WID Frontier Fellows Take On Exonerations, Archaeological Sites and Science Images with Data

UW-Madison freshman Sreedevi Nair thinks data might be the key to freedom — or at least our understanding of it when people are acquitted of crimes. As a Frontier Fellow at WID, she’s examining U.S. exoneration cases and searching for patterns to better understand how criminal convictions are overturned.
But Nair isn’t the only student using data to push the boundaries of fields.

Other Frontier Fellows at the Institute are refining how information and data enrich our view of the world, whether it’s channeling cosmic particles to unveil archaeological structures, crafting an informational “Google Maps” view of organisms or even manipulating microbes to produce light.

In its second year, the Institute’s Frontier Fellows program continues to offer undergraduate students a chance to collaborate on novel projects outside of the classroom with the network and support of WID’s intellectual community. The Institute now accepts applications for these fellowships twice each year.

Fellows receive a stipend, work with faculty mentors and immerse themselves in activities at the Institute to fully explore the potential of their ideas.

Turning to physics to uncover lost cities

Bai "Sean" Wang
Bai “Sean” Wang
Anna Christianson
Anna Christianson

Frontier Fellows Bai “Sean” Wang and Anna Christenson are interested in how physics can be applied across disciplines. Stemming from collaboration with Duncan Carlsmith, UW–Madison professor of physics, the students were challenged to refine an algorithm (a set of rules to solve a problem) used in imaging and locating unearthed structures at the Greek archaeological site Troy.

Rather than relying on human-made energy waves to detect objects and structures, scientists at the University of Texas–Austin have developed an approach that draws on cosmic rays called muons to gain perspective on where archaeological structures are located underground. By tapping into a detector that can reconstruct the particles’ tracks, researchers can deduce and create images of the inside of buildings and burial mounds to look for hidden structures. At present, researchers are working on improving the process.

This is where Wang and Christenson come in. Working with mentor Andreas Velten, associate scientist and imaging expert at the Morgridge Institute for Research, the team will work on making the algorithm and image reconstruction technique more efficient. The group hopes to improve images generated by the muon detector to rival the clarity of X-ray imaging.

Wang, an applied mathematics, engineering and physics major, points out that natural cosmic rays are less invasive than other methods and allows archaeologists to be more targeted with their efforts. But what excites him the most, he says, is the reminder that physics is everywhere.

“The reason I like physics is it’s very fundamental,” Wang says. “It’s very beautiful and never gets boring.”

Magnifying the richness of life

Jacki Whisenant
Jacki Whisenan

Zoology major and fellow Jacki Whisenant came back to UW-Madison after receiving a BFA in music performance and art in order to build skills as a scientific illustrator. She’ll need more than paper and pen to venture deeper into the traditional “cross-section” view of organisms.

Drawing inspiration from Google Maps, Whisenant, under the mentorship of WID faculty member Kevin Ponto, is designing a more engaging way to view life under a microscope — one where the user can carefully control and scale images without having to follow a prescribed route in a software program.

“I’ve seen many fantastic anatomical mapping programs where you click on certain highlighted areas and it takes you to increasing levels of magnification. I have learned so much from both digital and traditional anatomy atlases, and through this project I want to contribute to the long history of illustrative approaches,” Whisenant says. “I want to add one more level where the viewer gets to take charge and initiate his or her own exploration with the freedom to move throughout the entire drawing.”

She says the project, consisting of a variety of organisms, will draw on Google’s Open API software to construct the foundation of her platform. Ultimately, she intends for her program to be an engaging educational tool for people of all ages.

Data against injustice

Sreedevi Nair
Sreedevi Nair

Sreedevi Nair, a math major, will work as fellow and mentee under WID faculty mentor Jordan Ellenberg to create a formula to better characterize and maybe even predict false convictions in the U.S. legal system.

“The end result would be creating an algorithm that would allow a lawyer or anyone in the legal system to output a probability — a number, an actual percentage out of 100 — that tells you whether this case will be overturned or not,” Nair says.

Nair drew inspiration after reading a news article about a man who was exonerated with DNA evidence, but had served more than 25 years in jail before his case was revisited. She plans to work with Keith Findley, co-director of Wisconsin Innocence Project while examining more than 1,300 cases from the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations.

Nair says she understands how a mathematical approach may seem less personal on the surface, but there’s great insight to be gained that can have a very real impact on people’s personal lives.

“We have these numbers that mean nothing to us,” Nair says. “We have descriptions of these cases that individually mean nothing, but we can put them together, we can make them mean something in a numerical way, and we get this pattern, this idea, this trend of why these cases happen the way they do. And I think that’s really powerful, especially in terms of sorting out which cases should be accepted and which cases shouldn’t.”

‘Lights on’ for Biobulb

Photo by M. Spoon/WID
Michael Zaiken, AnaElise Beckman and Alexandra Cohn

AnaElise Beckman, Michael Zaiken and Alexandra Cohn continue their second year as Frontier Fellows, making progress with their Biobulb project, a microbe-driven light bulb that draws from genetically modified bacteria.

After participating in Popular Science’s #CrowdGrant Challenge, the team began working in WID researcher Kalin Vetsigian’s lab. In addition to establishing alternative light sources, the group sees the Biobulb as an example of how synthetic biology can offer positive possibilities for human health and society.

Marianne Spoon