International Exposure Leads UW Student to Form Innovative Student Group on Stem Cell Research

By Dana Bedessem, Division of International Studies

Bundled-up students file into the Paul Ebling Symposium Center with wind-burnt red cheeks and noses, brushing off the snow before finding a seat among the crowd. The auditorium is loud with chatter – mostly about the blizzard they had all just braved to make it to this special event. The lights go down and a wave of silence rolls across the auditorium. Adrenaline pumping music booms through the walls and a series of sharply colored power point slides begins with, “We’re here to make a difference, to make things better, to educate ourselves, each other, and the WORLD.” The momentum rolls on and the crowd is mesmerized.

Blame this hypnotic state on the ambition and passion of UW-Madison senior Adam Ericsen and his new student organization, Discussions on Advancing Regenerative Therapies (DART). UW-Madison is leading the country in stem cell research and its companion fields under the world renowned research of Gabriela Cezar (picture at right), Clive Svendsen, James Thomson and other faculty. Ericsen founded DART under the teachings of these scientists. The four initiatives of DART are: education and outreach, classroom outreach, to provide a constructive outlet for ambition, and to develop international research prospectives. DART aims to provide every student, despite their major, with the international resources to conduct regenerative research and ask questions to find their own answers while bridging the gap between professors and students.

“It’s student organizations like DART that are necessary for undergraduate students to take the first step in realizing their own full potential,” says Dean of the Division of International Studies, Gilles Bousquet. “Today that potential must entail a significant degree of global competence that DART encourages.”

“It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened on this campus,” Ericsen says of his initiatives.

Ericsen’s journey to the creation of this program began long before talk of DART began in early October of 2007. According to Ericsen, his experience abroad drove him to the conception of DART.

“It was as if studying in a completely different environment showed me what I could do; it provided me with the opportunity to show myself how self-confident and capable I was,” he says. “My experience abroad didn’t provide me with self-confidence and new capabilities, but it showed me what was already there.”

Ericsen received a DAAD grant in Summer 2007 to study German and research stem-cells at the University of Bonn in Germany. He worked along side German professors and students in a new learning environment than what he was used to on the UW campus. In Germany stem-cell research is restricted to stem-cell lines created before 2001, any use of lines created after results in imprisonment. The only lines created before 2001 are available from UW-Madison and Israel, with UW as the dominant supplier.

“The main point isn’t that UW benefits from being the main provider for Germany with stem-cell lines, but that the scientific community as a whole benefits from the distribution of lines and availability,” says Ericsen. “The attitudes toward stem-cell research were much different and more restrictive, but at the same time it was amazing how many innovations grew from such restrictions.”

Not only studying abroad, but previous circumstances lead to his involvement with stem cell research and the eventual formation of DART. Originally a political science and English major at Winona State University, Ericsen transferred to UW-Madison in 2004 after one year there. The summer during his transition to UW, Ericsen’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. He began his first semester at UW with a heavy, yet hopeful heart. He enrolled in Genetics 160 with Professor Rayla Temin hoping to better understand his mother’s illness. The course seized his interest and hooked him into the science realm for good. The following summer Ericsen’s father was diagnosed with cancer – pushing him farther into the field of regenerative studies.

Offering new perspectives to students is one of the four DART initiatives under education and outreach with the DART Abroad program. The program allows for DART members to go abroad free of charge for research or education and outreach purposes. Through education and outreach students go beyond the lab to educate and facilitate on health issues related to regenerative therapies in developing countries. Ericsen wants every DART student to appreciate all ideas and opinions from around the world.

“DART is a way of applying an appreciation and understanding of different perceptions,” says Ericsen. “The world becomes smaller when you know everyone who lives on all corners of it.”

DART has already expanded nationally, and globally. The University of Pennsylvania, Arizona State, and Virginia State have partnered with DART to create a larger and more resourceful program for students. Its global connections extend to the University of Bonn where Ericsen studied and researched.

DART is the new and best resource for UW undergraduates to show the world what they can do.