’s prime contract with the NIAID under Contract No. HHSN272200700016I.

 

 

 

 

© 2009-2013 Ebling Library, UW-Madison
750 Highland Ave, Madison, WI, 53705-2221

call 608-262-2020 ask askebling at library.wisc.edu
hour hours | map map

home > news & events > top

research – News

Study links insurance coverage to higher rates of colorectal cancer screenings  external link

As the nation debates whether and how health insurance should be reformed, researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health determined that people with a certain type of insurance policy were more likely to be screened for colorectal cancer.

© 2009-2013 Ebling Library, UW-Madison
750 Highland Ave, Madison, WI, 53705-2221

call 608-262-2020 ask askebling at library.wisc.edu
hour hours | map map

home > news & events > top

research – News

Stem cell advance brings bioengineered arteries closer to reality  external link

Photo: Jue Zhang and Matt Brown in lab

Morgridge Institute regenerative biology researchers Jue Zhang and Matt Brown examine a part for a new bioreactor designed to help grow arterial tissue. Morgridge Institute for Research

Stem cell biologists have tried unsuccessfully for years to produce cells that will give rise to functional arteries and give physicians new options to combat cardiovascular disease, the world’s leading cause of death.

But new techniques developed at the Morgridge Institute for Research and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have produced, for the first time, functional arterial cells at both the quality and scale to be relevant for disease modeling and clinical application.

Reporting in the July 10 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists in the lab of stem cell pioneer James Thomson describe methods for generating and characterizing arterial endothelial cells — the cells that initiate artery development — that exhibit many of the specific functions required by the body.

Photo: Arterial endothelial cells

Arterial endothelial cells derived from human pluripotent stem cells are expressed in the red and white markers in this image. Morgridge Institute for Research

Further, these cells contributed both to new artery formation and improved survival rate of mice used in a model for myocardial infarction. Mice treated with this cell line had an 83 percent survival rate, compared to 33 percent for controls.

“The cardiovascular diseases that kill people mostly affect the arteries, and no one has been able to make those kinds of cells efficiently before,” says Jue Zhang, a Morgridge assistant scientist and lead author. “The key finding here is a way to make arterial endothelial cells more functional and clinically useful.”

Cardiovascular disease accounts for one in every three deaths each year in the United States, according to the American Heart Association, and claims more lives each year than all forms of cancer combined. The Thomson lab has made arterial engineering one of its top research priorities.

New techniques have produced, for the first time, functional arterial cells at both the quality and scale to be relevant for disease modeling and clinical application.

The challenge is that generic endothelial cells are relatively easy to create, but they lack true arterial properties and thus have little clinical value, Zhang says.

The research team applied two pioneering technologies to the project. First, they used single-cell RNA sequencing to identify the signaling pathways critical for arterial endothelial cell differentiation. They found about 40 genes of optimal relevance. Second, they used CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology that allowed them to create reporter cell lines to monitor arterial differentiation in real time.

Photo: James Thomson

James Thomson

Photo: Jue Zhang

Jue Zhang

“With this technology, you can test the function of these candidate genes and measure what percentage of cells are generating into our target arterial cells,” says Zhang.

The research group developed a protocol around five key growth factors that make the strongest contributions to arterial cell development. They also identified some very common growth factors used in stem cell science, such as insulin, that surprisingly inhibit arterial endothelial cell differentiation.

“Our ultimate goal is to apply this improved cell derivation process to the formation of functional arteries that can be used in cardiovascular surgery,” says Thomson, director of regenerative biology at Morgridge and a UW-Madison professor of cell and regenerative biology. “This work provides valuable proof that we can eventually get a reliable source for functional arterial endothelial cells and make arteries that perform and behave like the real thing.”

Thomson’s team, along with many UW-Madison collaborators, is in the first year of a seven-year project supported by the National Institutes of Health on the feasibility of developing artery banks suitable for use in human transplantation.

“Our ultimate goal is to apply this improved cell derivation process to the formation of functional arteries that can be used in cardiovascular surgery.”

James Thomson

In many cases with vascular disease, patients lack suitable tissue from their own bodies for use in bypass surgeries. And growing arteries from an individual patient’s stem cells would be cost prohibitive and take too long to be clinically useful.

The challenge will be not only to produce the arteries, but find ways to ensure they are compatible and not rejected by patients.

“Now that we have a method to create these cells, we hope to continue the effort using a more universal donor cell line,” says Zhang. The lab will focus on cells banked from a unique population of people who are genetically compatible donors for a majority of the population.

