Wisconsin’s big ideas in Research


Tanks at the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility.

UWM engineers an optical approach to brain research

Ramin Pashaie is an electrical engineer, and as such, he studies the workings of systems – systems involving the intricate interplay of circuits and switches, voltage and resistance, energy and output.

Pashaie’s current focus is on the most intricate and complex system in the world: the human brain.

An associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pashaie recently received a $506,451 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue studies on the use of optics and molecular genetics to control and manipulate cell activity in the brain.

“The brain is extremely complicated,” Pashaie said. “It’s unlike any other part of the body. The heart is a pump, part of the arm is a joint, but from the brain we get intelligence, we get creativity, we get dreams.

“It’s difficult, but if we can understand more of how the brain functions, we can perhaps implement that type of control in other systems, in computers, in electronics – and we can help people suffering from diseases like Alzheimer’s, seizures or other ailments of the brain.”

The new grant expands on research Pashaie established three years ago using funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the UW-Milwaukee Research Growth Initiative.

Using mice as a model, Pashaie and his research team adapted a technique to genetically modify neurons in the brain to become sensitive to light. Once modified, the cells’ activity can be manipulated by exposing them to different wavelengths of light.

“The new grant specifically looks at understanding the coupling between neurons in the brain and blood flow via vessels,” Pashaie said. “In other words, how blood knows where to go, how it knows which neurons or cells need more oxygen, glucose or other metabolic products.”

The study could eventually lead to advanced understanding of brain cell activity, what triggers more activity, and potential ways to manipulate or control those signals.

“Understanding the relationship between blood flow and brain cell activity is central to addressing health problems like stroke, hypertension and other vascular changes,” Pashaie said. “We may be able to find ways to compensate, when these changes occur, which could ultimately decrease fatalities and or severe complications.”

Being able to manipulate brain cells could mean the ability to increase brain activity in patients suffering from depression without chemical medication, he said.

The first two years of the new grant will be used to research and develop new technology and equipment, Pashaie said. His team needs to be able to look at the activity of the neurons and image the blood vessels simultaneously. To do that, they need to combine two very complex microscopes into one device.

Pashaie plans to launch a company to sell the newly-developed equipment for a variety of other uses. 

Marquette moves state farmers toward amber waves of rice

Wisconsin already leads the world in cranberry bogs. So, why not rice paddies?

Marquette University geneticist and molecular biologist Michael Schlappi recently received a $500,000 federal grant for his efforts to grow rice in our cold climate.

Schlappi’s research team successfully grew different rice varieties in four southeastern Wisconsin locations this year, including in three fields and on top of the Wehr Life Sciences Building on Marquette’s campus in Milwaukee.

“This grant will help us understand the genetic and physiological mechanisms of cold tolerance and sensitivity in rice plants,” said Schlappi, an associate professor of biological sciences in the Helen Way Klingler College of Arts and Sciences. “We want to dig deeper to understand cold tolerance in rice at the molecular and cellular level.”

Schläppi has tested more than 200 varieties of rice. He believes a Russian line and maybe others could yield 8,000 pounds of rice on an acre in Wisconsin.

Schlappi received the grant from the Agriculture Food Research Initiative of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

According to Schlappi, half of the world’s population consumes rice as a primary
food source.

In the United States, rice thrives and grows mostly in warm states such as California, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. But drought conditions, especially in California, are making it increasingly difficult to sustain the water-intensive crop. Growing rice in the Midwest will contribute to sustainable rice cultivation for the United States and the world, Schlappi said. 

Seamless file-sharing technology rocks the industry

Today’s technology is one of immediacy. Mobile computing has become second nature for almost everybody in the world – but file sharing, in most cases, remains in the past, stuck, irrelevant and hindered by access, connection speeds and compatibility issues.

Superior-based Fasetto, LLC has a solution.


Fasetto provides users the ability to store and quickly share files on multiple devices with or without an Internet connection. The technology uses a proprietary transportation layer that allows all types of devices, regardless of operating system, to communicate on a basic level.

