The chairship honors Carol Skornicka (BS’62, English; MA’64, Education; JD’77), a trustee who served on both the Morgridge and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Boards of Trustees in the 2000s.
Skornicka was a key player in guiding the Morgridge Institute’s early years. As a trustee, she brought her background in law, governance, and operations to shape the board’s structure, function, and leadership. She held a long career at Midwest Airlines where she was senior vice president, secretary, and general counsel and her expertise played a key role in recruiting and hiring Brad Schwartz, the Carl E. Gulbrandsen Chair, who was named Morgridge CEO in 2013.
Skornicka, who is humbled by the honorary chair, is quick to point out that as a trustee her role was to support the institute’s mission: improve human health through science and research.
But her fellow trustees are quick to say she did much more.
“Carol is an excellent role model of what a full life consists of starting with her experience in a law firm and moving on to state government. In effect, a life of service in many dimensions,” says John Morgridge, a founding partner of the institute. “She is an excellent role model of a ‘Life Fully Lived.’”
For her part, Skornicka says the story isn’t about her at all — it’s always been about Skala — and the chair is an important way to elevate and recognize a woman scientist.
“She’s an inspiration for all of the people in her lab and for women who are thinking about going into science. They can see that a woman can be enormously successful in science and research,” adds Skornicka.
The Skornicka Chair provides a reliable source of funding for the Skala Lab’s work in biomedical imaging. The lab develops new methods to understand and combat cancer using photonics-based technologies, and they are particularly interested in using optical technologies to develop personalized cancer treatment strategies and more effective patient therapies.
“That’s what makes this chair such a gift,” says Skala. “We want to look more in-depth, we want to understand how things work. We want to do reproducible science. We know what we’re supposed to do, but sometimes you just can’t do it — you don’t have the resources to make the right choices. That’s why we’re really excited to have this support.”
Skala, who is also a professor in biomedical engineering and medical physics at UW-Madison, has built a team who thrives on collaboration, working across disciplines and partnering with labs and groups across UW-Madison.
“I actually found the first ever email I got from Melissa,” says Amani Gillette, a postdoctoral research associate who has been in the Skala Lab since 2016. “I was asking her, ‘What kind of research does your lab do?’ I was seeing papers that were kind of all over the board. And Melissa responded with, ‘The goal of my lab is to solve problems, so we do a little bit of everything.’”
“Melissa is one of the most encouraging mentors that I’ve had. She encourages everyone in her lab, from high school students all the way up to staff scientists. It keeps our lab culture collaborative and engaging. People are always thrilled to come to work.”Amani Gillette
Not surprisingly, Skala is a scientist with infectious excitement and candor.
“Melissa not only trains really good scientists and engineers, but she also trains great citizens,” says Paul Campagnola, the Peter Tong Department Chair in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UW-Madison, and a longtime collaborator with Skala. “I don’t remember in all my years, someone who came into a department and really endeared themselves to absolutely everybody in such a short period of time.”
The Skornicka Chair is also a powerful tool to mentor students and young scientists in the lab. Skala’s moral compass is almost singularly set on supporting her lab members at all stages of their education and career.
“Melissa is one of the most encouraging mentors that I’ve had,” adds Gillette. “She encourages everyone in her lab, from high school students all the way up to staff scientists. It keeps our lab culture collaborative and engaging. People are always thrilled to come to work.”
And for the Skala Lab, working hard is the baseline — but they’re going to make time to have fun, too.
“Melissa is truly enthusiastic about science and she translates that to everything that happens in the lab. We try to solve interesting problems ranging from things like, ‘How does this cancer treatment work for a specific patient’s cancer?’ ‘Do these parasites influence some metabolism?’ And even silly questions like, ‘Do those nuclei actually look like smiley faces?’” laughs Gillette.
Skala is quick to bring in treats and make time to celebrate all milestones for members in the lab (and to search for candy and treats around the Discovery Building).
“Having fun is actually quite consistent with the mission at the Morgridge Institute,” says Schwartz. “We operate on the principle that curiosity-driven fundamental research has invariably proven to be beneficial for society. And it turns out that one of the things about curiosity-driven research is that when people do that, they have fun because they’re figuring out things that are important.”