© 2009-2013 Ebling Library, UW-Madison
750 Highland Ave, Madison, WI, 53705-2221

call 608-262-2020 ask askebling at library.wisc.edu
hour hours | map map

home > news & events > top

research – News

UW-Madison researchers tackle bias in algorithms  external link

Photo: Aws Albarghouthi, Loris D’Antoni, David Merrell at white board

Aws Albarghouthi, Loris D’Antoni and David Merrell (left to right) are part of a team in the UW-Madison Department of Computer Sciences developing a tool to root out bias in algorithms. All Photos by Sarah Morton

If you’ve ever applied for a loan or checked your credit score, algorithms have played a role in your life. These mathematical models allow computers to use data to predict many things — who is likely to pay back a loan, who may be a suitable employee, or whether a person who has broken the law is likely to reoffend, to name just a few examples.

Yet while some may assume that computers remove human bias from decision-making, research has shown that is not true. Biases on the part of those designing algorithms, as well as biases in the data used by an algorithm, can introduce human prejudices into a situation. A seemingly neutral process becomes fraught with complications.

Photo: Aws Albarghouthi

“Ultimately, we’d like this to be a regulatory tool when you’re deploying an algorithm making sensitive decisions. You can verify it’s indeed fair, and then fix it if it’s not,” says Aws Albarghouthi.

For the past year, University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty in the Department of Computer Sciences have been working on tools to address unfairness in algorithms. Now, a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation will accelerate their efforts. Their project, “Formal Methods for Program Fairness,” is funded through NSF’s Software and Hardware Foundations program.

UW-Madison computer science professors Aws Albarghouthi, Shuchi Chawla, Loris D’Antoni and Jerry Zhu are leading the development of a tool called FairSquare. Computer sciences graduate students Samuel Drews and David Merrell are also involved.

What sets FairSquare apart is that it will not only detect bias, but also employ automated solutions. “Ultimately, we’d like this to be a regulatory tool when you’re deploying an algorithm making sensitive decisions. You can verify it’s indeed fair, and then fix it if it’s not,” says Albarghouthi.

Decision-making algorithms can be mysterious even to those who use them, say the researchers, making a tool like FairSquare necessary.

“Who decides what’s fair? How can you be certain you’re coming up with a mathematical formula that means the thing you want it to prove?”

Samuel Drews

For example, consider a bank that uses a third-party tool to evaluate who qualifies for a mortgage or small business loan, and at what interest rate. The bank may not know how the software is classifying potential customers, how accurate its predictions truly are, or whether results reflect racial or other types of bias.

“Many companies using these algorithms don’t understand what (the algorithms) are doing,” says Albarghouthi. “An algorithm seems to work for them, so they use it, but usually there is no feedback or explainability” on how exactly it is working.  That makes these algorithms difficult to regulate in terms of avoiding illegal bias, he says.

Companies designing and selling these products are typically not eager to share their proprietary knowledge, making their algorithms what are known as “black box.”

Photo: Loris D’Antoni

“We’re trying to give people the ability to ask about behaviors of an algorithm. Does it prefer a certain gender, or certain behaviors, for example?” explains Loris D’Antoni.

Says D’Antoni, “We’re trying to give people the ability to ask about behaviors of an algorithm. Does it prefer a certain gender, or certain behaviors, for example?”

The stakes behind these algorithms can be high, as journalists have noted.

In a 2016 story by the investigative journalism organization ProPublica, a team of reporters examined a product used in law enforcement to predict offenders’ likelihood of reoffending. The reporters uncovered troubling racial bias, though the software company in question disputes their conclusions.

According to ProPublica, “(B)lacks are almost twice as likely as whites to be labeled a higher risk but not actually reoffend.” With white offenders, the opposite mistake occurred. Whites were much more likely than blacks to be pegged as low-risk yet go on to commit additional crimes.

The UW researchers are attacking the problem by isolating fairness as a property of a software program that must be formally defined and proven.

This points to additional questions, says Drews. “Who decides what’s fair? How can you be certain you’re coming up with a mathematical formula that means the thing you want it to prove?”

“Machine learning algorithms … aren’t always used in responsible ways. I hope our research will help engineers build safe, reliable and ethical systems.”

David Merrell

The FairSquare team is making connections with UW-Madison scholars in other fields who can help illuminate certain aspects of this research, such as legal and ethical ramifications.

“Computing is so much more involved in people’s lives these days,” says Drews, making the development of FairSquare not only a significant computing challenge but also one with far-reaching social impact.

Adds Merrell, “Machine learning algorithms have become very commonplace, but they aren’t always used in responsible ways. I hope our research will help engineers build safe, reliable and ethical systems.”

