UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank: Waisman Center 40th Anniversary
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank
Waisman Center 40th Anniversary Reception
October 17, 2013
Thank you, Marsha, for that kind introduction and for the opportunity to be part of tonight’s 40th anniversary celebration.
I want to offer my congratulations and welcome to the Waismans – Ethel, Don, David, Karen and your extended family. Your continued support of the Waisman Center is a tribute not just to your husband, father, grandfather, and great grandfather, but to the dedicated faculty, staff and students of the Center his memory still inspires.
And thanks to all of you for the warm welcome. It’s an honor to be chancellor of this wonderful University. As all of us here tonight know, the Waisman Center is one of the University’s premier interdisciplinary research and outreach centers. It is one of the best embodiments of the cross-campus and multidisciplinary collaboration that has thrived here at the University of Wisconsin.
More than forty years ago, Harry Waisman foresaw the potential impact of scientific inquiry on the lives of individuals and families living with developmental disabilities. Tonight, we celebrate his vision and the subsequent outstanding work of thousands of scientists, educators, businesses, legislators and benefactors guided by his legacy. The Waisman institution has made seminal scientific contributions to human health and well-being, but it has also translated that science into policy and practice, finding ways to help individuals with developmental disabilities and their families not just cope, but thrive.
I sought out the job of chancellor not just because of the university’s reputation and record of excellence in teaching and research, but also because of its longstanding commitment to the Wisconsin Idea – the notion that what is taught and learned here should be shared with the rest of the state and beyond, for the betterment of all. I’m very proud of what the Waisman Center has done to put the Wisconsin Idea into daily practice.
I’ve been on this job just a little over three months. During this time, I’ve toured all of the schools and colleges, talked with the deans, and gotten a sense for the range of things happening around this University.
I’m now scheduling tours of all of our major research centers, starting with the Waisman Center. Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting with Marsha and some of the faculty, students and staff at the Waisman Center and visiting its labs, clinics and classrooms.
I’ve said to several people that the best part of this job is that every day I learn more about the amazing work going on at this University. Judged on that metric, my tour of the Waisman Center was one of the best days I’ve had here at UW.
I saw the lab where Su-Chun Zhang has transformed stem cells into nerve cells that he hopes will ultimately be used to improve people’s ability to learn and remember.
The potential implications of this research for persons with Alzheimer’s and other neurological deficits are terrifically exciting. Su-Chun and his team are also working on ways to develop stem cell therapies for ALS, Parkinson’s and other motor deficits.
I visited the Waisman Center’s pre-school, so capably run by Joan Ershler, whose graduates exemplify the benefits of an inclusive child development program where children of varying abilities can grow together, cognitively and emotionally.
Let me tell you about just a few of its graduates:
Claire Bible is a young woman with Down syndrome, who graduated from Memorial High School here in Madison, and is now pursuing an early childhood education degree at Madison College. Claire has become a strong and vocal advocate for people with developmental disabilities and is currently working at the Waisman pre-school, helping a new generation of children learn and grow.
Bridget Muldowney, who is here tonight with her parents, Tim and Jackie, thrived in the inclusive educational setting at the Waisman Pre-School. Bridget is now a pediatric anesthesiologist at the American Family Children’s Hospital.
Matt Ward is also here tonight with his mother, Nancy. Matt is a very talented artist who has autism. He lives independently and works part-time at Madison’s new Central Library. Matt’s beautiful origami figures were on display at today’s cocktail reception. All of you who are alumni will be able to read more about Matt in an upcoming edition of On Wisconsin magazine.
Bridget, Claire and Matt and so many more former students are proudly taking the lessons they learned and the skills they developed at the Waisman Pre-School, to make their own contributions to the work of the Center and to our society; and I salute them.
The Waisman Center is dedicated to advancing knowledge about human developmental disabilities and neurodegenerative diseases. The Center also secures funding to provide a wide array of training, service and outreach programs to the Madison community, the State of Wisconsin and beyond.
But, as an economist, let me point out a contribution of the Waisman Center that is often overlooked. The Center’s 600 faculty, staff and students have a very real impact on the local, state and national economy.
A compelling editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, co-written by the Waisman Center’s Dan Bier, said that some states have estimated costs of more than 10 billion dollars per year due to the unemployment or “lost output” of Americans with disabilities.
The editorial goes on to say, “It is long overdue that we recognize employment of people with disabilities not as a social service, but an economic strategy and see this untapped labor pool as a source of skilled employees who can play a strategic role in meeting workforce needs.”
The Waisman Center is helping to meet those needs, and showing others how to do it, too, so there’s a ripple effect. It’s hard to quantify its impact, but I can describe it with one story:
The Waisman Center collaborates with agencies in Wisconsin in a program called “Let’s Get to Work.” Currently, in nine high schools across the state, the program brings together employers and teenagers with significant disabilities.