“Our philosophy is to keep it simple in both software and hardware solutions,” said Coy Christmas, founder and chief executive officer of Fasetto. “That’s the point of technology – to simplify and to make your life easier. Everything we do operates from that premise. Innately, our technology is easy to use.”

Christmas and his business partner, Luke Malpass, started the company in 2013, using a KickStarter campaign. What was initially funding for just a small piece of Fasetto has emerged into a promising hardware and software business that has grown its offerings and product lines significantly in three years, Christmas said.

Christmas and Malpass came up with the idea while designing education software. They needed a place to store and share files, so they built what they needed.

The pair also built in a messaging and communication component, the first of its kind, so users could communicate with each other within Fasetto.

Superior-based Fasetto provides users the ability to store and quickly share files on multiple devices with or without an Internet connection.
Superior-based Fasetto provides users the ability to store and quickly share files on multiple devices with or without an Internet connection.

Today, in addition to Fasetto, the company offers Bonsai, a proprietary printer driver that allows users to save and share paper receipts, documents and invoices directly and digitally via a Fasetto folder, and also recently launched Link, a wireless solid-state drive with its own operating system and offline streaming capabilities. The latest version, unveiled at the Consumer Electronic Show in January, will be available to the market in the fall of 2016.

According to Christmas, Link allows users to store and access their created and purchased content from any device, without the use of an SD card.

“The new design eliminates the need for an SD card when users are transferring data to and from any device,” Christmas said. “It simplifies the process by removing an extra piece of equipment and instead uses our transport layer to seamlessly and quickly upload or access content.”

Link allows users to connect up to 20 devices and stream content to and from up to seven devices simultaneously, regardless of platform, Christmas said. The device is constructed of military grade ABS plastic, framed by metal, and is virtually indestructible.

“It’s even waterproof up to 45 feet,” Christmas said. “Our digital content is important to us. We want users to feel like their content is safe, and will be accessible for years to come.”

Fasetto currently employs five people in Superior, in addition to Christmas, with plans to hire several more employees in the first half of 2016. Malpass is located in the United Kingdom, and the company also employs other developers in different parts of the country. 

Madison lab frees farmers from reliance on animal antibiotics

Madison-based Ab E Discovery is tackling the use of antibiotics in the food animal industry head on with a new antibiotic-free method to protect animals against common infections.

The commercialization of this research comes at a time when food industry leaders, farmers and the general public have growing concerns over the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria stemming from the overuse of antibiotics in the industry.

Mark Cook and his team of researchers at UW-Madison have established a way to prevent disease in animals without the use of antibiotics.  (UW-Madison)
Mark Cook and his team of researchers at UW-Madison have established a way to prevent disease in animals without the use of antibiotics. (UW-Madison)

Nearly 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States are sold to farmers for use in animals. The antibiotics are used routinely to protect the animals against disease and to accelerate weight gain.

Mark Cook, research professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Animal Science, in partnership with Jordan Sand, animal sciences associate researcher, discovered a way to help the animals’ immune system fight off disease without the use of any antibiotics.

According to Cook, some bacteria are capable of activating an animal’s interleukin 10 – the “off switch” to an animal’s immune system.

“We discovered a way to create an antibody that blocks the bacteria from turning off the immune system in the animal,” Cook said. “It’s much harder to develop a resistance to this treatment.”


Cook’s team then injected the antibody vaccine into egg-laying hens, which in turn transferred the antibody to their eggs’ yolk, which can then be fed to other animals.

The antibody eggs are made into a powder that is sprayed on the feed for other animals to consume, Cook said.

“It’s a very natural way to replace these antibodies,” Cook said, “and it’s no more unsafe than eating an egg.”

Initial experiments conducted with approximately 300,000 chickens showed those who ate the antibody material were 100 percent protected against coccidiosis – a common bacterial disease of poultry that affects the intestine.

According to Cook, smaller tests were also conducted using lambs and beef steers, which yielded similar results.

