WID’s First Frontier Fellows Cohort Merges Science, Abstraction, Education

Light-emitting microbes that showcase the potentials of synthetic biology, interactive theater that delves into the complexity of pain, and kinetic, artistic representations of scientific data are some of the ideas generated by students in WID’s Frontier Fellows program.

In its first year, Frontier Fellows has recruited curious UW–Madison students to pursue research beyond the classroom, creating mentorship opportunities and the chance to share their research with influential contacts on campus.

David Baum, associate director for students at WID and professor of botany, says the program provides an experimental space for students to take part in a collaborative culture not available in most classrooms and labs.

“We should not forget the potential of the Frontier Fellows program to advance our science in unexpected ways.”

— David Baum

“The Frontier Fellows program provides an important avenue for connecting WID to the bright young minds on campus,” says Baum. “Many of the most important scientific discoveries in human history have been made by individuals in their early 20s. We should not forget the potential of the Frontier Fellows program to advance our science in unexpected ways.”

This year’s fellows — 10 undergraduate and graduate students interested in interdisciplinary topics — have been selected from among approximately 50 applicants for the program. The screening committee based its decision on project proposals, students’ curricula vitae and interviews. Some fellows will work on projects until August, while others will stay until December.

In addition to having access to WID’s space in the Discovery Building, fellows will receive mentorship support while working on their projects and will have unique opportunities to interact with faculty affiliated with WID and other thought leaders through seminar dinners, daily tea and coffee in the Building and other venues.

Students’ studies emerge from original research proposals, which blend disciplines to devise new approaches to problems.

Photo by M. English/WID

One team of fellows, including undergraduate students AnaElise Beckman (anthropology and neurobiology), Alexandra Cohn (philosophy), and Michael Zaiken (biochemistry), is engineering a “living light bulb” with a chamber that houses light-producing bioluminescent and photosynthetic microbes. The project not only investigates a potentially useful and inexpensive light source, but it also may create an educational tool to show the benefits of biological tinkering in synthetic biology.


Photo by David Baum/WIDAnother team, composed of Jack Boland (an undergraduate student in mechanical engineering), Ian Anderson (an undergraduate student in chemical engineering) and graduate student Paul Lorenz (master of fine arts), is developing a simple robotic device for drawing on flat surfaces such as whiteboards and windows to visually portray real-time data streams for scientists and the public. The device collects inspiration from the precision of modern computer-generated graphics and communicating data with physical, moving art forms.

Photo by M. English/WID

The third Frontier Fellows team — with four graduate students — is portraying the scientific complexity of pain through an art installation and performance. Recent research has expanded the study of pain to include emotional and cognitive influences in addition to its physical roots. Fellows Amy Cannestra (master of fine arts), Erin Hood (theatre and drama), Julian Motzkin (neuroscience) and David Ruhl (neuroscience) are exploring scientific conceptions of subjective physical pain, using art to communicate a fuller picture of pain beyond previous representations in neuroscience.

Marianne Spoon