© 2009-2013 Ebling Library, UW-Madison
750 Highland Ave, Madison, WI, 53705-2221

call 608-262-2020 ask askebling at library.wisc.edu
hour hours | map map

home > news & events > top

research – News

Scientists converge to study ozone, an atmospheric mystery near Lake Michigan  external link

Photo: Lake Michigan as seen from Sheboygan shore

Lake Michigan shoreline as seen from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin–Madison Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) researchers have joined an atmospheric study over Sheboygan and other cities along the lake’s coast. SSEC

For several years, air quality managers have identified elevated levels of ozone in the Sheboygan, Wisconsin, area. It remains an atmospheric mystery since high levels of ozone are usually associated with larger cities. It is also an issue of great concern to public health officials because ozone is a known respiratory irritant that poses health threats to vulnerable populations, especially the young and the elderly, and those with breathing problems like asthma.

In an effort to unravel the mystery and understand how pollution moves along the western shoreline of Lake Michigan, University of Wisconsin–Madison Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) researchers have joined an atmospheric study over Sheboygan and other cities along the lake’s coast.

The goal of the Lake Michigan Ozone Study (LMOS 2017) is to understand how wind currents can transport pollution from one location to another — especially ozone, which poses human health risks when found near the Earth’s surface. The data collected will also be integrated into ozone models used by air quality managers at agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium (LADCO), and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Photo: Brad Pierce in front of projected map of Lake Michigan

Brad Pierce, a NOAA physical scientist who is stationed at UW-Madison and is leading the LMOS campaign. SSEC

“We want to help improve these models and better predict when ozone events will happen, and in turn, protect health,” says Brad Pierce, a NOAA physical scientist who is stationed at UW-Madison and is leading the LMOS campaign.

The study represents a $1.3 million multi-agency partnership that includes NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and other organizations and universities.

“The plan is to collect data that will give us a comprehensive profile of the atmosphere along the shore of Lake Michigan,” says Tim Wagner, SSEC assistant researcher.

Wagner oversees the research efforts for a suite of ground-based instruments, known as the SSEC Portable Atmospheric Research Center, or SPARC. SPARC is a customized, 17-foot trailer equipped with an array of sensitive tools used to measure the atmosphere, many of which were designed and built at SSEC. Data gathered from the SPARC instruments at the study site will help construct a picture of the atmosphere over Sheboygan and surrounding areas through wind and temperature measurements, and help resolve different types of particles like ice, dust and other aerosols.

“By understanding the atmospheric structure, it gives context to the other data that are part of the whole campaign,” says Wagner. “It’s an important piece of the puzzle to understanding what’s happening up there.”

The SPARC team’s data will complement NASA measurements already gathered from remote sensing instruments on an aircraft flying in specific patterns over the area — from Zion, Illinois, to Sheboygan — and data from a NOAA research ship equipped with EPA instruments that collected nearshore and offshore measurements. It will also add to ozone measurements collected via automobile by EPA Region 5 and UW–Eau Claire Professor Patricia Cleary.

Observing the atmosphere from air, land and lake

“Together, the aircraft, ship and land measurements will help build a more complete picture of the atmosphere,” Wagner says.

Additionally, EPRI has funded Scientific Aviation to provide measurements from the air along the Lake Michigan coast and NSF has funded the University of Wisconsin, University of Iowa and University of Minnesota to conduct detailed chemical measurements at a ground site in Zion.

The UW-Madison ground team includes Tim Bertram, professor of chemistry, and his graduate students Gordon Novak and Michael Vermeuel. Bertram explains that ozone is commonly found in Earth’s atmosphere, where it protects surface dwellers from harmful solar radiation, but it is usually high up and away from people. However, anthropogenic sources — like the burning of fossil fuels — can escalate ozone production to unsafe levels, especially when it forms in cities or densely populated areas.

Ozone is produced by incomplete combustion, which creates what are known as precursor molecules, like nitric oxide, and volatile organic compounds. These are converted into ozone through a sunlight-dependent chemical process. Ozone levels tend to be higher during the summer months because of increased solar intensity.

“We want to help improve these models and better predict when ozone events will happen, and in turn, protect health.”

Brad Pierce

The EPA is responsible for setting ozone pollution standards nationwide and works with state agencies to monitor air quality conditions. Cities that fail to meet certain air quality standards must undergo a planning process to outline ways of reducing pollutants like ozone. Pierce, who has studied ozone transport for more than 20 years, says improving models will assist the EPA and cities as they plan for future air quality needs and requirements.

“The field phase of the 2017 Lake Michigan Ozone Study has been an overwhelming success and we look forward to using the measurements collected during the campaign to help understand why coastal ozone monitors show higher ozone levels than inland, and improve our ability to model ozone within this complex region,” says Pierce.

This research is supported by NOAA/STAR GOES-R grant under NOAA-University of Wisconsin CIMSS Cooperative Agreement number NA15NES4320001, U.S. Department of Commerce.

© 2009-2013 Ebling Library, UW-Madison
750 Highland Ave, Madison, WI, 53705-2221

call 608-262-2020 ask askebling at library.wisc.edu
hour hours | map map