In 2015, after being approached by a few food companies about using the product to produce antibiotic-free poultry, Cook knew they had to commercialize.

With help from the University of Wisconsin, Cook and his team founded Ab E Discovery and tapped food industry professional Chris Salm, who had seen the product in use, as CEO.

The goal is to continue testing the product in different capacities and scale up production using suppliers and facilities throughout Wisconsin. 

Cook said he is excited about the implications of the product, and the potential to treat additional diseases and infections in all species, including humans. 

Dairy researcher finds that where there’s a whey, there’s a will

One University of Wisconsin-Madison dairy researcher has a vision: to take a seemingly worthless byproduct of making Greek yogurt, called acid whey, and turn it into valuable additives that can be sold to the food industry.

Currently, the watery substance costs yogurt companies money for disposal. But  Dean Sommer, a senior staffer at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, thinks of acid whey as a rich mixture of components such as lactose, galactose, lactic acid and calcium, as well as proteins, dairy minerals and water. That is problematic when those components are all mixed together, Sommer said, but could have value if they can be isolated and purified as individual products.

Sommer explained that acid whey is nothing more than the serum, or watery portion, of yogurt.

“All of us have opened containers of regular yogurt and have seen the clear liquid on the top,” he said. “This is acid whey and fit for human consumption as-is, but just not particularly palatable.”

Sommer and his fellow researchers have done extensive development work to discover value-added uses for it.

“In past years, acid whey was spread on farm fields as fertilizer,” Sommer said. “However, there are limits to how much of any product can be applied to any one piece of land. And land application is difficult during winter months, especially in northern states.”

Consequently, most acid whey is being sent to methane digesters, where its sugars are converted to methane for energy production. It can also be made into cattle feed. In any case, it is a net loss to the yogurt producer.

“We are concentrating on lactose because we felt it was, so to speak, the lowest hanging fruit,” Sommer said. “This is an economically fluid situation, as it all depends on the current market price for lactose.”

Industry is already on board with the Dairy Center’s research and highly supportive of its efforts to show how various products can evolve from acid whey, including in meat marinades and in the pharmacological sector. 

Compostable computer chips could curb toxic waste, save rare resources

Globally, electronics waste is expected to reach 93.5 million tons this year, up from 41.5 million tons in 2011. Generally, only a small percentage of today’s electronics can efficiently be recycled, leaving millions of tons of non-renewable, non-biodegradable and potentially toxic materials in the world’s landfills.

Researchers at UW-Madison have developed a computer chip made entirely of biodegradable material which could have a  massive impact on the world’s production of electronic waste.  (Yei Hwan Jung, Wisconsin Nano Engineering Device Laboratory)
Researchers at UW-Madison have developed a computer chip made entirely of biodegradable material which could have a
massive impact on the world’s production of electronic waste. (Yei Hwan Jung, Wisconsin Nano Engineering Device Laboratory)

Gadget users will only continue to expand this problem in their search for the “next best device” – until someone comes up with an elegant solution.

That someone may be a University of Wisconsin-Madison-based research team that hopes to curb waste with a biodegradable semi-conductor made almost entirely out of wood. 

Zhenqiang (Jack) Ma, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Madison, worked with professor Shaoqin (Sarah) Gong at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and learned that the wood-derived cellulose nano filbril (CNF) paper could be used as a suitable substitute in the chips used to power many of these devices.


“The CNF paper is biodegradable by fungi commonly found in the forest,” Ma said.

The majority of today’s wireless devices use gallium arsenide-based chips, which can be environmentally toxic in mass quantities.

“The quick upgrading of personal electronic gadgets has generated a tremendous amount of waste,” Ma said. It makes the electronics industry unsustainable and extremely environmentally unfriendly.

Gong, a professor of biomedical engineering, has been studying bio-based polymers for more than a decade and says the CNF paper chips offer many benefits over current chips.

“The advantage of CNF over other polymers is that it’s a bio-based material, and most other polymers are petroleum-based polymers. Bio-based materials are sustainable, bio-compatible and biodegradable. And compared to other polymers, CNF actually has a relatively low thermal expansion coefficient.”

