Skala Highlights the Value of Basic Research on UW Day in DC


by Brian Mattmiller | April 14, 2022

Morgridge Institute researcher Melissa Skala announced the importance of federal investment in scientific research at the annual “UW Day” on April 6 in Washington, D.C.

The event is an opportunity for the University of Wisconsin-Madison community to meet with the Wisconsin congressional delegation and advocate for budgets and laws that strengthen higher education and research. Skala, professor of biomedical engineering at UW-Madison, spoke during a live presentation with fellow UW-Madison engineer Stephanie Diem, assistant professor of engineering physics.

The Wisconsin Foundation & Alumni Association co-hosted the event and shared the live stream with an audience largely made up of alumni. Here are some highlights from the conference.

Q: Tell us about your research labs.
Skala: “My lab works on technologies based on photonics, which is just another way of saying light. We use technologies such as lasers and LEDs to see how light interacts with cells. And it turns out that your cells emit light that is very specific to how they make energy and how they divide and grow. So it becomes very important when we think about cancer.

We use technologies in my lab and with the UW Carbone Cancer Center to develop personalized treatment plans for cancer patients. And we do that by taking a piece of a patient’s tumor, growing it in the lab, and essentially replicating it so that we can test a lot of different treatment options for those patients. We strive to choose the one that suits them best, which also offers the least side effects.

Q: As a recipient of a federal research grant, how important is this funding to your work?
Skala: “That reminds me of a good analogy. I consider myself this business in a mall, basically. I have to find a way to pay all my employees and I have to find a way to make something work that people care about. So the consumers of my work are basically the federal government, because they’re the ones who are going to pay me to do this research and pay my people to train and become great scientists and engineers.

I think the most important thing we do is rigorous reproducible science. And fortunately, the federal government agrees that this is an important thing. But it must also be linked to human health, to the improvement of society. And in our case, we also work a lot with WARF to protect those ideas and potentially grow businesses from those ideas.

Q: How important is basic research to the citizens of Wisconsin?
Skala: “I don’t know if all alumni understand how great the research is at the University of Wisconsin, but I know people in my field do. When people visit me, they are very excited to visit the University of Wisconsin from other states from other universities because we have world-class researchers and we are doing extremely innovative and exciting research. This is something that I think the state should be really proud of and really need to champion at the federal level, because we get a disproportionate amount of those federal dollars.

The more the federal government supports basic research and health care research, the more Wisconsin benefits, and I think for me that comes down to the students. Ultimately, these are the people who benefit from this world-class research conducted by professors who teach them in their classroom. For example, I teach engineering design, where engineering students take on a client who is in the hospital, maybe a doctor, or it could be someone from the private sector. They give students a project and then give them several weeks to complete that project. And they work with me and other professors at the university to innovate and these projects often lead to protected patents on the work. All of this really benefits everyone in the state.

Q: Can you tell us about the challenge of getting federal research grants approved and funded?
Skala: “I could flip the table a bit on this issue. I’m also on the federal review boards that determine which grants will be funded and which will not, and it’s heartbreaking. I was a permanent member of this panel and three times a year we review 10 grant proposals. And I tell you that at least half of those grants were worth it and would have improved people’s lives and made a real difference in the way we live. But we could fund about one or two. And that’s just killer. Because think of all those amazing teachers across the country. They are equally talented, equally dedicated, hardworking and creative. But there just aren’t enough resources for all the good ideas.

Every time I walk away from one of these meetings, I wonder what we did wrong and what we’re going to miss because we couldn’t fund all or even half of these projects. . I tell you, there really is no difference between the top 1 and the top 5, they are equivalent but you have to choose. And I think we’re leaving a lot on the table.

Q: What are the big questions on the horizon for your research?
Skala: “I think cancer research has made a lot of people’s lives better, especially if you look at the last 50 years when they really doubled their cancer research efforts. If I were to look into the next 20 years, my excitement is in cell therapies where we take patients’ own cells and reprogram them to fight cancer. This has been extremely effective in blood cancers where people take decades to achieve complete remission. It’s quite unprecedented. So I think that could be a very important area of ​​research in the next 20 years that we have a lot of hope for.

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