A campus of research and discovery

Long hours spent puzzling over an abstract concept, mastering a particularly tough sonata or perfecting a critical laboratory procedure—this is the life for hundreds of University of Wisconsin Oshkosh professors.

From her first floor laboratory in Halsey Science Center, UW Oshkosh parasitologist Shelly Michalski works to find a cure for the painful and disfiguring tropical disease that causes elephantiasis and attacks 120 million people worldwide.

Her passion for studying “gross and incredibly complex” parasites—like the filarial nematode linked to elephantiasis— was born in an undergraduate parasitology course. “From the second day of that class, I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” she said.

Just two floors above in Halsey, UW Oshkosh astronomer Nadia Kaltcheva investigates stellar nurseries to unravel the mysteries surrounding how new stars are formed along the spiral arms of the Milky Way located 10,000 light years away.

“Astronomy is truly in a golden age, with state-of-the-art space stations and incredibly precise telescopes collecting vast amounts of high-quality data,” she said. “A hundred years ago scientists did not know that stars are powered by nuclear fusion and 50 years ago they did not think that stars continually form in the Universe. Now we know that billions of galaxies are harboring star formation. This is a process of constant discovery.”

Just a few dozen steps to the north across a narrow parking lot, UW Oshkosh’s preeminent pianist Eli Kalman can be heard practicing in the Arts and Communication Center for hours at a time. He is no stranger to the daily commitment as he’s been playing since the age of 5 in his native Romania.

“Practicing is part of my job,” he explained. “It is like second nature. This is what I do.”

Whether he is preparing to perform for the Oshkosh community or at a world-renowned venue like Carnegie Hall in New York City, Kalman feels the same pressure to play his best.

“I’m constantly pushing my limits and growing and rejuvenating,” he said. “I can’t allow any lesser-inspired performances because they reflect back on what we teach and stand for at UW Oshkosh and me, personally.”

That kind of dedication and commitment from faculty in the pursuit of their respective creative and scholarly endeavors can be found time and again across campus.

In countless offices, studios  and research laboratories,  UW Oshkosh artists, musicians, researchers and social scientists are working on complex ideas and solving critical problems that impact our culture, economy, health and environment.

UW System President Ray Cross said the breadth, depth and scope of faculty research and creativity at UW Oshkosh are “remarkable.”

“Altogether, the direct impact of faculty research on the quality of life for our students and the people, businesses and communities of Wisconsin, the nation and the world is profound. It is a deep source of pride,” Cross said.

UW Oshkosh ranks third in the UW System in generation of external grant and contract funding with faculty and staff bringing in $12 to $14 million annually to the institution. The competition for those dollars in higher education is fierce with an average national success rate of about one grant approved for every four applications submitted.

“Our success rate for external grants is much higher than at other institutions, varying from 55 to 65 percent acceptance,” said UWO’s grants and faculty development director Robert Roberts.

The UW Oshkosh faculty’s creative and scholarly work is nurtured as well by an additional $500,000 each year in internal grants through the University’s unique Faculty Development Fund. The fund has awarded a total of more than $6 million for teaching, research, small grants, sabbaticals and other opportunities since it was established in 2000.

“The Faculty Development Program was absolutely elemental in getting me going as a researcher, being able to get my insectory built and being competitive to get external money in order to do these studies,” Michalski said of her work with lymphatic filariasis and other neglected tropical diseases.

In 14 years at UWO, she has grown her research program to include a team of 10 undergraduate and graduate students and she has established the University as a key site for the National Institute of Health’s Filariasis Resource Center.

Roberts knows, too, that the Faculty Development Fund is a primary factor in UWO’s ability to recruit and retain sought-after researchers like Michalski.

“The fund is a strong, effective professional development program that increases our professors’ ability to seek and obtain external funding,” Roberts said. “At UW Oshkosh, we give faculty opportunities for a mix of teaching and research. They are able to develop as people, scholars and teachers. If you have a well-informed population of professors who understand and excel in their disciplines … you win.”

The capacity for research at UW Oshkosh got another infusion with the 2014 addition of a pilot program in the Fox Valley to promote technology transfer.

Robert Wise, who served for more than 20 years as a biology professor at UWO, was hired as the first regional associate for the WiSys Technology Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the  UW System that identifies innovative technologies and brings them to the marketplace.

Wise focuses on outreach and development efforts at UW Oshkosh as well as UW-Green Bay and UW-Stevens Point.“WiSys provides a mechanism through which new knowledge generated at the universities can be used for public good and to impact the economy of local communities and nationally,” he explained.

For example, WiSys is helping market a patent-pending invention by UWO biotechnologist and 2016 Regent Scholar Toivo Kallas  and his research associate Mathew Nelson, along with Eric Singsaas, formerly of UW-Stevens Point and now at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Their work with tiny blue-green algae has big potential for using the sun’s energy to turn industrial carbon waste streams into the precursors for synthetic rubber, pharmaceuticals and jet fuel.

“Carbon-neutral bioproducts and biofuels will be imperative for a sustainable economy, global ecology and national security,” Kallas said.

Many university scientists find it too risky to patent and commercially market their intellectual property. The associated costs in both dollars and time (patents often take decades to be approved) are simply too high. By collaborating with WiSys, Wise said researchers like Kallas are protected from the risks and their innovations have a better chance of making an impact on society.

“WiSys brought us together with Eric Singsaas, allowing us to combine his expertise in plant biochemistry with ours in cyanobacterial bioengineering,” Kallas said. “This led to discoveries that enabled us to file a patent application via  WiSys and establish a startup company, Algoma Algal Biotechnology LLC, to further develop the technology  toward commercialization.”

Thus far, Kallas’ scientific journey has spanned more than 30 years. Along the way, more than 80 undergraduate and 24 graduate students have helped him study photosynthetic energy, gene regulation in microalgae and bioengineering of cyanobacteria.

“We can’t forget how students benefit through high-impact learning opportunities alongside faculty members. We know these experiences play a significant role in student success,” Cross said.
Indeed, students gain extraordinary experience while powering the progress of research and creativity on campus.

“Students do every aspect of the research from raising the blood-feeding arthropods— who are always hungry—all the way up to high-level computer analysis of gene-expression data,” Michalski said. “They run my lab.”

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