According to Ma, the new chip is not only environmentally safe, it mimics performance similar to existing chips and also saves precious semi-conductor materials by using approximately 4,000 times less per unit. 

UW-Madison team: We’ll have the fries with that, and hold the cancer

With a five-year, $7.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative, University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists and others around the country are striving to reduce levels of a potential carcinogen called acrylamide that can be found in French fries and potato chips.

The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations say that acrylamide poses a “major concern” and that more research is necessary to evaluate the risk of dietary exposure. Acrylamide is produced whenever starchy foods are fried, roasted or baked, but fries and chips have higher levels compared to most starch-based snacks.

The UW study is helping identify new potato lines with less glucose, fructose and asparagine, which combine to form acrylamide when potatoes are fried.

Project manager Paul Bethke said conventionally bred, low-acrylamide potato varieties are expected to be ready for commercial evaluations within a couple of growing seasons.

According to Bethke, one goal is to identify those potato varieties or breeding lines that produce products with both outstanding quality and low amounts of acrylamide. A longer-term mission is to develop methods and generate information that enables potato breeders to more efficiently bring to market lines of potato with low acrylamide-forming potential.

“There is an economic component as well,” Bethke said, “because changes in varieties or production practices always entail a mix of benefits and risk.

“The hope is that some of what we learned, in the context of looking for varieties that reduce dietary acrylamide consumption, will also benefit efforts to find potatoes with improvements in other attributes.”

Bethke said it comes as a surprise to many people that Madison is a world leader in potato research.

“We have a very strong extension team, an excellent working relationship with the potato industry locally and nationally, outstanding UW and USDA scientists doing cutting-edge research on the potato, plus an innovative potato breeding program,” he said. 

”The biggest contribution of the farm community comes from its willingness to share expertise as producers and provide the perspective of people who grow, store and market potatoes.” 

Aquaculture is Wisconsin’s next big fish story

Nearly 90 percent of all fish and seafood consumed in the United States today is imported from other countries. Yet the demand for quality local fish is on the rise throughout the country, and in Wisconsin.

Greg Fischer, facility operations manager at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility is doing his best to help farmers throughout the state take advantage of those demands in an efficient, yet responsible way.

Greg Fischer with an Atlantic Salmon at the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility.
Greg Fischer with an Atlantic Salmon at the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility.

“Globally, the demand for high-quality aquaculture-raised fish and seafood is huge – it’s one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture,” said Fischer. “Here in Wisconsin we’ve got the technology and the expertise to really take advantage of the demand for more healthy, locally-produced fish.”

There are more than 2,500 fish farms in the state. According to Fischer, approximately 24 are commercial operations with multiple employees, but the economic impact of the industry is enormous.

Tanks at the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility.
Tanks at the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility.

Annually, the industry sells $14.1 million in fish and minnows and contributes $21 million in economic activity to the state.

The Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility features a state-of-the-art aquaculture showcase that includes flow-through raceways, outdoor ponds and indoor facilities.

“The resources we have allow us to adapt to the needs of the industry,” Fischer said. “We have the capability of providing the right environment for the rearing of nearly any cool- or cold-water species.”

According to Fischer, the facility is focused on educating farmers about technical and sustainable systems. The engineered solutions are capable of recirculating 95 to 99 percent of the water in the system.

“It’s the future of aquaculture everywhere,” he said.

The Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility has  the ability to rear nearly any cool- or cold-water species of fish, including the Atlantic Salmon shown here.
The Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility has
the ability to rear nearly any cool- or cold-water species of fish, including the Atlantic Salmon shown here.

As the demand for high quality fish for the bait and food industry increases, more and more product will need to be produced on farms, Fischer said.

“And as the value of Earth’s water continues to rise, sustainable technology will become a requirement.” 

Wisconsin investigators lead winning team vs. head injuries

Continued reports of athletes and soldiers suffering head injuries in sports and combat has led to worldwide discussion about the lasting effects of concussions and other serious brain injuries.

