Conversation at Heart of Graduate Student Collaborations

Graduate student and WID Frontier Fellow Julian Motzkin presents his work on the science of pain at the transdisciplinary installation performance ‘flickering, quivering, pulsing, sharp.”


When a group of WID Frontier Fellows brought 600 boxes through the doors of the Discovery Building to install an exhibit in August 2013, it created a ruckus.

“It was a good ruckus,” says Amy Cannestra, a graduate student, artist and fellow, who led the installation performance ‘flickering, quivering, pulsing, sharp.’

“That really started these conversations: What are you doing? Why are you doing that? You could see the mind shift… of a scientist talking to an artist, an artist talking to a scientist. It was exciting,” she says.

Amy Cannestra
Amy Cannestra

A lot of transdisciplinary conversations take place at WID, and many graduate students like it that way.

Jessica Feldman works in the Epigenetics lab studying a family of proteins that play a large role in regulating metabolism. The Epigenetics research area has four labs that conduct research, all tackling chromatin regulation. Although researchers in Epigenetics may approach problems in biology and genetics from unique angles, there’s still great value in researchers, especially graduate students, finding common ground in conversation.

“We have a lot of joint lab meetings where we are able to get ideas from all these other people, which we never would have been able to get within our own individual labs,” Feldman says. “We have professors from cell and regenerative biology, genetics and biomolecular chemistry. It has been extremely helpful.”

For Anirudha Bhargava, who is in Optimization research area and specializes in sparse coding problems, WID is the reason he ended up studying at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“There is a very, very open-minded attitude that the WID creates,” Bhargava says. “I was really surprised at how often people collaborate with each other over here.”

Anirudda Bhargava
Anirudda Bhargava

Kevin Jamieson, also a member of the Optimization group, finds the super computers at WID extremely helpful and basks in the beauty and openness of the Institute’s environment. He is a regular attendee at the SILO (Systems Information Learning and Optimization) weekly seminars, where he enjoys meeting people from other disciplines such as mathematics, physics, computer science, psychology and systems biology.

“There are often questions that are very interdisciplinary,” Jamieson says. “When someone asks questions, it’s obvious that Oh, OK, they are definitely in another field. And that’s great. And you can get people’s perspective on things,” he says. “It’s good to get questions that sort of surprise the speaker who may think: I never thought about that before because it’s not really my application. That is highly encouraged. The seminar kindles interdisciplinary conversations, and it works quite well.”

“Through simple conversations, we are able to brainstorm some potential solutions to our research questions.”

— Karen Chen

Karen Chen, who is interested in biomechanics and ergonomics, spends a lot of time in the Living Environments Laboratory using the immersive virtual reality CAVE, but attends the building’s Tea @ 3 event to be exposed to new perspectives outside her field. She values the contact with other researchers.

“We learn about other people’s research through conversation at the tea, like What’s up? How’s it going? Oh, I’m stuck on this thing. What do you think about it? Through simple conversations, we are able to brainstorm some potential solutions to our research questions,” Chen says.

Karen Chen
Karen Chen

Jason McNulty is a research assistant in the BIONATES research area. He likes working at WID and the Discovery Building because everything he needs to design and fabricate is in one place. McNulty trained as a plastics and manufacturing engineer at the University of Wisconsin–Stout before coming to WID.

“I never would have thought that I’d be working with stem cells and surface modification technologies for cell work,” he says. “It was nothing I’d ever imagined I’d be doing.”

Even within labs, there are plenty of perspectives to learn from, McNulty says.

Jason McNulty
Jason McNulty

“It seems like it’s a mutual gain on everyone’s part to aid in something that is under the BIONATES umbrella theme,” he continues. “We all have a goal of creating something related to tissue engineering. I have some ideas, they have some ideas. We just happen to come together. I’ll make theirs better, they’ll make mine better. You learn something new from everybody at WID.”

The conversation continues and grows in the openness of WID.

People of all backgrounds who work at the Institute make use of special equipment such as super computers, the CAVE and the building’s fabrication shop shared with its partner the Morgridge Institute for Research. The graduate students use the large whiteboards to write out complex algorithms and brainstorm. They sometimes leave the doors to the conference rooms open while they make presentations. Curious professors and other graduate students peek in or casually drop by to understand more about what their colleagues are doing. The students enjoy the interruptions and value the input of others outside their disciplines.

Kevin Jamieson
Kevin Jamieson

“I think the power of WID is bringing people to one place and making these connections that you wouldn’t have made otherwise because you’re sort of stuck in your little bubble,” Jamieson says.

Without the people, the conversations and the serendipitous interruptions, WID just wouldn’t be WID.

— Mary Sussman