One of those teens, named David, started training at a motel in his hometown. He was uncertain about his job at first; but, with supportive trainers, mentors, and supervisors, David not only learned his initial duties, he took on more. In the process, he gained skills and self-confidence.
On the job, David is now considered a valued employee; and, at school, he has become a role model and unofficial counselor to other students taking their first steps into the workforce.
Waisman’s training and resources, its autism, Down syndrome, and other UW Health clinics, are all helping young people like David lead fuller lives while contributing to a stronger economy and more inclusive society – thanks, in large part, to the generous support of many of you here tonight.
One of the most exciting areas in which the Waisman Center is involved is its work in the new field of biomanufacturing. Waisman Biomanufacturing, under the able direction of Derek Hei, is developing cellular therapeutics for companies such as Stratatech in Madison. Clinical trials for Stratatech’s revolutionary skin substitute for burn patients, developed here at the UW-Madison by Lynn Allen-Hoffman, are at the forefront of the exciting, new field of regenerative medicine.
Waisman Biomanufacturing is also working with Doug McNeel and Madison Vaccines, Incorporated to develop a prostate cancer vaccine, and with Cellular Dynamics International, founded here by Jamie Thomson and his partners, to develop marketable, pluripotent stem cells for medical therapies.
It’s important to note that, while Waisman Biomanufacturing is helping bring life-saving therapeutics to the commercial market, as part of a public university, this contribution is made by scientists whose first interest is advancing knowledge.
While new discoveries with commercial applications can be and are patented here at the University, the Waisman Center is only a limited recipient of any returns. That’s another compelling reason why private support is so vital to sustaining the Center’s invaluable contributions to society.
As I toured the Waisman Center, I noted that what makes its work so effective and impressive is its multidisciplinary approach.
The Waisman Center is an incubator that brings together UW-Madison’s amazing breadth of intellect in the health, social and biological sciences to collaborate on finding solutions to significant societal and human health challenges. It would be difficult to find another place at any other University where speech pathologists and surgeons, psychologists and physicists share space and ideas in the way that they do here; that was Harry Waisman’s extraordinary vision.
Long before the rest of the research world caught onto the idea, Harry Waisman understood that the big problems in society are best addressed by bringing together scholars from a multiplicity of disciplines, and giving them an opportunity to learn from each other. Today, this sort of interdisciplinary work is pushing the frontiers of science in a number of fields. But at the Waisman Center, we’ve been doing it for 40 years.
The idea of translational research was also central to Harry Waisman’s vision. The work had to be put to useful purpose. For instance, there is a thriving partnership between Waisman Center scientists and the Appleton School District’s “Brain to Five” Series. With the support of Waisman Center Board of Visitors member John Mielke and his wife, Sally, this innovative program is designed to foster learning, strengthen families, and prevent the stressful, harmful behaviors that can leave lifelong scars on children living in poverty and “at-risk” environments. I’m delighted that John and Sally and a large contingent from Appleton are with us tonight.
The Waisman Center creates the environment in which Richie Davidson’s meditation center can be both a vehicle for scientific discoveries and for outreach to the community…. where Seth Pollak’s work demonstrated how early exposure to poverty and stress have life-long impairments on brain function…where Jenny Saffran discovered how babies learn language… where Qiang Chang is using stem cells to search for treatments for Rett Syndrome ….and where Albee Messing discovered the gene that causes a rare and fatal disease and is developing treatments that can save children’s lives.
This is the environment – the community – that Marsha Mailick has nurtured and led so excellently for the past twelve years. Marsha is not only a highly acclaimed scholar, gifted educator, effective advocate, and generous colleague; she is also a strategic leader who has built strong collaborative partnerships across UW’s campus and within the national and statewide communities, strengthening the excellence and impact of the Waisman Center’s work. Marsha, you are, indeed, a worthy heir to Harry Waisman’s legacy.
When you consider the vast scope of the work done at the Waisman Center, it’s remarkable that the Center is, by and large, self-supporting. The University’s financial contribution is a very small fraction of the Center’s entire budget.
It’s a testament to Marsha and her predecessors, to the faculty, staff, and students that, in this era when federal and state research support budgets are increasingly limited, the quantity and quality of the Center’s work is so high.
Federal grants are vitally important, but they, alone, are not sufficient. The essential partners, the unsung heroes are you, in this room, and other individuals and businesses whose financial support has been crucial to the Waisman Center’s success.
Right now, your generosity is helping to develop a treatment for pediatric brain cancer, manufacture a potential vaccine against HIV, diagnose and treat children with developmental disabilities, and support training and resources for clinics and educators working with these children throughout Wisconsin and beyond.
Harry Waisman’s vision lives on through the contributions of each of you who support the Waisman Center’s ground-breaking, life-enhancing work.
I’m very proud to join in this 40th anniversary celebration and offer my support, my congratulations, and my thanks for the important work you do.
I look forward to seeing all that the Waisman Center is going to accomplish in the next 40 years. On, Wisconsin!