Much of the research needed to identify such injuries and determine their long-term consequences is taking place right here
in Wisconsin.


Michael McCrea, neuropsychologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin, has conducted several large-scale brain injury studies over the past two decades and is now a year into an innovative study on sports-related concussions for the Concussion, Assessment, Research and Education (CARE) Consortium.

“The first lane of our study really looks at the natural history of recovery, meaning, clinically, how long does it take an individual to achieve a complete recovery?” McCrea said. “The newest frontier is really extending that work to understanding the neurological recovery. What we’re trying to understand is, once a person tells us the symptoms are gone physically, what is happening in the brain by conducting cognitive tests on the brain to determine if neurologically they’ve returned to ‘normal.’”

What McCrea and his team first need to determine is whether or not there is lag time for the brain to return to normal after a person physically feels “OK.”

They do this through advanced MRI, measurements of brain connectivity and blood flow, blood tests and even genetic tests for correlations and pre-dispositions, McCrea said.

“Our goal is to collect this data and establish biomarkers for recovery six hours post-injury, 20 hours post-injury, 8 days, 14 days, 45 days post-injury, etc. We’re plotting the course of clinical and physiological symptoms over time while also documenting physical data about the injury and the athlete.”


The study is currently the largest of its kind, with more than 25,000 athletes from a variety of contact sports including football, soccer, lacrosse and hockey. It will continue for one to two more years, McCrea said.

For McCrea, the most rewarding aspect of his work is seeing the clinical translation. Past studies have directly impacted the development of specific concussion assessment protocols and return-to-play guidelines around the globe, he said.

“We have the same hope for this research,” McCrea said. “We hope this deeper dive translates into a direct effect on the updated guidelines, the methods for diagnoses, and the management of concussions.

“Our goal is to maintain the competitive landscape of sports while also maximizing safety for all those involved.” 

Marshfield Clinic learns drug Delays loss of sight

Millions of Americans already use the drug L-DOPA to treat Parkinson’s disease, restless leg syndrome and other movement disorders. Now, researchers at Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation have found that individuals taking the drug are significantly less likely to develop age-related macular degeneration, a disease affecting the eyesight of more than 9 million Americans.

The study was done in partnership with researchers from the University of Arizona, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the University of Miami, Essentia Health, Stanford University and the University of Southern California.

“Research points to this as a pathway to regulate and prevent this most common cause of blindness in adults,” said Murray Brilliant, director of the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation Center for Human Genetics. “Imagine telling patients we potentially have medication that will allow them to see and continue enjoying life, their family and perform everyday activities as they age. That is very powerful.”

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the number one cause of blindness in adults over 60. According to Brilliant, this research is the first step in deciding if L-DOPA in pill form can be used to prevent AMD.

Initial research was conducted using health records of 37,000 Marshfield Clinic patients. Researchers looked at patients with AMD, those taking L-DOPA and those who had taken L-DOPA and been diagnosed with AMD. Results indicated those individuals who took the drug were diagnosed with AMD an average of eight years later than those who were not taking the drug.

That research led to an even larger study with more than 87 million patients where similar results were observed. In all the groups examined, the data suggests L-DOPA may prevent or delay AMD.

The next step in this research is to perform a clinical trial to determine the ability of this drug or similar drugs to prevent AMD. 

EPS revolutionizes aviation industry with new diesel engine

The small farming town of New Richmond is home to Engineered Propulsion Systems, a company focused on a high-tech approach to revolutionizing the aviation industry.

The company’s state-of-the-art general aviation diesel engine is lightweight and has achieved the best fuel economy in the industry for its class.

EPS’ lightweight diesel engine is the first of its kind, and could lead to better fuel economy, safety and reliability for pilots.
EPS’ lightweight diesel engine is the first of its kind, and could lead to better fuel economy, safety and reliability for pilots.

The engine offers advancements in reliability, safety and durability and has shown up to 40 percent fuel savings in testing when compared to turbine engines.

