Skala highlights value of basic research at UW Day in D.C.

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

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

The Wisconsin Foundation & Alumni Association co-hosted the event and shared the livestream with a largely alumni audience. Here are some highlights from the talk.

Q: Tell us about your research labs.
Skala:My lab works on photonics-based technologies, which is just another way of saying light. We use technologies like 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 that becomes really important when we’re thinking 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 this by taking a piece of a patient’s tumor, growing it in the lab, and basically replicating it so that we can test many different treatment options for those patients. We strive to pick the one that works best for them, that also offers the lowest side effects.”

Q: As a federal research grant recipient, how important is that funding to your work?
Skala: “It reminds me of a good analogy. I think of myself as this business in a strip 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 are interested in. So the consumers of my work are essentially the federal government, because those are the people who are going to pay me to do this research and to pay my people to train and become excellent scientists and engineers.

I think that the most important thing that we do is rigorous reproducible science. And luckily, the federal government agrees that’s an important thing. But you also have to relate it to human health, to the betterment of society. And in our case, we’re also working a lot with WARF to protect those ideas and potentially grow businesses out of those ideas.”

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

The more the federal government supports basic research and healthcare research, the more Wisconsin benefits, and I think for me, it comes down to the students. Ultimately, those are the people who benefit from this world-class research that’s happening from professors who are teaching them in their class. For example, I teach engineering design, in which engineering undergraduates take on a client who’s at the hospital, maybe a physician, or it could be someone from private industry. They give students a project and then give them several weeks to finish that project. And they work with me and other professors at the university to innovate and those projects often lead to protected patents on the work. All of this stuff really benefits everyone in the state.”

Q: Can you tell us about the challenge of getting federal research grants approved and funded?
Skala: “I might flip the table on that question a little bit. I also serve on the federal review panels that determine which grants will be funded and which won’t, and it’s heartbreaking. I was a standing member on this panel and three times each year we review 10 grant proposals. And I’m telling you at least half of those grants were worthwhile 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 is just killer. Because think about all these amazing professors across the country. They’re equally talented, equally dedicated, hardworking and creative. But there’s just not enough resources for all the good ideas out there.

Every time I walk away from one of those meetings, I wonder what we did wrong and what we’re going to miss out on because we couldn’t fund all of these projects, or even half of them. I’m telling you, there’s really no difference between the top one and the top five, they are equivalent but you have to pick. 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 improved the lives of many people, especially if you look over the last 50 years, which is when they’ve really been doubling down on cancer research. If I were to look in the next 20 years, my excitement lies in cell-based therapies where we’re taking patients’ own cells and reprogramming them to fight cancer. This has been extremely successful in blood cancers where people are decades into securing complete remission. It’s pretty unprecedented. So I think that could be a real important field of research in the next 20 years that we have a lot of hope in.”