Anonymous investors recently contributed an additional $1.4 million to further the testing of the new engine. This is in addition to the nearly $8 million granted to the company by the U.S. Department of Defense Air Force Rapid Innovation Fund since 2012. The second grant, totaling $4.7 million, began in October and will continue through 18 months, said Paul Mayer, chief financial officer of the company.


Funds are being used to produce more pre-production and conforming engines to be used in testing, Mayer said. It will also help expand the company’s facility by 33,000 square feet.

Engine designers and company founders Michael Fuchs and Steven Weinzierl have more than 40 years combined experience designing engines for the automotive and motor-sport industries. For 15 years, Fuchs, now president and chief executive officer for EPS, worked for Germany-based Schrick GmbH, where he designed and executed prototype engines of all kinds for manufacturers, including Volkswagen, GM/Opel, Ford and Arctic Cat.

Weinzierl, vice president and chief technology officer for EPS, worked with Polaris for several years before moving on to Schrick, where he met Fuchs when they co-led a team to design a new family of small fuel-injection engines for Arctic Cat ATVs.

The pair knew the aviation industry was in dire need of engine advancements. Despite improvements to aircraft frame design, propellers and safety systems, the basic engine design had hardly been touched.

Fuchs and Weinzierl set out to provide a more cost-effective, pilot-friendly and environmentally responsible engine for the industry.

“No one was looking at this problem and asking what they could do if they started fresh,” said Weinzierl. “And that was crazy considering the decades of advances we’ve had in engineering, in electronics, in manufacturing, in computer-aided modeling. For engine designers like us, this was a dream we just had to pursue.”

New Richmond-based Engineered Propulsion Systems has produced a new high-tech engine for the aviation industry.
New Richmond-based Engineered Propulsion Systems has produced a new high-tech engine for the aviation industry.

Today, the company has three locations, in New Richmond, in Mojave, Calif., where testing of the new engine takes place, and in Burscheid, Germany, to be close to strategic partners and the epicenter of aviation automotive innovation.

In 2013, EPS built a pilot manufacturing plant in New Richmond in order to machine the majority of the components found in the engine itself.

The company is approximately halfway through the FAA certification process needed to sell engines to the general aviation industry. Mayer hopes that certification is complete by the first quarter of 2017.

According to Mayer, the company will sell engines next year to the aviation and military industries so they can start their own certification processes.   

Fiber-reinforced concrete saves time and money for contractors

A 1.5 million-square-foot, mixed-use luxury building in Bellevue, Wash., is saving time and money thanks to a University of Wisconsin-Madison environmental engineer.


Gustavo Parra-Montesinos, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison, in collaboration with James K. Wight of the University of Michigan, developed a steel fiber-reinforced concrete that can replace intricate and expensive rebar systems – which is particularly beneficial in areas with high seismic activity.

According to Parra-Montesinos, all coupling beams that span the doorways and windows in the Lincoln Square Expansion are made of the fiber-reinforced concrete. Traditionally, those beams would have been reinforced with a labyrinth of rebar, which adds cost and time to the construction process.

“Placement of the rebar in these link beams can sometimes control the construction schedule,” said Cary Kopczynski, whose Seattle-based firm is the structural engineering company for the project. “Most of the west coast of the U.S., of course, is a highly seismic area, so when you’re building concrete structures, they require a lot of intricate rebar to carry the seismic loads.”

Parra-Montesinos’ solution incorporates steel fibers into the concrete, which provides the stability and performance of rebar but also speeds up and simplifies the construction process.

Kopczynski incorporated the fiber-reinforced coupling beams into a portion of The Martin, a 255-foot, 23-story apartment building completed in Seattle in 2013.

According to Kopczynski, the initial project reduced the level of uncertainty associated with the product. The fiber-enforced concrete is faster to install, less expensive and reduces the potential for errors in the field, he said.

The new product is not yet included in the American Concrete Institute’s building code, but Parra-Montesinos hopes it will be included in the next edition, which will be released in 2019.

“I think we’ve come up with a very robust design,” Parra-Montesinos said. “We just need to be able to specify the minimum performance requirement for the fiber-reinforced concrete based on standard material tests.”

Parra-Montesinos and his students are studying other types of steel fibers incorporated into the concrete in various quantities.

“Ultimately, we expect to establish a link between material behavior and seismic performance of the coupling beam so that users are not required to use the same fiber and in the same amounts as we used in our past research,” Parra-Montesinos said. “This is a required step to develop design provisions for the building code.” 

Seeing how we see: Medical College of Wisconsin opens view on eyesight

The retina of the human eye is made up of hundreds of millions of cells, photo-receptors commonly known as “rods” and “cones.” Together, those two types of cells transmit messages of light and color to the brain to form the images we sense as sight.

Ironically, one of those imaging cells, the rod, has up to now been considered too small to capture in an image.


Joseph Carroll, co-director of the Advanced Ocular Imaging Program at the Medical College of Wisconsin, is changing that picture.

The work Carroll, his co-director Alfredo Dubra, and their team of vision scientists, clinicians and engineers are doing to advance ocular imaging has the potential to significantly improve detection, diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases.

Historically, capturing images of rod cells has been almost impossible. According to Carroll, optometrists used to labor to simply draw what they saw under a microscope.

“We were the first group to successfully image the rod photo receptor cells in the eye,” Carroll said. “We’ve developed the highest-resolution system on the market, and we’ve proven that you can, in fact, capture images of these cells.”

According to Carroll, many degenerative eye diseases begin in the rod cells, despite the fact that the cone photo receptor cells are responsible for the majority of a person’s vision.

Medical imaging is now a $2 billion a year industry, Carroll said.

“Eye imaging makes up nearly half of that,” he said. “This technology has completely transformed the field of ophthalmology, and the potential for this, and additional research, is enormous.”

The research is not yet commercialized, and Carroll knows the industry will have to drive the need. That still might be five to ten years away, he said.

“We’re doing classic, hypothesis-driven research,” Carroll said. “We have the freedom to take the research in multiple ways to see what we can discover, see what we can do for the field. The tools and technology we develop may not be exactly what the industry needs but we have collaborations with several imaging companies who will tell us what the industry demands from our research.”

Not only is the technology being developed innovative, the approach to obtaining the research is, too.

The Advanced Ocular Imaging Program is currently home to 12 students and additional faculty and fellows with a variety of different backgrounds and expertise including only medicine, cell biology, engineering, neuroscience, image processing and computer programming.

Students and faculty come to collaborate from Milwaukee-area schools including the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee School of Engineering, Marquette University, the Medical College of Wisconsin and as other global collaborators.

“I don’t think this program works anywhere else,” Carroll said. “We’ve got a very unique environment here that thrives off this type of collaboration.” 

High impact: Bioscience matters to Wisconsin’s economy

Wisconsin’s bioscience industry has a long-standing entrepreneurial history of innovation and success. And, according to BioForward’s 2015 Wisconsin Bioscience Economic Development Report, that success has an even greater impact on the Wisconsin economy than previously thought.

“In order for any industry to start communicating its impact you have to have the data,” said Lisa Johnson, CEO of BioForward, Inc.

BioForward hired consulting firm Ernst & Young in 2015 to conduct the study.

The report indicates that Wisconsin’s bioscience industry is comprised of 1,600 companies with more than 36,000 direct employees, and is made up of companies that manufacture life science kits, agricultural biotechnology products, medical devices, diagnostics and therapeutics, and health IT services.

Additionally, the report indicates that the bioscience industry generated more than $27 billion in economic impact – direct and indirect – for the state and generated more than $716 million in tax revenue.

The average salary for an individual in the bioscience industry is approximately $73,241 –  more than $30,000 higher than the overall private sector average wage in Wisconsin. In 2013, the bioscience industry in Wisconsin paid employees $6.5 billion dollars.

“Higher wages mean more disposable income, more spending, more tourism and more jobs for the community,” she said.  

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